(This text is published as Chapter 4 of How to Pray (Part One: Foundations), pages 31-38, entitled 'How to Pray the Mass' – see Publications button)
Make up your mind to please Christ by being obedient to His Church. Abandon everything you know to be sinful; or if you can't yet bring yourself to do so, go faithfully to Mass, and - each time - ask fervently for the grace to see things as Christ sees them and for the grace to be willing to change.
Decide to attend Mass without fail every Sunday and holy day, in order to praise God in the way that He's decreed is best, and in order to meet Christ - Who offers that perfect praise for us - and to receive Christ and His gifts.
Go to Confession, if you're aware of having grievously sinned. No-one can make you go. Even if you don't do this, it's still a wonderful thing in God's sight that you go to Mass. But you can't benefit from the Mass as you might, or go to Communion and so receive the rewards for a peaceful conscience, until you've put things right with God - Who is always longing for us to turn back to Him. He is thrilled by our acts of humility, as we speak to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when we're contrite, and when we're also determined to change our life and to make a new start.
Remember to fast for an hour, if you intend to go Holy Communion.
Set out for church in good time, so that you'll arrive early. If you dash to prayer with your thoughts whirling, you'll be like one of those children's 'snow-storms' in which the snow-flakes take long minutes to settle down.
Use the Holy Water in the porch to make the sign of the Cross as you go into the church.
Don't be afraid - if you're a woman - to cover your hair if you want to do so in church, in the Presence of Christ. This isn't compulsory, but it's a customary way, in large parts of the world, of showing reverence before God during the Liturgy: and a way which is in accord with Holy Scripture and the Church's tradition.
Find Christ Who is sacramentally, Really Present in the tabernacle. Silently greet Him, then genuflect - bow the knee - in His honour, and kneel in your place. Greet the Holy Angels who throng the church.
You've spoken to Christ. If you now ask the Holy Spirit to help you to pray well, and then 'turn' your heart to your Heavenly Father, you've spoken to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, even before the Mass has begun!
Say something like this to God the Father, as you wait in your place: and try to mean it: "Father: I unite myself with the whole Church today, as we offer You Christ's Holy Sacrifice from our altar: offering It for Your Glory, in thanksgiving for all Your blessings, in reparation for sins, and in a confident plea that You'll grant the prayers of the Church, and also the prayers of my own heart for myself and for all who are dear to me."
Bring to God in prayer all your worries, with all your anxious thoughts about distressed or suffering people. Place them all before God. Ask Him to help them, and also to free you from distractions.
Say a little prayer for the priest who is presiding today, and for everyone else who is present, especially for those who are troubled, or who lack faith.
Don't be ashamed to pray sincerely. When the priest and the servers enter, and you begin to pray every prayer of the Mass with your whole heart, you can be sure that you're taking a worthy part in the most sublime act of worship possible on Earth. It's the worship of the whole Church: and the Church, remember, includes all the Saints of Heaven, with whom you are praying, at Mass, and also the Holy Souls who have gone before us, who are also intimately involved in our Celebration.
Remember: we are all united with Christ in one prayer whenever we take part in the worship and homage which Christ Himself offers to the Father, in a holy Celebration which has been enacted and offered throughout the past two thousand years; and that's why, when we pray during the Mass, we pray best as we willingly unite ourselves to Christ's sacred Offering, having in our hearts the very same intentions as Christ.
Make a reverent and dignified response whenever the priest addresses the congregation.
Remember that we're all praying out loud as One Body; so, from courtesy, and from a community spirit, don't gabble, if everyone is praying slowly together; and don't drag, if everyone is speaking briskly.
'Mean' every word of every prayer that we all pray together. After all, it's what's in our hearts that 'counts' most, in our prayer.
'Unite' your heart and mind, interiorly, with every word of prayer which the priest speaks to God on our behalf. It's easier to do this if you decide not to look at what people are wearing, or whether so-and-so is doing his task properly.
Listen carefully to every reading from Holy Scripture, asking the Holy Spirit, silently, to enlighten your heart and mind. He will do so.
Give generously to the collection, if you can, since by helping the Church you're giving a gift to God; and our priests deserve support.
Remind yourself - before the most solemn part of the Mass: before the Consecration - that Jesus Christ our Lord will soon be Present, 'hidden' in sacramental form, but really here amongst us, just as He has come amongst our spiritual ancestors, at every Mass.
Remember the reason for our confidence, hope and devotion, whenever we gather before the altar. We belong to Christ's Church; and Christ's whole Church of earth, Purgatory, and Heaven is praying here at the Holy Mass, offering one, marvellous Sacrifice to the Father.
Welcome Christ at the Consecration, as the priest holds up the Sacred Host. Speak to Christ in the silence of your heart.
Thank Jesus for having died for you, as the Chalice of His Precious Blood is held up to view, when the wine has been consecrated.
Remind yourself that when you're present at the Offering of the Holy Sacrifice it's as though you're at the foot of the Cross. We can be sure that Jesus is Really Present, praying to the Father on our behalf, asking for forgiveness and Salvation.
