This text is actually taken from an email that I sent out to students early last February. However, the message is an important one, so I wanted to repost that email here on the blog.
This weekend I am, together with several students, heading off to the far away land of Hickory to participate in our annual Diocesan service retreat, "Give Your Heart Away." Please pray for those of us participating. I always look forward to these Diocesan events, because they give me a chance to meet and get to know Catholic college students from other schools within our diocese. When I talk with these students about our respective campus ministries, I will often discover that they are amazed to hear we are able to offer Mass, right here on campus. You see, with the exception of Wake Forest, WCU is the only school in our diocese that has Mass on campus. At other universities and colleges, the Catholic students have to either arrange a car pool or a school van to drive students to the closest parish, or simply make their own way to Mass. When these students discover that we have Mass on our campus, within walking distance, every week, they are envious.
So we are very fortunate (and blessed) here at WCU. And the more I reflect on it, the more blessed I realize we are. Despite the fact that our regular chaplain, Fr. Williams, has been ill and on leave for some time, the Diocese has always made sure that we have a priest available here on Sunday evenings to hear confessions and offer Mass for us. Fr. Shawn O'Neal has driven in from Bryson City the past two weeks. Fr. Shawn grew up in New Orleans, and he even made it out to celebrate the Mass for us last Sunday evening, instead of staying at home in front of the TV, cheering on his beloved Saints as they took their first Super Bowl victory. Next week we will have Fr. Jack Denny, from Maggie Valley, join us to be our celebrant. And we will welcome him with open arms. Yes, we are very blessed to be so provided for in our sacramental lives.
Yet, at the same time, I have noticed a trend in my past two years here at WCU as campus minister. I cannot help but notice that Mass attendance among students goes down in the Spring Semester. When I ask students about this trend, I'm told that it is "always" that way, because "students are so busy in the spring semester." Busy with what? With homework, studying, writing papers, completing projects, etc.
This was confirmed for me last year, when I led a group of students on a Lenten retreat. The theme was "True Repentance," and we talked about how you need to repent -- or turn away from -- anything that distracts you from your goal, eternal and perfect happiness with God through Jesus Christ. When I asked the students what some of the things were on our university campus that distracted them from Christ, I was honestly expecting answers like sex, drugs and alcohol. That is not what I heard, though. What I did hear surprised me. Without exception, everyone there said that academic pressure was the major distraction from their faith. The stresses of their studies weighed heavily on them.
Studying, of course, is a good and necessary thing. You should make sure that you schedule time to do your assigned homework, read your texts, write your papers, study for your exams. That's what you are in school for, after all. It's a good thing. But if it starts to come between you and God, then even a good thing can become an occasion of sin. It then becomes time to reexamine your priorities and look carefully and honestly at how you choose to schedule your time. Do your studies really demand your time and attention a full seven days a week, preventing you from keeping the Third Commandment to keep the Lord's Day holy? Are there other things that you give priority to during the week, taking away time meant for study, therefore leaving you scurrying to catch up on Sunday so you don't fall behind? So rather than keeping the Lord's Day holy, has it become a "back-up" day for all the things you don't get done during the week?
Before I go on, let me just say that I'm not pointing any fingers at anyone here. I think these are questions that all of us -- even non-students -- need to ask ourselves every now and then. Am I putting other priorities -- even good priorities -- ahead of my relationship with God? If I'm not honoring the third commandment, to keep the Lord's Day holy, am I still honoring the first commandment, to have no other God's before Him? Something does not have to be scandalous or objectively evil to come between us and God. Am I making my academic career, my job, my friends, or my hobby a "god" that I place above the Lord?
One weapon we can use against this is to make sure we never fail in our obligation to attend Mass. I used that word, "obligation," intentionally, for that is what it is for us -- a serious obligation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass... the Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin" (para. 2181).
Just to be clear, I'm sure by "serious reason" the Magisterium did not mean to include things like, "I need to get a jump start on my homework," or "I need to finish that paper I should have done three days ago," let alone, "I'm just too tired," or "there is a great show on TV I really want to watch." And, the truth is, it is when you are experiencing stress in your life that having a good relationship with the Lord really can make the difference. It reminds us that there are greater, more important things than our GPA, our internships, or whatever else we happen to be stressing over at the moment. These things, while important in their way, fade to insignificance when we realize that we were all made by an amazing God who also created the heavens and earth, everything seen and unseen, and that this magnificent Creator loves us so much that He entered into His own creation and suffered death Himself for the remission of our sins. And all He asks from us is to love Him in return -- not for His benefit, but for our own, so that we may experience eternal life and true, perfect happiness with Him.
And how do we love Him? By following His commands. "The one who obeys the commandments he has from me is the one who loves me," Jesus said (Jn 14:21). And regarding the Mass, the Eucharist, Jesus commanded, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk 22:19). Furthermore, Jesus insisted, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you" (Jn 6:53).
Now I have gone on long enough this week, so I'll spare you (for now) a treatise on the Real Presence and all the blessings of the Eucharist. The point just now is that this was something of major importance to Jesus. (Just read the sixth chapter of John's Gospel). He really wanted to stress the point, and the Second Vatican Council further stressed the point by calling the Eucharist the "source and summit of our faith." John Paul II called the Mass, "the source and summit of the whole Church's worship and the Christian life."
Those are some big words from some big people. So I ask you to reflect on them, and spend some time in prayer. Can you really be a faithful Catholic, can you really maintain a close relationship with Jesus, if you are neglecting the "source and summit" of the Christian life?
Mass is offered in our chapel every Sunday evening at 7:30pm. So sleeping in is no excuse! And if you prefer a morning Mass, you have two options at St. Mary's in Sylva, at 9:00 and 11:00am. (And they have a Mass in Spanish on Saturday night at 8:00pm). If it's been a while since you've been to Mass, don't let that stop you from coming, you'll be more than welcomed back.
I look forward to seeing you there.