As noted in my last posting, attending Mass in the missions can be an experience that is all at once familiar and different. While the order of the Mass is the same, I can always count on learning something about the culture of the people with whom I am worshipping by some slight nuance. Whether it is kneeling at the Confiteor or happily soaking in every word of a homily that would be considered long enough for three Masses in the US, I love the idiosyncrasies that highlight our universality of faith.
In Malawi, the collection of parishioners' sacrifices at the Offertory is a sight to behold as it seems to be the opposite of how we Catholics in the United States offer our gifts. Here, we wait as ushers walk around with what my children liked to call "the basket on a stick," passing it in front of folks to drop their envelope or donation into it as it comes by. Or perhaps a basket is passed hand to hand. In my parish, we even have little laminated cards that we can place in that say "I Give Online;" they serve a dual purpose. First, some people feel odd letting the basket go by as they choose to provide e-gifts, so it gives them something to put in. Second, seeing the cards in the basket may encourage more of the faithful to join us, making sure that their gifts are collected even when they are absent.
The Offertory, in Malawi and many African countries, looks like Communion. A line forms and those who have something to offer come forward. At the Mass at Saint Bernadette Parish in Chitula, ushers with white sashes bearing their parish name stood with plastic bowls, waiting to receive the donations. In other Malawian parishes, I saw handmade baskets and even wooden boxes used.
Knowing how poor the parishioners are, most are subsistence farmers who live on $2 a day or less, it was a blessed surprise to see all the bowls overflowing. Ushers had to continually press the bills down to make room for more!
As the donation bowls were presented with the gifts of bread and wine, another powerful difference occurred: contributions of maize (corn), cooking oil, eggs, mangoes, bananas, and even a few live chickens were brought forward. These practical presents will help to feed their pastor, Father Maxwell.
Does this make the Mass longer? Yes, indeed. But it also brings a strong sense of community support and commitment to a part of our Mass than can sometimes seem less than participatory.
As always, the mission Church has much to teach us.
- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.
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