Take heart from the Church's teaching that this Mass and the sacrifice of Calvary are one and the same Sacrifice, offered here now, in our presence, in reparation for sin, as Christ prays to the Father on our behalf; and Christ's prayer includes all our needs and all our good intentions.
'Open' your heart and soul very fervently to God the Father, as you unite yourself, interiorly, with Christ, as the priest holds up the chalice and paten which contain Christ's Sacred Body and Precious Blood, and says: "Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, Almighty Father, for ever and ever."
Add a fervent 'Amen' - by which you confirm that you yourself offer that honour and glory to the Father, through Christ, in the Eucharist.
Pray the 'Our Father', in unison; and mean every word of it, especially about wanting God's Will to be done, and about forgiving those who hurt you.
When the time arrives for Holy Communion, if you know you can't receive, stay quietly praying where you are, and make a 'spiritual Communion' - by brief expressions of contrition and love to Christ, with a fervent request that He come to your heart to help and console you. He will do this, because He is good. Then you can make an act of faith in His love for you. You can thank Him, and speak with Him, and allow Him to change you.
If you're going to Holy Communion, approach the sanctuary with reverent longing.
Remember Whom you're going to receive: Jesus Christ Himself: your best and closest friend, yet also your Creator and Redeemer who comes from the glory of Heaven to our altar, and to your soul.
Go back quietly to your place, and kneel, if you can.
Speak to Our Lord in the silence of your heart in whatever way is most sincere, as well as reverent and grateful. Don't be afraid to confide in Him - about your worst fears and failings, or your hopes or joys; or just sit in silence and enjoy the gifts which He can give you if you have a quiet conscience and are happy in His Presence.
When you leave the church, after the blessing and the dismissal - or when you've spent a further few minutes in thanksgiving - go out determined to be a good child of God and to be as kind and forgiving towards the people you meet as Christ is towards you.
Smile or greet someone, if you can, on your way outside. Even if you're shy, or if you don't think people seem very friendly, try to be pleasant - and try to grow familiar with the faces and names of those who make up the Body of Christ: your spiritual brothers and sisters in this wonderful family. Have you ever offered to help with the coffee, or the collections?
Remember to 'pray the Mass', every time you attend.
Ask God for faith, if you long to have it. Ask, daily, for more faith and hope and charity.
Attend Mass, if you want to understand it. Go to an extra Mass, during the week.
Don't worry, if you don't yet understand very much. Faith and love are what 'count'. Understanding grows, the more we 'grow' in love.
Don't waste time in criticising those taking part, or in thinking idle or unkind thoughts about the place, the people, the music or the temperature. If you do this you'll be choosing to face away from God rather than towards Him.
Pray the Mass, every time, by uniting your thoughts and intentions with every word spoken by the priest, by praying every prayer with sincerity, and by carefully listening to the readings. You will be rewarded. God will deepen your faith. Trust Him. Ask for His help.
Love and respect everyone, but have a special love for your Christian brothers and sisters, who really are 'family' to you, in the spiritual life, which is 'real' life.
Be respectful and helpful to everyone, of course; but keep in mind that Our Lord is thrilled when we're supportive towards the Clergy. He doesn't want to hear anyone moaning about His priests. If we have a genuine complaint we should speak to a priest in private, and respectfully. But Christ has placed them as 'other Christs' amongst us. He wants to see us loving and reverent towards them, and grateful for their sacrifices, whatever their apparent failings.
Never destroy the faith of your spiritual brothers and sisters, whether carelessly by setting a bad example, or deliberately: by loud disagreement with some of the Church's teachings or with scornful comments about the Holy Father or other Bishops.
Never stop looking for ways by which you can better understand and strengthen your faith. There is nothing like the Mass: nothing more holy, nor any greater source of blessings. It's the "source and summit" of the lives of all devoted Catholics; and yet we're given astonishing gifts by God through all His sacraments, not just through the Holy Eucharist; and it's because we're in such need of every scrap of help we can find that I must mention the effects of the sacrament of Confirmation in our lives. We should be taking advantage, so to speak, of God's marvellous generosity.
Realise that the spiritual life is 'real' life; and so it can really be fed, exercised and strengthened in all sorts of ways, as we increase in virtue - by God's grace - and conquer our fears. No fears or weaknesses are conquered fully or permanently by will-power alone. Common-sense and intelligence can lessen our very real anxieties: indeed, God Himself gave us our brains and common-sense and wants us to use them; but His greatest gifts come through prayer and the sacraments. We can't do anything good without His grace, and yet that grace is ours for the asking, if we'll just take the trouble to come forward to receive it.
Reflect upon the life of faith, and on your sometimes casual attitude towards it. We know that through conception we're given life, and that through birth we're given the opportunity to use some of our natural gifts and aptitudes during our time on earth. It's through Baptism, however, that we're given the supernatural gifts - of faith and hope and love - and are given "Life in Christ," which includes the ability to pray as children of God, in the sure hope of being heard. It includes the right to call out confidently to God with Christ, and with our brothers and sisters, as Christians gather with Christ and with each other in the supreme act of prayer and praise and sacrifice which is the Holy Mass; and from this great prayer all our private prayers draw their 'value'. But if we haven't yet received the sacrament of Confirmation, we're not having all the help that could be ours.
