Sign Up for our Free Daily Email Updates / Catholic Spiritual Direction

Distractions at Mass – Part I of II

December 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Eucharist/Mass, Fr. Bartunek

Dear Father John, I hate to admit this, but I still get distracted at Mass. I mean, I love Mass! I go almost every day! I believe in it, I look forward to it… But I still get distracted during Mass. I really wish I didn’t – I want to worship God perfectly, like we’re supposed to. Can you help me?

As long as we are human, we will be battling distractions. Even the Catechism makes this clear: “The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction” (#2729). So, the first piece of useful advice is, simply, don’t panic. Accept your limitations, then gradually learn to recover more and more quickly from distractions when you notice them. Here again the Catechism gives sure, wise, and realistic guidance:

“To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve.” (CC #2729)

Guarding the Heart at Mass

Now, when it comes to keeping the heart’s custody during Mass, one powerful ally is a deeper understanding of the mystery being celebrated, of the nature of the Mass itself. For the long term, cultivating this deeper understanding will bear much more fruit than tricks like getting to Mass early to recollect yourself, or focusing on the visual symbols in the church. Permit me, then, to offer some reflections on this mystery, from the point of view that the Letter to the Hebrews gives us in Chapter 10, the point of view of Christ as our High Priest.

Is God Contradicting Himself?

In a certain sense, it appears that this Chapter of Scripture contradicts Catholic practice. At one point, in Hebrews 10:10-12, the sacred writer tells us about the difference between the Old Testament sacrifices and the New Testament sacrifice offered by Christ on the cross: “…[W]e have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every [Old Testament] priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But this one [Jesus] offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God.”

So the writer of this Letter to the Hebrews is saying that Jesus already offered his priestly sacrifice once for all, and therefore he has no need to offer a daily sacrifice. But (and here comes the apparent contradiction) if that's the case, why does the Catholic Church – indeed, why do almost all Catholic parishes – offer Mass every single day? Why do we even offer Mass every Sunday, if Jesus already offered his sacrifice “once for all”?

After all, the Catechism teaches us that Holy Mass, the Celebration of the Eucharist, is in fact a sacrifice

(CCC #s 1359, 1360, 1365): “Because it is the memorial of Christ's Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice… The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father… The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of praise.”

Do you see this apparent contradiction? On the one hand, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that because of Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross two thousand years ago, we don't have to “offer sacrifice day after day.” While on the other hand, in actual fact, by celebrating the Eucharist every single day, that's exactly what the Church is doing – offering sacrifice day after day! What's going on here?

Already we are entering into the deep mystery present at every single Mass. If we can come to understand why this apparent contradiction is in actual fact not a contradiction, we will find ourselves living the Mass with spontaneous reverence and even amazement. Distractions will have a much harder time derailing the attention of our hearts.

Two key words will help us solve this puzzle: sacrifice and memorial.

The Universal Presence of Sacrifice

All religions throughout the history of the world use some kind of sacrifice to help establish and maintain a healthy relationship with God. This was true in the Old Testament Jewish religion too. Some religions would sacrifice a part of their harvest, or a portion of the results of their hunting, or even human beings – enemies that they may have captured in war, for example. In sacrificing these valuable things, they would destroy them in a ritualized fashion, surrounding the ritual with prayers to their gods. Why did they do this? For two reasons.

Healthy Dependence, Healthy Guilt: Worship and Atonement

First, they recognized that they were dependent on divine forces for their existence. If the sun stopped shining, for instance, their crops would not grow, there would be no harvest, and they would starve to death. But they had no power to make sure that the sun continued to shine – only the gods could do that. So they would offer to the gods a sacrifice of something valuable to themselves, hoping that this act of humility and worship would please the gods and convince them to continue supporting their existence.

Second, they recognized that they often committed evil, which was displeasing to the gods. They recognized that their evil actions, their sins, deserved to be punished by the gods who tolerated no evil. So, by offering a sacrifice of something valuable to themselves, they hoped to atone for their sins, appeasing the anger of the gods and assuring their own survival.

A Spiritual Catch-22

These were the religious instincts present in human nature, even in primitive religions. But we know that sacrifices of goats or cows or corn or wine, or even of sinful human beings, were entirely inadequate. These finite objects were limited and imperfect, tiny creatures that had come from God in the first place, so how could they give due honor and worship to God, or repair for sins that rebelled against a God of infinite wisdom and truth? They could not. And yet, the fallen human race needed to worship God and atone for our sins – otherwise, we would be cut off from God and frustrated in our pursuit of everlasting happiness, which consists in living in communion with God (and that is what we were made for).

