A couple of years ago, I came across a book that helps the reader to pray the Mass more intentionally. The title of the book is: A Biblical Way of Praying the Mass: The Eucharistic Wisdom of Venerable Bruno Lanteri, written by Father Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V. Father Gallagher is best known for his writings on Ignatian spirituality, but he has also done much research and writing on the founder of his community (Oblates of the Virgin Mary), Venerable Bruno Lanteri. In this book on the Mass, Father Gallagher writes:
For each part of the Mass, Venerable Bruno urges us to “seek the sentiments and the heart” of some biblical figure. In a later version of this text, he invites us to pray the Mass “with special attention to its principle parts so as to enkindle sentiments in keeping with each,” again presenting these biblical figures. (p. 25 of Kindle version of book)
When Venerable Bruno approaches the Penitential Act, the biblical figure that he invites us to emulate is the tax collector in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We know the story and the key line of the passage for us is this: “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” (Lk 18:13)
We know that earlier in this story, one of the faults of the Pharisee is his focusing more on the faults of the tax collector as opposed to his own. When we come to Mass, we cannot help but notice those who are around us at Mass. We might notice how somebody is dressed, or how they may be talking before Mass. We might see somebody with whom we have had a disagreement. The temptation can be there to criticize what we perceive to be lacking in our neighbor, which is always easier than acknowledging what is lacking within ourselves. But if we take on the attitude of the tax collector, we come before the Lord aware of our need for God’s mercy, not where we think our neighbor needs God’s mercy.
As I wrote in a previous article, spending some time before Mass in prayer, doing an examination of conscience, is the best way to actually pray this brief, though important, part of the Mass. It is when we are aware of our lowliness and our need for God that we will come to the Eucharist with hearts open to conversion. If we do not foster that spirit of humility and our need for God’s mercy, remaining convinced of our righteousness like the Pharisee, then we set ourselves up for an experience of prayer that will not be of maximum benefit to us, not because the Mass is in any way lacking, but because our hearts are not open to receive the fruits of this great prayer.
In the past year or so, there is a line from Psalm 51 that has been coming to mind more frequently when I think about this part of the Mass. As a reminder, Psalm 51 was composed by David right after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. As David becomes aware of the gravity of his sin, he assumes a posture of humility not unlike that of the tax collector and he writes these words: “A clean heart create for me, God;
renew within me a steadfast spirit.” (Ps 51:12) So David could be another biblical figure we seek to emulate in our hearts as we acknowledge our sins and so prepare to enter the sacred mysteries that follow.