Sunday, July 24, 2016

“When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain!’(Lk 12:54)

Letter to Jennifer “Jen” E. Russ, enough already…

It’s time I ended this harangue and moved on to other cultural train wrecks. I apologize for what has become a helpless, whining meander on my part, but my confusion was summed up nicely by a blues musician who just returned from touring Outer Mongolia with a Christian rock band. (I am not making any of that up. He is constantly traveling the world sharing the Gospel by means of music. I think he is on his way to China in a month or two.) He said all the meetings and committees are just a recognition that the Church is dying and no one knows what to do.

I don’t think the Church is dying. He doesn’t either. He said that where it has been recently persecuted, it is thriving. It is among most Europeans that it is dying. In the term Europeans I include the citizens of Europe, especially Western Europe and their colonial descendants, the Americas, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English-speaking. Christianity flourishes in South America the protestant evangelical/Pentecostal variety, not the Catholic but among us Europeans the cloud of God’s glory seems to have moved on.

It’s time to get used to it. We have rejected the culture of our forebears. This means that to be culturally Catholic or Christian is completely impossible because the culture is dying. One can no longer be Catholic because one is Italian, or Spanish or Belgian. One can only be Catholic or Christian for that matter because it is true. It is time to drop the fantasy that because one has a baptismal certificate one is a Catholic.

When I was boy, in another century, one was excommunicated that is booted from the church if one failed to receive Holy Communion during the Easter season. One could only receive communion if one was in a state of grace, which meant assisting at Mass on a weekly basis and, if married or sexually active, living in a faithful and sacramental marriage. That meant for most of us one could only be Catholic if one went to confession at least once a year. To fail to receive the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion annually meant, in effect, to no longer be a Catholic.

I have no idea which of those assumptions is still true. We redefine things constantly in hopes of keeping the body count up, but we are fooling ourselves. In an urban area of 8 million we count two million plus as Catholics. We claim that 20% of Catholics go to Mass every Sunday. It is probably more like 15 percent if one includes tourists, occasional participants and pastoral padding of the statistics. Let’s see, 15% or 20% of an area population of 8 million. I think that comes to about 2.5 percent or less. We are already a Church that has faded to insignificance in this part of the world. Face it. 

Why has this happened? There are a lot of reasons. If I could pick one, it would have to be the sins of the clergy. The clergy have always sinned, but there are times when the sins of the clergy become so offensive to God and to the people that reaction is inevitable.

In the Middle Ages there were a lot of holy priests. Still there were enough who thought the faith was their private plaything that the reformation and the centuries of religious war ensued. Similar things happened with the decadence of the 6th century that a religion roared out of the east and swept away most of the Christian world. The Cathars were such a contrast to the decadent clergy of the twelfth century that, had it not been for the poor and holy followers of saints Dominic and Francis, the Church would have perished. And now we in the 21st century are paying for the sins of 20th. I am not referring to the sins that are so popularly reported by the vultures of the press. The scandals of the late 20th century were only symptoms of the rot. The rot had already festered for a century and more. We slowly lost the vision of piety that inspired the first missionaries to this land and we cannot recoup until we recover that piety.

The faith is not about breaking the whole world into small discussion groups. It is about holiness, and that holiness has to begin with the clergy.  About the early disciples, the Romans were wont to say, “…these men have been with Jesus.” Until once again that be said about me and my fellow clergy, the decline will continue inexorably. I have two reasons to hope: St John Paul the Great and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In the horror of the 20th century the Lord gave his orphaned children both a father and a mother. Of them it could be said, “These had been with Jesus.” 

Evangelism is to bring people into a saving knowledge of Jesus, the Messiah, not a theological, a social, a political or historical knowledge, but a SAVING knowledge, a knowledge of Him that causes us to be ashamed of our sins and to long for the change that only grace can achieve. It is not a knowledge that conforms His image to current perversions, but a knowledge of Him that delivers us from the perversity, violence and ugliness of these times.  “Be not conformed to this present age but be transformed by a renewal of your mind.” (Rom 12:2)

To evangelize is not complicated. It is simply to learn how to pray with people. If we talk about Christ, we are wasting our time, but if we can get those who are lost to talk to Christ, they will be saved from this dying culture of death. To evangelize is to move a person from saying “Him” about Christ, to saying “you” to Christ.

