I wish I could have this conversation at every kitchen table in the parish.
I know that is not possible, so I hope my words, written with a loving heart after almost thirty years of sharing life with you, can begin a conversation in our hearts. This conversation is very important to me.
SOMETHING IS HAPPENING IN OUR COUNTRY Many people in our country are going to church less often than they used to or not at all. The problem is refl ected in our parish but is also one in all Catholic churches across the country, as well as in Protestant churches and in non-denominational churches.
There are many reasons for this loss of attendance, some the fault of the churches themselves, some a change in the country. All of us need a conversation about this situation.
Leaders of churches need to do an examination of conscience to see where we are at fault. Each of us needs to look at our own lives to see what is happening within us. The loss of faith in an institution is understandable, but the need for a community cannot be overstated. Without a community our prayer becomes less frequent, our gratitude less consistent, the challenge of the gospel less meaningful. God becomes less a part of our decisions and less a part of our everyday lives. We become forgetful about our God.
In our own parish many who used to pray with us each week no longer do. Maybe it is a conscious decision, maybe just drifting away.
I miss you.
I invite you back because I care about you. There is no judgment, no criticism, just care. Please take time to reflect with me.
First, a Word of Gratitude
Before we address why many have chosen not to come each week, I want to thank those who do. So many have continued to believe in and pray with each other every week in spite of a very diffi cult time in the church. I am most grateful. Of course, for the elderly, the sick, and the homebound, we appreciate that you are not able to join us. We pray for you. You are a part of our community. If someone is bringing Communion to your home, pray with us in that way. If you are not receiving Communion in your home, please call and someone will begin to bring the Eucharist to you. You have prayed with the community when you could. Now the community will come to you.
Now a Word of Understanding
For those who no longer pray with us, or join us less often, I hope you will pause often as you read these refl ections, think about them and, even more importantly, pray about them. And always bear in mind that I understand many of the reasons why you no longer pray with us. Now a Word of Understanding Perhaps fi rst and foremost is disillusionment with the leadership of the Church. Church leaders often appear out of touch with everyday life or unwilling to listen to caring and faith-fi lled lay people. We priests have also been a source of scandal and hurt. The pain and harm done by the sex abuse scandal cannot be overstated. The handling, or mishandling, of the accused priests by many bishops has heightened the pain and deepened the scandal. Meanwhile, priests who have tried to minister with integrity can also hurt someone, without even knowing it. I have been a source of hurt to some either by what I have said or done. Sometimes I am aware of it and can apologize; sometimes I am not aware. This, too, keeps some away from the prayer of the community. For others, the reason is the liturgy itself. In this time of transition we have not yet learned how to balance the sacredness of the liturgy with the intimacy of prayer that draws us closer to God and to each other. Sadly, the liturgy does not always answer our needs for the sacred, for quiet, for a feeling of belonging. Many fi nd our prayer together less than meaningful and fulfi lling. The pace of life during the week infl uences our decision about weekend Mass. After a week fi lled with co-workers and traffi c jams, the last thing we want on Sunday is a crowded pew and parking lot. The solitude of Sunday morning can seem like a gift: why not sit back, pour a cup of coffee and read the paper? And the same pace that keeps us from communal prayer can keep us from developing a personal prayer life, too. Without daily prayer, and the friendship with our God that it helps create, deciding to stay away from the prayer of the community is just that much easier. Perhaps you have felt judged or unwelcome at church, unwelcome at communion, or have a spouse who does not share the Catholic faith who does not feel welcomed. All of these things infl uence our decision about coming to Mass.
But Why Is Going To Church So Important?
We both know that many genuinely good people do not go to church. And it has always been so. 1,600 years ago St. Augustine admitted that God has many people the church does not have, and the church has many people God does not have. Nevertheless, it is Jesus who asks us to pray as a community. It is Jesus who asks us to tell the stories and to share the meal in His memory. Our community is to share His Body and Blood in communion – a hope Jesus has for us. Our secular world offers many alternatives to His hope. I don’t care who we are: We all need someone bigger than ourselves in our lives. The honest give and take of ideas with the others in the community keeps me honest. If I separate myself from a community that celebrates God, choosing the world’s alternatives becomes easier. The tragedy here is that, no matter how alluring the alternatives, we all need a God. I don’t care who we are: We all need someone bigger than ourselves in our lives. We all need His Presence in the Eucharist. When we don’t go to church we run the risk of losing touch with everything we need so much. If we were sitting at your kitchen table right now, you might say . . . I am spiritual, I’m just not religious. Let’s think about that. When my personal spirituality is unchallenged by the give and take of the community it can become a mixture of real truth and my own private feelings. The honest give and take of ideas with the others in the community keeps me honest. Jesus wants us dealing with our brothers and sisters. When we try to go to God alone in our private spirituality He wants to know where our brothers and sisters are. He knows us as a family. I worry that for some of us, the decision not to join the community for prayer refl ects a beginning of a loss of faith, either in God or in Jesus.
