Monday, April 25, 2011

If That’s All There Is…

Who is not being fed?

          I noticed a couple of nice articles about all the people being received into the Church this Easter and a couple of other articles talking about the fact that those joining are less than those who are turning their backs on the faith. Part of this equation, at least in the secular press, is always to presume that these folks must be going elsewhere because they are “not being fed” and that the blame lies with poor preaching by Catholic priests. Although the math might be right, everything else in the equation is gratuitous. People have always drifted away from faith; most haven’t or don’t find “more faith” elsewhere. We should not be taken in by such general or unspecific criticism; lessons in public speaking for Father are not the answer.

          The expression “fallen away” still is the most descriptive and generally applicable term to describe those who have dropped or been dropped from the parish lists. Most people drift off because they were never really part of the life of the Church. Some people just go away sad like the rich young man in the Gospel who wasn’t expecting Jesus’ invitation to come and follow Him. Invariably if people go elsewhere it is because they seek something more accommodating: perhaps the annulment didn’t come quickly enough or whatever (think of poor “Father Oprah” down in Florida). Poor preaching can’t really be the reason as it is nothing new in the Catholic Church. Despite our need to do better in getting the message across that cannot really be to blame. Besides, special effects do not a sermon make: some of the best homilies I have ever heard came from holy men who had never come close to kissing the Blarney Stone. The loss of the sublimity of Catholic worship is certainly more of a factor for people’s disenchantment and which must be coupled with the loss of the supporting culture.

I really think that the supporting culture plays an inestimable role in holding people; that sense of belonging cannot be underestimated. Let’s say 50 years ago, if you ran into the descendants of an immigrant family from southern Italy in the U.S. then they probably were not Catholic. Something happened on that Atlantic crossing or thereafter as they settled in their new country. This was one of the reasons Pope Leo XIII was so insistent on St. Frances Cabrini taking up her apostolate in the U.S. Someone had to receive these people in their new land and help them make a home here, a home like they’d had on the Mediterranean. Too often in the States they didn’t find the village culture of Puglia or Sicily and could not insert themselves into the Irish or German parishes in the big cities. They fell through the cracks, if you will.

          In our day, the cultural factor plays out very clearly with Mexican immigrants. I remember learning from some Mexican sisters working in the States in a parish visitation program that those coming from Mexico who had been educated in their faith could more easily be incorporated into parishes up north. Those coming from parts of Mexico where they had not experienced much beyond baptism, felt no ties to Catholicism at all and could be attracted to any church where they spoke Spanish.

          Years ago people said you could tell a Catholic church by the vestibule: no coat racks. Our cultural experience and our sense of belonging was not meant to be exhausted in “church-going”. As an older lady friend of mine explained it, she was so grateful as a little girl to be Catholic and not Anglican, because her Anglican friends ended up spending the whole of Sunday morning in church, hymn singing. Our cultural experience was different and it involved fasting, abstinence, processions, pilgrimages, lots of devotions and more depending on where in the world you came from. What we shared in common was an exquisitely sober, understated Sunday Mass, which never lasted more than an hour (for fear the parking lot wouldn’t be emptied out in time for the next Mass!). It was for all of the folk in the pews their time before the Throne of God. Silence and order entered into a life which might otherwise be hectic and noisy; here there was no pressure and no surprises. No one foisted himself or herself on anyone.

          Sunday Mass was the cornerstone of a cultural complex which included altar society, sodalities, Knights of Columbus, Holy Name Society, Legion of Mary, St. Vincent de Paul and the parish school, just to get started. The Sign of the Cross and meal prayers effectively set us apart from everyone else. We belonged; we knew who we were as Catholics; we were sustained by a whole way of life, by a culture.

          People who cannot comprehend the attraction of younger people to solemn liturgy, Gregorian Chant, polyphony and all things classically sacred, well, I wonder whether they are really in touch with themselves. The popularity of Adoration Chapels, as I have said before, should come as no surprise. People truly do hunger for sacred space; people really do want to watch and adore; people really do want to sit or kneel silently in His Presence. Most folks’ weeks are too full of stimulation: ear buds, big screen and 3D? Adherence to rubrics (a tip of the biretta to Fr. Z. of “Say the Black; do the Red!”) would really help immensely. Sunday worship must be restored to God and withdrawn from the realm of anyone’s discretion. The marquee out front with the theme for Sunday is not our style. Silence and a spirit of prayer must return to our churches.

          The point being, that in a genuinely Catholic culture it has always been the para-liturgical out in the square (like a Holy Week in Sevilla or most anywhere in Latin America) which has satisfied folks' needs for expression. Churches themselves must be safe havens without all that which characterizes folk expression and celebration.

          A decade or more ago Catholic people were seeking out Byzantine Liturgy in their thirst for the Living God, in their desire to be fed (which had nothing to do with preaching). In our day, especially in some of the big cities but also in monasteries far from the rush of the maddening crowd, beautiful Extraordinary Form liturgy and nobly reformed celebrations of the Ordinary Form draw people and inspire requests for reclaiming our parish churches for beauty and order. I hope and pray that no more time will be lost in casting out the old yeast so that people might once again and universally be fed with the unleavened bread of liturgy in spirit and in truth.


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