Be grateful for your Baptism. Through it, you've been made a member of the Church. When we're confirmed, however, we receive further gifts from Christ's Holy Spirit, Whom we received in Baptism to guide us. His graces are poured out in our souls much more strongly in Confirmation; and the gifts which we're given at this time include Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude - which is courage of a special order - Knowledge, Piety, and the Fear of the Lord: which means true awe and reverence. That's why I'd urge every Catholic who practices his or her Faith but who hasn't yet been confirmed to discuss the possibility with a priest. God has so many ways of helping us; and it's plain sad if we don't hold out our hands, so to speak, for His free gifts. Besides, it's by Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist that we are fully initiated into the life of Christ's Church.
Remember that, at every Mass, we celebrate the whole saving work of Christ: work achieved through His life, death, Resurrection and Ascension.
Let yourself be carried along on the great current of feasts and fasts which make up the Church's year, and which lead us to celebrate every Mystery of Christ's life, and every facet of the Faith.
Try to buy a Catholic Diary or a Liturgical Calendar, and notice the pattern which is repeated every year from Advent to Advent.
Look forward to major feasts, and prepare for them by some little sacrifice or some new efforts to be charitable. Learn more about each feast. Speak to Christ about what is being celebrated. Thank Him for what He's done for us all.
Make a note of important things such as the start of Lent, and the anniversary of your Baptism or Reception, and the feast-day of the Saint whose name you bear. Speak to that Saint about your joys and difficulties. Celebrate your anniversaries - perhaps by having a Mass offered in thanksgiving; and pay as much - or more - attention to the Church's calendar as you do to the dates of the football season or of the prémière of a new film.
Find out the times of Masses and Novenas at nearby churches. Read the bulletin. Do you find that you know the phone number and opening hours of your local pubs and leisure centres, but have no idea what time your church opens and closes or what number to dial to speak to your parish priest?
Don't be content to speak to God, or to read about Him. Listen and ponder more patiently. Everyone who prays will pray even more fruitfully if he finds out more about God, Who is so loving and loveable, and about the Faith by which He wants us to live.
Consider the fact that the better we know and understand our earthly friends, the more at ease we can be in our intimate conversations, and the more confidently we can set out to plan a particular treat, or to help them in some way. So it is with God: the more we know about Him, the better we shall pray to Him, love Him, know how to please Him, and confidently do what we know is His Will; and that's why all 'spiritual writers' recommend spiritual reading. That's why I urge people to set aside a few minutes, daily, to read even a paragraph of one of the following, to keep more in touch with and fed by spiritual reality: a biography of a Saint or a few verses from the Gospels or other parts of Holy Scripture, a religious poem or pamphlet, a prayer book or a catechism - or a book of short reflections or meditations.
Be careful about what you read. You'll find, if you look carefully, that there are some instructive and encouraging books available; so don't read anything at all; make sure it is 'sound'. Unless someone's faith is mature and tested, he should stick to orthodox works which don't go against Church teaching. Good books will teach him much about God, and will also give plenty of 'material' for informal meditations and for prayer.
Take what you can use from this section, and ignore the rest. It's my little effort to help in the only ways possible to me at the moment: through encouragement and advice; but no-one on earth can make you love God or pray to Him. Only you can freely choose, in your heart of hearts, to 'search' for the One, Holy God Who is already holding you.
If you have a scrap of faith, look plainly at your life. Admit that if God created you so that you can love and serve Him now, and live with Him in bliss when this earthly life is over, it's worth making efforts to be 'in contact,' and to become one of His good friends, through prayer and through a life of love and forgiveness.
Don't waste time by postponing your prayers. Start now, here. Friendship with God is held out to you, now; and it's by deciding to pray, and by doing so - no matter how briefly - that we reach out to seize the friendship, and to say 'Yes' to the hope of an intimate union which, in the end, will fulfil every dream and yearning.
Pluck up courage to read, in a later section of this book, a plain outline of the spiritual life, which I call "The Journey of Faith". It seems appropriate that I summarise the soul's progress from birth to Union, and so remind the reader of the long and difficult journey which is contemplated when a sinful soul is willing to be purified, and so to be made fit for true union with God in Christ. The devout soul wants this, not because he wants suffering, but because he wants to love and serve God perfectly; and any encounter with holiness, when we are so imperfect, will inevitably involve suffering. Nevertheless, a generous person can hope to live in a true Communion with Christ, even in this life, united with the Father in and through Christ, within the life and love of the Most Holy Trinity - though all of this is by faith, and not yet by clear sight: and yet that mystical communion gives incomparable bliss, even amidst earthly sufferings, to everyone who perseveres.
Remember that the whole process of communion between God and the soul is a lengthy and gentle process, initiated and guided by God. For the full development or full 'flowering' of that communion and friendship, the devout soul needs to be committed, co-operative, generous-hearted and determined; but the rewards and joys of close friendship with God far outweigh everything which is endured on the journey to Heaven.