The idea of doing something every time as if it was for the first time, the last time, and the only time certainly applies to how we ought to receive Communion. The original context, as far as I am able to determine, comes from Mother Teresa. In the sacristy of every one of the chapels of her religious order, a sign admonishes the priest: ‘Priest of God, celebrate this Mass as if it is your first Mass, your last Mass, and your only Mass.’ Great significance is placed on a priest’s first Mass, so much so that many consider the first 30 or so of his Masses as a first Mass. But that first Mass is objectively no different than the 15th or the 1,500th or 15,000th Mass. If every Mass is objectively the same, then they also should be the same subjectively. Likewise, the first Mass is special not so much because it is the priest’s first, but because it is the Mass, the means by which Jesus comes to us under the veil of mere bread and wine.
Like anything that is done frequently or repetitively, the Mass can become routine to the point that the priest, while still offering a valid Mass and making Jesus present, can certainly do so as a matter of routine or even on autopilot. Doing so detracts subjectively from the Mass both for the priest himself and for the congregation. If the Mass is important – it truly is! – then the priest and the people need to act as if the Mass is important. The frequency that the Mass is offered points to its significance, but the human element, both with respect to the priest and the people, often makes the things done frequently in life routine and mundane. How significant is brushing your teeth? It is important, but something we do with minimal thought or consideration. Indeed, the Mass ought not be just another thing we do nor should it be subject to halfheartedness on the part of the priest or the people.
So, attending Mass and receiving Communion ought to be done with reverence, attention, and devotion. This applies to every Mass irrespective of the priest offering Mass or the nature of the church where the Mass is offered. Yes, on a subjective level, Fr Insecure, Fr TooGroovy, or Fr Indifferent can make the Mass less than edifying by his attitude, his mannerisms, and his preaching, but the Mass is still the Mass. Fathers Insecure, TooGroovy, and Indifferent ought to take the Mass more seriously, and if not, their bishops ought to admonish them. If there is a crisis of faith in the Real Presence – there truly is – then poorly celebrated liturgies are certainly contributing to this crisis. Likewise, churches that resemble Pizza Huts, office buildings, and modern art masterpieces also betray the significance of the Mass. Church structures ought to be suitable for the nature of what occurs inside, it ought to indicate what the purpose of the building is. Many restaurants are recognizable by the architecture of their buildings and the design of an office complex or a residence indicate the building’s purpose. But if someone visiting from another country and speaking no English saw some of our churches, would they recognize them as churches? Not so much. Objectively, however, Mass offered in the ugliest and least edifying church is still the Mass and needs to be approached as if it was offered at the Sistine Chapel in Rome or Holy Cross Cathedral in Barcelona.
Granted, we ought to prefer to attend Mass in a stately and beautiful church like Blessed Sacrament, St Paul’s, or St Elias, but most people have to make do. Likewise, we ought to have Mass offered by Fr KindaPious, Fr TryingToBePious, Fr Pious, or Fr MostPious, but again all too many Catholics today have to make do with the clergy they have. Nevertheless, mediocre priests and ugly churches, whether we encounter them on vacation, for a wedding or a funeral, or if such represents our only option on a weekly basis, should not stand in our way of attending Mass and receiving Holy Communion with utmost devotion. If the subjective elements of the church building or of the priest himself make worship challenging or difficult, we still have a duty to participate at Mass to the best of our ability. In other words, we need to attend Mass and worship, irrespective of the priest, the church architecture, or any other factor, as if this particular Mass is your first Mass, your last Mass, and your only Mass. After all, the Mass is an act of worship and must therefore be focused on Whom we worship more than on the priest or the church architecture. For this same reason, the priest ought to be pious and the church ought to be worthy of the God we worship.