Jesus to the Rescue

God himself came to our rescue and gave us a solution to this existential dilemma. He sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, among us, through the incarnation. And Jesus, being true God and true man, as we proclaim each week in the Creed, could offer the perfect sacrifice: a worship and an atonement that were both fully human, because of his sinless human nature, and also infinite and of infinite value, because of his divine nature. Jesus offered that perfect sacrifice of his own body when he allowed himself to be crucified. Through his crucifixion, he took upon himself the punishment for our sins, and he offered himself – true God and true man – as the perfect act of worship and praise.

Jesus on the Cross is indeed the perfect sacrifice, “the pure victim, the holy victim, the spotless victim,” as the priest describes it during Mass in the First Eucharistic Prayer. But Jesus was not only the victim in the perfect sacrifice. He was also the one who offered the victim – in other words, the priest. This is why the Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus the high priest who is “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners.” In all of human history, only Jesus' self-offering on Calvary is a sacrifice that gives perfect worship to God and makes perfect atonement for sin, because both the priest and the victim are perfect: sinless, fully human, and fully divine. This is the perfect sacrifice, made “once” on the Cross at Calvary.

In our next post on this topic, we will discuss the connection of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the meaning of the Mass as a memorial. And then, how do we respond…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

please consider supporting our mission with a donation!

  • Matthew Tan Kim Huat

     God bless! One of most useful & effective memory techniques is to read aloud the Missal texts, or the Bible, or any examination study subjects. Revelation 1:3 promotes reading aloud. In a recent retreat at the Church of St. Francis Xavier conducted by the Indian Kerala Potta Nagar Divine Retreat Centers’ Fr. Augustine, he emphasised that by just reading aloud was insufficient. But if it is reinforced by reading from the heart, and innately hearing the words we speak from the heart, such words would bounce back to us as living words and they become alive and fortify our faith.  Not only alive but the living words take roots in us and germinate and sprout as faith energy! So to avoid any distractions during Mass (caused by the poor voice or reading or poor sermons), bring along missal. Last week for the first time, I switched on my mobile to receive Mass Readings via internet. As I read, I also paid attention to lector’s and preacher’s voices as they bounced back into my ears, and they were so alive and vivid!

  • $1650412

    Two things I would reemphasize here to Father’s point. First, we are POWERLESS to atone for/make up for/ fix/ repair/undo the wicked things we think, say, and do; or the good that we ought to do but flat out fail to do. And whether we realize it or not, those sins, those failures, they corrupt everything. This is an epic tragedy played out for us in living color in every aspect of our lives- in all creation, in our hearts and minds, in the people all around us, etc. Everywhere within and without is the misery of sin, and I can’t fix it- you can’t fix it, NO ONE can fix it, except for God. And not only can He fix it, He did fix it through Jesus Christ’s incarnation, passion, and death. It required the life and blood of God-become-man freely sacrificed in a supreme act of LOVE to undo the death and destruction of sin. And He has undone/is undoing all the horror wrought by sin- and (key point here!) it is in the Mass- the earthly glimpse of the heavenly eternal ongoing reality of redemption-that we enter most perfectly into the heart of the mystery of this work being accomplished- SOURCE AND SUMMIT. Secondly, we are becoming the light, testimony, evidence in the power of praise and gratitude, to the glory of God- and this is our salvation- God is praised and glorified.  And this I cannot explain very effectively because I do not really understand it- but we are becoming through our participation, especially and most poignantly in the Mass. 

  • I am distracted at Mass when we have to stop worshipping and give the sign of peace to everyone around this. To me, it breaks up the flow of the Mass, especially as the Agnus Dei follows which is one of my favorite prayers. Sometimes, I have to leave before the sign of peace as I am not comfortable touching people, and there are some who almost insist. I then come back, but the moment is not the same. It sounds like a small thing, but if we didn’t have to do it, as we used to in the past, then the Mass would be perfect for me. 