If we were sitting together in your home, this is where our conversation would take on a wider scope. Most of us would agree that our country is rapidly losing its moral compass. Of course, the culture never tires of telling us God doesn’t matter. Or that Jesus was just a nice man. Often the only resource we have to combat this assault is our faith—a faith many of us last studied seriously back in the eighth grade. That’s hard. Because the message the world sends us is so sophisticated, so up-to-date, so attractive. And it’s so easy to reject the God we learned about back in eighth grade. The problem is, we’re not rejecting the God of Jesus. We’re only rejecting our eighth grade understanding of the God of Jesus. And the adult reality is so much deeper, richer and sustaining. I know those who are losing faith, either consciously or unconsciously, are a small percentage of those drifting from the church. But I feel it needs to be addressed. Because rejoining the community in prayer would build on that eighth grade faith, maturing it to something that can sustain us in the midst of all that the culture throws at us. Right and wrong are no longer what God says but what the majority decrees. Right and wrong are no longer what God says but what the majority decrees. When more and more Americans choose not to gather with a faith community, not to hear the Word of God, not to accept the challenge of the gospel, the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life cannot shepherd us in right paths. Our individual decisions each weekend have a bigger effect on our nation than we might want to admit. We Roman Catholics have another reason for addressing this issue. Eucharist or thanksgiving is central to what we do each weekend. We gather to hear God’s Word, to give thanks and the receive Him in Communion. Now, for children gratitude is a matter of being polite. But for adults gratitude is more important—it’s a matter of justice. Consistent gratitude for all of the many blessings we enjoy is the only way to be just in our relationship with our God. A nation without week to week gratitude can lose its humility and gradually become arrogant. To remain humble and grateful, we need a community built around gratitude. We need a community dedicated to thanksgiving.
Life-Giving vs. Death-Bringing Not so many years ago people were motivated to go to church each weekend because they were told it was a mortal sin if they did not go. The way the term “mortal sin” was used then implied that one could fall in or out of mortal sin rather regularly. It trivialized the term so that many found it less than credible. Why do I bring up the term now? Do I believe that if a young person misses Mass on Sunday and is killed in an accident on Tuesday that he or she would go to hell? No, I do not believe that and I am sure you do not either. So what does the term “mortal sin” really mean? A mortal wound is a wound from which someone could die. We speak of being mortally wounded. A mortal sin is a decision, or action, that is a death-bringing choice. I am convinced that if our nation continues its present course, not opening itself to the Word of God and not expressing gratitude to God, it will be a death-bringing choice. The challenge we face is this: do my family and I want to stand with those making a death-bringing choice for themselves and our country? Or do we want to stand with those who allow God to be their moral compass, and who in humility unite themselves to our God each week? I understand the many reasons for not attending each week. I also realize the consequences if this pattern continues. I invite us all to make a life-bringing choice. A Special Word for Parents I admire all of you who are raising children. Being good parents today is extremely diffi cult. The constant demands and responsibilities can be overwhelming. The examples of other families and the expectations they raise in your children add to your diffi culties. And many of the reasons we talked about for skipping church can be very enticing. Yet the reasons for attending church each week are even more important for you than for others. Being a good parent and role model is your most important ministry. In this increasingly secular world, inviting your children to make a place for God in their lives is your greatest gift to them. Choosing “select soccer” over deepening their relationship to Jesus is not a choice that will serve them well in adult life. I worry about our children facing a world without a rock of stability, without faith, and without a God. I hope you do too. You have the power to be the example of faith your children deserve.
A Special Word for Youth and Young Adults I love to talk about faith with you who are young. You are so honest and open. You are always searching for the real meaning in life. God has a special love for you. His understanding of the problems you face is far deeper than we can appreciate. Peer pressure not to attend church is strong. Your generation, often with good reason, mistrusts institutions. You may question whether your parents and grandparents have been intellectually honest about their faith. You may wonder if they merely believe what they were told to believe. Especially for you who are young – recent wars in the name of religion have been a particular stumbling block to faith. Tensions between Christians, Jews, and Muslims have left many of you wondering about the value of religion of any kind. And, on top of all that, you are young. More often than not you have your health, enthusiasm, material blessings…and happiness seems very attainable without any help from God. Talk with each other about these thoughts. Get a group of your own age and try going to church together. Pray at least fi ve to ten minutes every day asking Jesus what He wants for you. The church needs your energy. Your idealism. Your questions and challenges. And you need the wisdom and insight only the Church can provide. It is an exchange that can help keep both you and the Church honest. Help us build the kind of community that you deserve—and the kind of community that, someday, your children will need as an anchor in their lives.
Some Final Thoughts I get disillusioned just like many of you. I get aggravated with myself and some of my brother priests just like you do. But don’t ever give any of us the power to keep you from the Eucharist or from the people who pray here, the living Body of Christ. Don’t let any human being do that to you. I get frustrated with religion when it is boring or out of touch with real life. I know that some who come to church are hypocrites like you often say. But I also know the many wonderful, humble, hurting, honest people who pray here each week. They inspire me. I want them to inspire you. Please pray about coming back or coming more often. If your spiritual life is waning, you might need the community. If your spiritual life is strong, we need you to inspire us. As broken and sinful as we can sometimes be, we need each other. So, what am I asking of you? If you are attending each week, pray for your brothers and sisters and reach out to friends who might be waiting for an invitation to come back. If you are not attending now, please hear these words spoken in respect and affection. Consider coming back to pray with us. We need you. Our country needs your faith and your moral fi ber. Your absence leaves a tremendous gap. Your presence can make an even greater difference. As I said when we started, I wish I were sitting at your kitchen table right now instead of writing this. If you, alone, or with friends would like to gather as a group, I would welcome the chance to meet with you. Please share your thoughts with me, either in a note, a phone call, or an email. If you would like to continue this conversation in person, I would love to sit down with you. Perhaps there is a question I can answer. Perhaps an anger or hurt that you deserve to have heard. I began this conversation by saying that I could not sit down at every kitchen table, but with just a call I can sit down at yours. I would be glad to do that. Thank you for taking the time. May God Guide Us All.