Wandering Thoughts – Article #3
How do we understand church today?
In this article I will be speculating on the immediate future of our church. Some may agree with my speculation and some may not. But there are two facts that we must face because they are obvious. In the Catholic Church we are losing people at an unprecedented rate. In a recent survey, it was said the Catholic Church was the largest identifiable religious group in the country and the second largest group are ex-Catholics. We are losing people and we need to consider why? What to do?
The second fact we need to look at is: we do not have enough priests. We are simply running out of priests. And what do we do in the future if that keeps on? We have consoled ourselves with both those problems by saying “It will change, It will change.” But I have been waiting that out for 30 years and it hasn’t changed. And it just keeps getting worse. Nothing has changed until we do something to make it change. And we are just sitting around watching the process of the church becoming smaller, in the size of our presbyter and smaller and smaller all the time. In this regard, I think of a hypothetical child, who will be born in parish of New Salem Michigan up near Grand Rapids. The baby boy will be born in the year 2018. Now I suggest to you as this little boy grows up how will he experience church? He will certainly not experience church as I did. We were a very fervent active parish. On some of our Masses, we filled up our huge church right to the brim. As I remember all through my childhood we had four priests in the parish plus the pastor. Right now that same parish has one priest. This little boy is not going to experience church as I did. It is going to be different for him. He is going to experience a church that cannot have a Eucharistic celebration every Sunday. He is going experience a church that lives in a different world. I would say, just by a general principle, there is more than one way to be church. Now the church has existed under all sorts of different circumstances. And the church has thrived under those circumstances. To begin with, we have 250 years of rather brutal persecution and the church thrive under that. For one short time in France, after the revolution, the church priest couldn’t operate. It was true in Mexico for a while. But the church went on, the Church thrived. And went on because the community went on. So how will this little boy experience church?
I listen to my mother into her old age, about how she experience church as she was a little girl growing up. They lived about 10 miles from this small parish near Leslie, Michigan, a small parish which still exists today. Her father was a dairy farmer. There was her mother and two siblings. The father was not a Catholic, he didn’t even like Catholics. But he promised to raise his children Catholic. And here is a man who never went back on his promise. So he was trying how to do this – but how to get to Mass every Sunday? I would take them all day to get there and back. And he would have to get a neighbor to come in and do the chores on a dairy farm and this got old very quickly. Finally the pastor of the parish came up with a different program.
He came up with being a different way of being church. He went out to people like my grandfather and said “Frank, you just can’t bring your family to church every Sunday.” My grandfather said “I pledged to do it”. But he said “Look cows don’t wait. You can’t do it. What I propose to many people who live far away and have to come to church in a horse and buggy, I suggest to you that you should come to church once a month. And we will have a special celebration because we will not have only the people who live nearby but the people who live far away.” He convinced my grandfather that it would be a good idea. So my mother experience church in a different way. She experienced church once a month when they went to Mass. She was a young girl living on a farm with two siblings, with no child her own age within a good walking distance. That one Sunday, when she went to church, she got togeth with all sorts of kids her own age. And they had catechism classes and they had fun together. Then in the end they would go upstairs and celebrate the Holy Eucharist together. It was a happy joyous celebration as she remembers it. She loved those Sundays when she could experience church. After church, they would maybe go out and have a snack, a quick lunch and then some entertainment. Very often that would be a baseball game with fathers playing the teenagers. They all loved it. By the middle of the afternoon they were ready to depart. In my mother’s family, they were close friends with some people who lived close by, a farming family whose name was Oak, as the tree. The Oak family was a very devote Catholic family. They had eight or ten kids. They had this huge house and all the kids had their own bedroom, but some of the kids had to double up. But they always made a point; my mother remembers to keep one room special. That was God’s room. My mother remembers that all the kids had their room but God had His room. The father would laughingly say to the kids who had to double up, “maybe you are getting sick of doubling up and maybe we could give you a room. But we’re not going to give you God’s room. God stays. So you better get used to doubling up.” That family said their night prayers in that room. Once a week they would go to that room and study the scriptures and talk about them. In times of crisis and sadness they would gravitate to God’s room. My mother never got over the idea, that a family could be put together where God had His own bedroom just like the other kids. My mother was a devote Catholic in her old age. She told me about the richness about her church. I don’t recall that she ever mentioned a priest’s name. Her church was the whole community that came together joyously, that learned together, had fun together and got serious together. It was a rich enduring experience for her. There is more than one way to be church.
Now I got used to the way that I grew up with where we had plenty of priests. Where we had Mass every day and with certainly multiple Masses on the weekends, on Sunday. I liked that way of being church. I was ordained into that kind of church. I liked that. I would like to hang onto it but I am suspecting that way of being church was going into our past. We are no longer going to sustain that kind of church. We are losing too many people. We are not getting enough priests.