    • I think you make a valid point.  Distractions for me, Kathy, are when I go to Mass and the first 15 or so minutes before Mass, the choir or praise band are practicing.  How does one get into the attitude of prayer with this disruption?  I try to avoid those Masses but then at other Masses there are people talking in the pews before the Mass which is another form of distraction.  I came from a Protestant church and this is so reminiscent of how worship is conducted in those services and I long for the peacefulness of a silent church.  My father is convinced that once the Blessed Sacrament was taken out of the church and put in a side altar, the dynamics of a peaceful, quiet church changed.  And I have to agree….Jackie

      • $1650412

        @Kathy and Jackie- I can totally understand what you guys are relating here, but maybe these things are intended/allowed by the Holy Spirit to help us strengthen ourselves when our immediate experience seems incongruent with the spiritual reality we long for.
        I know for myself, I can become so at ease with what is most in concert with my preferences that I sometimes fuss more about the rubs, the little things that reveal the human condition in its more pathetic aspects, than raising my heart in faith to the hope of what the better more reverent Mass will be like or is like in Heaven. I am getting in touch (oh so painfully slowly, ack!) with how much benefit I can gain in exercising a hopeful patience, gently striving myself for the ideal, and encouraging it in others by a joyful example, freely expressing my ideals/preferences to others when I have the opportunity….:o) For right now, though, I think God only trusts me with trying to be a good example- (He does not often afford me a chance to talk to other people about what a blessing it would be to minimize distractions and disruptions in the Church in times of prayer and preparation, but…. maybe eventually- ;O) The exchanging of the peace though is such an important part of our Mass experience- it is not just about us and God, we do have to live our love for Christ to one another to give God the glory that the Mass signifies. We have to find the path of unity between heaven and earth, and until Jesus returns, this earth is still always working out salvation with fear and trembling in fits and starts. Patience, condescension, and interior peace in the midst of every tempest of our riled-up, disordered, distracted and chatty  humanity- brings Christ’s light and glory, infiltrating and transforming, and recovering by degrees what has been lost. You know, we can’t turn back the tide of what has degraded the Mass in our experience except by bringing Jesus more fully into it, in patient love and joy. We have to make the interior and exterior reality we are experiencing through worshipping God in the Mass, a gift we give to others at the Mass, and then to the world- I think what Father is saying here is to give us the groundwork in our interior so that we can better open ourselves up to that. 

  • sjmullan

    It’s been a long time since I got a new insight into how to use “distractions” as a part of my prayer life. Now I sit down w pad and paper as well as the Bible to jot down the obvious reminders: “take the beef out of the freezer to thaw for dinner” or “don’t forget to call Mom”…I now consider these distractions the action of Holy Spirit to help me with my vocation in life.
     if there is a bigger distraction, like worry over finances or a relationship, that becomes a focus for that moment. If it seems larger than space requires for morning prayer, it goes on the list w an asterisk for a separate prayer time, hopefully when I will be meditating, and can bring it in to the place where Christ will have some wisdom for me. Often a mystery of the Rosary or a particular Station of the Cross will have a bearing on my dilemma or concern or hurt. And I can spend time getting myself into that particular scene before bringing in my concerns.
    At Mass, these “distractions” i just note and put it into a mental spot that will be what I “offer” when the gifts are brought up to the altar. When I am recollected enough, I try to bring at least one thanksgiving to offer to the FAther, along with my “sacrifices.” My worries, and hurts, and sins can be offered up as my personal weekly sacrifice in union with Christ’s. That make the Mass a very personal offering of myself as well…
    Maybe God knew that He would have to find such a way to deal with a mother of ten who is continually concerned about something or another. I’m definitely a Martha, and it’s often quite a job to help me be a Mary….even for the relatively short time spent at prayer or Mass.

    • Thank you, Dan. This is just what the Doctor ordered. And thank you, sjmullan. Your way of dealing with distractions is what we read in the revelations to Catalina about the right way to celebrate the Holy Mass

    • $1650412

      Love this!!!

  • Chi

    I think the apparent contradiction of the one-all sacrifice by Jesus Christ and the need not to enact that sacrifice at the Mass is solved/cleared thus: even though Jesus Christ had made that sacrifice He commanded that that sacrifice must be done continuously in His memory, ie, by celebrating the Holy Mass. Therefore the Holy Mass is never a contradiction of the one-all sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the cross.

