When you grow up Catholic, you learn early that Sunday Mass is non-negotiable. Unless you are dying, or certifiably contagious, you go to Mass. I was in school before I had a friend who was not Catholic, whose denomination did not require Sunday attendance on the road to salvation, and my first thought was: WHAT? I envied her birth into a non-Catholic family.
There are ways to fudge the Sunday requirement: Saturday evening Mass is a wonderful gift from God for keeping your Sunday free, especially during football season. My grandmother decided that when you got old, God didn’t expect you to show up every week. She believed God had given her a pass to miss Mass without facing any additional time in Purgatory. I hope she was right. Then there was my dad’s pre-Vatican-II philosophy that he learned in Catholic school in the 1930s, so it must be true, which was that as long as you were present, meaning "in the building," for the Offertory, Consecration and Communion, which he would tick on three fingers, you’d met your Sunday obligation. You could thus rest easy about the possibility of being hit by a car during the week ahead and ending up in Hell because you had missed Mass. We skipped the final blessing of many Masses when I was a kid.
My dad tried to teach the Offertory/Consecration/Communion three-finger rule to my children, but since that meant that as soon as Communion began, he’d turn to the nearest kid and say, “OK, let’s go!,” I had to nix it. We stayed until the end, until the last note of the recessional hymn, because that’s when Mass was over. Then we’d say hello to Father outside, and only then would we go have doughnuts.
My children have mostly not grown up to be practicing Catholics, so I usually go to Mass alone now. Several years ago, when a nameless volatile pastor turned the post-Communion announcements into a 10-minute harangue about what was wrong with us as a parish, I found I was leaving Mass angry. So I started slipping out the back door after Communion. It was for the sake of my sanity, I told myself, remembering my dad’s three-finger plan. Gradually, I ran into other parishioners on the way to the parking lot. Some even parked in the street for a faster getaway. The ranting pastor noticed this trend. One morning, as some of us were leaving when the announcements began, he roared, “The only one who left the Last Supper early was JUDAS!” This only got my Irish up, and from then on I left early on purpose.
We often don’t question our habits until they are challenged. I continued to cut out of Mass early, even from other parishes, even with a new pastor, because it had become a habit. But then a homily by priest in Los Angeles illuminated the error of my ways. When we leave Mass early, he said, we miss an essential part, when we are sent forth into the world, to carry the Gospel message with us wherever our lives take us. When we gather for Mass, we are nourished as a community of believers. But gathering is not enough. If we only gather together to feed ourselves, we are missing half of the equation of faith. We are to be gathered and sent, he told us.
When we leave early, we are not sent, even symbolically. In leaving too soon, our actions say that we accept God’s sustenance, but reject the mission that Jesus entrusted to us. We are being selfish. The final blessing, when we are told to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” is essential to our Catholic mission. Leaving early signifies that we are leaving the Gospel behind us, and will visit it again for an hour next Sunday; that our faith is something that helps us, but doesn’t help anyone else.
I haven’t left Mass early since. Turns out I need that final blessing.