Liturgical Catechesis: Preparation of the Gifts
Basketballs, textbooks, flowers, and family photos frequently find their way to the altar along with bread, wine, and the collection. Our sanctuaries can resemble garage sales. But the procession of the gifts calls for only those gifts to be transformed: bread and wine that become the body and blood of Christ; donations that become the mission of the church.
Some places still include water in this procession. Or a chalice. Or the finger bowl, as if the purpose of the procession is to set the credence table. Our love for symmetry placed water in a vessel that matched the one for wine, but they serve different functions. Wine, plentiful wine sufficient for the assembly, comes to the altar in a flagon. Water belongs in a small pitcher at the side table, not in the procession.
The procession of the gifts includes bread, wine, and gifts for the poor. That's it. Not symbols of the school year. Not mementos of a departed loved one. Such symbols may help decorate the worship space, and someone might explain them before the service begins. But they belong to the environment, not among the gifts we offer for the poor.
Food, money, clothing at Thanksgiving, and toys for Christmas can be effective in the procession of the gifts. The procession symbolizes our mission, not our self-congratulation.
Note, this is not the offertory. Oh, you'll hear about the "offertory hymn" or taking up an "offering," but the sacramentary does not use the term for this part of the Mass. This is called "preparation." Offering comes later. Listen to the eucharistic prayer next time you're at Mass and you'll hear the "offertory" shortly after the memorial acclamation. The presider prays something like, "We offer you in thanksgiving this body and living sacrifice." That's when it happens.
What we're doing at this part of the Mass is preparing for the eucharistic prayer. Bread and wine will become God's gift to us; donations dispose us for prayer and become the Church's mission to the world.
The procession begins after the collection. The collection signifies the parish's stewardship. The assembly shares its material goods for the benefit of the parish's mission. People take the collection seriously, and they should. They return a sign of appreciation for what God does for them.
Consequently, the collection should carry a spirit of thanksgiving and sacrifice. Those who take the collection should treat it with the reverence it deserves. The church is a beggar, and the ministers of the collection beg for the church.
Who are these ministers? We call them "ushers" or "greeters". At the door they greet people coming to the service and help them find a seat. They seat latecomers when it won't disturb the assembly. During the preparation of the gifts they help the assembly fulfill its wish to support the work of the parish.
Who may apply? Stereotypically ushers are elderly men in suits who have honed their grumpy stare to a fine art. But ushers and greeters today are men, women, teens, and children. All ages can participate: In fact, it can become a family ministry.
Gathering the Gifts
How does the collection happen? In some places the ushers pass the basket to the first pew and let each member pass it on. Other parishes provide long-handled baskets so the ushers can monitor the whole procedure. A few places leave a collection plate at the door.
A collection at the door can look like an entrance fee. A long-handled basket can show mistrust. Passing the basket puts the ministry into the hands of the people and keeps the ushers out of sight while the assembly fulfills its ministry.
Ushers and greeters should not disappear to a special room or gathering area during the Mass. They are ministers and their visual participation in the liturgy remains important for the whole assembly. We need to see them singing the songs and making the responses.
National offices too frequently ask us for a second collection. Some parishes still do this after communion when we're thanking God for the Eucharist. But a collection is a collection, and it belongs as part of our preparation for the eucharistic prayer. If you have enough baskets, you can start the second collection a pew or two past the first. It gives people time to switch envelopes, and does not unduly prolong the service.
If there's a special collection, the minister who makes the announcements may introduce it before the collection is taken. "Today's second collection supports the Campaign for Human Development. Our contributions will join those from Catholic parishes all over the nation to help minimize poverty and powerlessness in our country. Please be generous"
Occasionally the homily may explain the purpose of such collections, but ordinarily the homily is devoted to the Scriptures and the season of the church year. Special collections find their explanations primarily through more appropriate media: bulletins, bulletin boards, signs, and announcements.
Inspired by this model, you could consider a weekly announcement about the parish's ministry before the regular collection. "Your contributions help support our parish ministry, including the retreat day for our youth this week. Thank you for your spirit of generosity." It can be brief, but it will keep the ministry of the parish in front of the praying assembly on weekends, and let people know that their money goes to support an important cause.
The preparation of the gifts can be a prayerful time. We place on and before the altar the work of human hands. Into the collection goes our faith in a God who will provide when we sacrifice. Into the collection goes our hope that our parish mission will make a difference. Into the collections goes our love for the poor. The preparation of the altar and the gifts affirms our gifts to the church and celebrates God's gifts to us.
This article first appeared
in Modern Liturgy 28/9 (November