    • $1650412

      Actually, too, I think the sacrifice of Christ re-enacted or re-entered into, in the Mass is eternal in that it is both within and outside of time because of the Divinity of Christ- (metaphysics for the amateur here…) It intersects time- I think of time as a line, with a beginning and an end. The merits of the event of Christ’s death that occurred one time in time, are ongoing for all time- that is why Christ appears as the Lamb that was slain- bearing effectual wounds for all time- known by those who look on Him as the One who was (or that they/we) pierced- I feel like the Mass is the event where all of what is past, present, and future intersect in one spectacular climax, but it’s even more  than that because being bound by time and space I can’t even really get my mind around it- there is something so much more going on when that Consecrated Host is elevated than I can even begin to catch- and not just that moment, but there are so many aspects of the Mass that have overwhelming power for the soul- if we could get it, we would probably all die of ecstasy like Blessed Imelda. My favorite part of the Mass is when the priest lowers his head over the host to breathe the words of consecration- what can I say? through the breath of God, flowing in physical/spiritual life of the man whose soul is indelibly altered by that same Spirit through consecration, the Holy Spirit ‘reincarnates’ (horrible inaccurate word choice there!)- maybe better said, really, truly brings again or more- the crucified, glorified, sacrificed God to me for… food. Go figure- seriously?-wow- WOW!

  • Peg

    Jo, I think you expressed your point well.
    I’d also add, at least for me …when I have distractions at Mass, I will focus on the crucifix. That always brings me right back to the Mass.
    Another thought I find helpful, comes from Fr. Menninger.  This is his point regarding contemplative prayer, but I believe it applies here as well.
    Think of distractions as you would a ship passing by on the ocean. They come from nowhere, you notice them …and then they’re gone just as quickly.  Your distractions during Mass should be treated the same way. Let them come, even glance at them if you must, but then let them pass by without giving them another thought.  God knows most of us have short attention spans (myself included), and I think he smiles when he sees that we let our distractions float by without beating ourselves up for them, and without giving them any energy to hang around. Treating them as “ships in the night” robs them of their power to interupt or effect the sincerity of our worship.

    • $1650412

      Peg, this response reminds of the video I think Father and Dan did on dealing with distractions in prayer- this is a great image- I especially love the ‘float by’ imagery!

  • CBurrone

    Sitting in the front pew or near the front removes allot of distractions…It helps me to focus.

  • LizEst

    At Mass, folding my hands in prayer the way we were taught in grade school, really helps me focus, helps keep distractions at bay, and helps get rid of those that come. This feels a little strange since most people don’t do it…but, for me, it really helps. At home, praying formal prayers aloud has helped me focus and keep distractions at bay and has led to different prayer insights and meditations than when those prayers are prayed silently (of course, the prayer of quiet/contemplation is a different type of prayer altogether).

    I know of some women who use a veil just to help them focus.

  • Sacrifices are usually understood as
    the dedication of something to God or the setting apart for God of something
    that does not belong to God, something profane. In this understanding, the
    Latin term sacrum facere, from which
    the word sacrifice is derived, would mean to make something to become holy, to
    make something that is profane to become sacred. 

    The original understanding of sacrum facere says that it means to perform a holy action, to “do” the “sacred
    thing”; it does not mean to render something holy. A sacrifice is not
    a dedication of something profane to God but an entry into and participation in
    that what God already possesses. We are elevated into a sacrifice; we do not
    make something into a sacrifice. Sacrifice is not primarily a sin offering but
    it does involve as an immediate feature of remedy for sin. We must understand
    that praise and thanksgiving, entering into divine glory, is primary and
    expiation and purification serve as a condition of consequence of that entry.
    The deepest core of Christ’s action in his passion and death was a sacrifice of
    redemption, but only because it was an act of perfect love of the Incarnate Son
    towards the Father. Our sacramental
    participation in Christ’s action brings about the forgiveness of sins, but only
    because we are brought by Christ into the life of the children of God, where we
    can praise his glory and give thanks for his deeds. Grace and the glory of God
    are primary; forgiveness is derivative.

    The Eucharist reenacts this action for
    us at all times and places. It represents not only the dying of Jesus, but the entire
    redemptive Paschal mystery. The Eucharist calls us to enter into that action
    ourselves. In our Eucharist we announce the death of Jesus not merely to
    ourselves and to others, but to the Father; we proclaim it before God, in whom
    there is no before or after, and before whom the perfect sacrifice of the Son
    is always present. Our Eucharist brings us into this presence before God. It
    both calls and enables us and all of the faithful “to offer your bodies as
    a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1).

  • mafko

    Where do I find Part !! to “Distractions At Mass”?

    • Wait until it is published. If you have a subscription, you will get it next week.

  • Yes, offering everything during Offertory and especially during Consecration when Jesus is offering Himself to the Heavenly Father at the elevation of the Holy Host the the Holy Wine brings down Blessings and the answer to our Prayers from His Holy Altar in Heaven.

    But any other distractions which keep on floating in and out of this old Grandma’s mind at all times, I just stop a bit and Pray several Hail Marys. They have never failed me.

Skip to toolbar