As far as losing people, we’ve got people coming to Mass because we made it very clear to people that to miss Mass would be a mortal sin and they could be punished in hell for all eternity for doing something like that. We all grew up believing in that, I believed it. So we took Mass very very seriously. But Mass became for me and for everyone I know an obligation that we needed to take care of.
The Mass for a lot of people was something that you had to get through so that you could spend the rest of the day doing things you really wanted to do, like play golf. No priest who has been a priest very long, has had someone come up to him wearing golf clothes and said to him: “How fast can you finish Mass?” This is not the words of a devote Catholic. I think what has happen to us now is that we’ve come upon a generation that do not believe the sanction that you would suffer if you missed Mass. They simply don’t believe that you are going to be condemned to hell. Since that seemed to be the motivation that kept people going, they just stopped going. At times when they wanted to start going again, they ran into what I think is the real problem behind our church. That is this, I think our church and celebration of Mass does not lead to anyone’s transformation. It hasn’t for a long time. I remember a conference we were at, there was a bishop there, they were talking about celebrating the Eucharist in a proper way and a joyful way. This bishop got up and said I’m under the impression that this isn’t working. That what we’ve got going is simply not working. I think that was a prophetic statement. He was saying that we have a church full of people, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, celebrating Mass together and you don’t see any transformation. There is no growth. There are no richness there. This is the problem we need to address. When a younger generation does come back to church from time to time, what do they find? Often times they find a priest still threatening hell with them and trying to get them to behave themselves so that they can stay out of hell. This is not the message of Jesus Christ. It is not the Good News. It does not transform anyone. I think we’ve lost the Good News in the church by concentrating on teach morality. We wanted to teach people how to be good, instead of how to be great. I think the church needs to turn that around. There must be a renewal in the church.
In the Vatican II, Ecumenical Council the church supposedly went into renewal. The thing that got renewed most quickly was the liturgy. We all or mostly all welcomed those changes in the liturgy. We had high hopes that the liturgy would mean more to everybody. When it was done in this new way and when it was done in the language that everybody could understand. You don’t have renewal in the church until you are trying to affect a renewal in the church. We never did that, we just changed some of the outward signs of the Mass. We turned the Altar around, we put the pulpit in a different place. We arranged furniture and that is not renewal. That is why it didn’t work. I think looking back at it, and I was part of that of that whole process, I was a young priest thrilled with the way the church was changing. I think before we change any liturgy, we should have spent as a people, two or three years, just discussing publicly and thinking privately about what the Mass means to us. This Eucharistic celebration, how is it to enter our lives, as I said it before to us it just figures as an obligation that we would have to get through.
I think to many Catholics, the Mass is their spiritualty. Still when they go to Mass on Sunday, they feel like now for the rest of the week I have taken care of my spiritualty. I think that there is a different way to look at it than that. I was in a conference, a retreat; a priest was giving a talk. He said something that would be the safest thing in the world to say to a bunch of priest. He said “for me and for all of us, the very basis of our spiritualty is the Mass”. Every priest in the room was nodding his head. I was nodding my head. I had to think to myself, what am I doing? That is not the way that I think about the Holy Eucharist.
The Mass is not the basis of my spiritualty. The basis of my spiritualty is prayer and my personal reaching for God. I can do that without Mass. I don’t want to but I can. The Mass then becomes a celebration of that spiritualty. A special celebration on Sunday of that thing that has been going on all week. That thing is our own reaching for God, our own spiritualty. Before we made any changes with the liturgy of the church we need to look at such issues, and say to ourselves what does the church mean to me? What is doing for me? We still need to do that. I still believe in renewal in the church, but we did it all wrong are going to have start all over again and do it right. We are going to have to ask ourselves some profound questions. The renewal that we went through in the 1960’s, was like moving deck chairs around on the Titanic, it really didn’t mean a lot. I think that these are signs of our times. The church is not just losing people; the church is losing itself and losing the message of God. It’s preaching is highly moralistic: teaching people how to avoid serious sin and therefore avoid eternal judgment and that is not the Good News of Jesus Christ. We have got to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ because that is the only way that our people will be transformed. Unless we are seeing transformation in the Mass and unless we are working for it then we are just spinning our wheels. The Mass was meant to be sacred celebration of our intimacy with God. Before we go through that Mass, we need to make sure that that intimacy is there. If it isn’t there, we have to make sure we are reaching for it. The very basis of my spiritualty is not Mass. The basis of my spiritualty is my personal reaching for God and I celebrate that reaching when I celebrate the Holy Eucharist.