John Adams at Mass

If you have not had the opportunity to see the HBO production of John Adams, you missed a very good account of an interesting period in American history.

David McCullough did an excellent job presenting one of America’s founding fathers in his book John Adams, and HBO did an excellent job retelling that story with film. One thing not present in the film version but found in the book is an account of John Adams being moved by the Catholic Mass.

As Catholics, we tend to take for granted the gift of liturgical worship. Those of us involved in planning the Mass have erred in removing the majesty and simplicity found in its presentation. Those of us who attend Mass have forgotten the gift of heaven it truly is.

We must recall, for John Adams, this was a very foreign type of worship.

Unlike some of his contemporaries who worshipped in the Church of England, a liturgical church, Adams’ faith experience was formed in a Calvinist tradition where worship was plain, stark and focused mostly on the professed word.

In McCullough’s book, we hear of a John Adams so struck by the Mass that he was moved to write of it in letters to his wife as well as in his journal. McCullough quotes John Adams in a letter written to his wife, Abigail.

In that letter we read, “The dress of the priest was rich with lace — his pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich — little images and crucifixes about — wax candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the picture of our Savior in a frame of marble over the altar at full length upon the cross, in the agonies, and the blood dropping and streaming from his wounds?”

McCullough goes on to describe how John Adams found the experience so moving he stayed for the whole Mass, finding great joy in the music and even complimented the priest on a good, short, moral essay. Good for him; encouraging and appreciating the noble simplicity of liturgy is within reach of all the Catholic faithful.

When done properly, and experienced in a manner that draws us toward God, miracles can happen, lives can be changed, and even strangers to the Mass can experience something mystical.

This very small piece of the book caught my attention because a man like John Adams, raised in the most reformed of traditions, found an experience of God in the act of worship I am privileged to partake of daily. Perhaps somewhere in this historically based account there is a lesson for all Catholics concerning the witness of good liturgy and the transforming power contained in the sounds, sights and smells of the Mass.

There is a great deal we can take from a liturgy well done. What would have been John Adam’s response if he saw a shabbily clad priest in some esoteric robes?

How moving is some of the poorly selected New Age art we find in our churches today in comparison to the marble-framed painting of our Savior described in the letter above?

What of the music and the homily? What if they would have been poorly planned, selected and presented?

The liturgy is a powerful witness to the reverence we have for God. It is my hope that somewhere in America a man destined for the presidency of our country may walk into a local Catholic parish and leave with a greater sense of the majesty of God and the Catholic faith which gives him great worship. Isn’t this a type of evangelization that words alone cannot describe?

Dominick D. Hankle is the founder of

the Center for Human Growth and Development

for psychological counseling and research.