It is that simple. All the committees in the world won’t help an iota, but one mother Teresa and one Karol Wotyla who could invite people to trust Christ by their very presence and make all the difference. If we don’t learn to be holy and to invite people to meet the One whom they see that we truly love, the Catholic Church in America will become an arcane club, interesting only to historian and medievalists. If we the clergy do not repent and return to the Gospel, the thing is up. I have one more cause for hope. I believe the Lord will give us a second chance.

It seems the Church flourishes in persecution. I believe that He may just bless us with real suffering, it seems to have already begun in Canada and Europe and America, where an increasing number of laws threatened those who would be faithful to the faith that we have received from Christ and the apostles. I suspect that being a Christian in the post European world will become very uncomfortable. Perhaps sooner than we think we will have, as Pope Benedict suspected, a smaller but holier and, I would add, more real Church.

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

The sky is darkening and it has already started to drizzle. I suggest we get out the umbrellas.

The Rev. Know-it-all 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Communication in an era devoid of beauty

We Catholics are in the odd position of being counter-cultural. Catholicism is the foundation of western culture, but now that the world in which live is rejecting the culture of its ancestors, we Catholics are, or at least should be, something different. I can never quite understand why we think we have to offer the current non-culture more of the same. There is an interesting study of contemporary music. It makes the point that current popular music has a far less complex structure than music of even a few years ago.

The non-culture of the current era communicates by means of text, Twitter, Facebook, etc. which limits the numbers of ideas that can be communicated simply for technological reasons. I have no idea whether or not this will ultimately make us smarter or dumber. It is however taking the place of face-to-face communication. The word person derives from the Latin word for face. Perhaps to forget the face is to lose the person. Faces are beautiful every face as every mother knows.

Was it Dostoevsky who said the world will be saved by beauty? There is nothing beautiful about the new technology of communication as far as I can tell. It is useful, but I can’t think of it as beautiful. So much is communicated in the human smile, in the frown, the eyes, the tilt of the head. The human face is beautiful, even when it seems at first not to be. The grimace of laughter has its own unique beauty. All these disappear in the cold light of the display screen on a smart phone or computer. “The facts, mam, just the facts.”

The world has become ugly. The violence perpetrated in the name of religion, of race of political power is ugly. The secularization of the culture has created a whole new opportunity for ugliness by making sex a kind of industry of empty pleasure and self-expression. The means by which life is given, about which poets have sung and artist have painted as long as human beings have made art of any kind, has been made a way to defy nature, to defy God, a way to shake our fist at heaven.

It has made a curse, slavery to passion of the “…one blessing not lost by the sin of Adam, nor washed away in the waters of the flood.”  It is impolite to say that divorce, and certain practices I would rather not mention are not good things. We might offend if we point out, not that the emperor is naked, but that the emperor’s clothes are ugly, even filthy. Heaven forefend lest we offend!  Beauty is everything. God saw the world and it was good. We see the world and say, “I don’t like it. I want it done my way.” And what do we offer the future? We offer an accommodation with ugliness. Young people get enough ugly in the world. It’s time to start offering them something better.

A critic said once said that the Church, in her struggle to maintain traditional morality, “is out of step with the times.”

Well, hurrah for the Church! The times stink.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Why should I bother with Mass?

Last week I mentioned that a friend of mine had talked about the faith with a younger man, mid-twenties or so. The young man had not been raised in the Church nor had he received the sacraments, apart from baptism as an infant.  When asked why he was not a churchgoer he just said, “Why do I need it?”

This simple question is aimed right at me and my fellow clergy. We have spent more than forty years telling people that they don’t need it. Why are we surprised that they agree with us? We have at least implied that the Almighty is far too nice to punish us for our sins or to demand certain behavior from us. If there is a heaven our nice God would never send anyone to hell. Mass is a wonderful thing, but certainly, no one is obliged to participate in it. We keep trying to make Mass more understandable and more entertaining, but the more entertaining we make it, the less people seem to be interested.

We have stripped Mass of its mystery. One enters a church and sees very little he wouldn’t see anywhere else. We have removed the images, the stained glass, the altar rail that implies something remote and forbidden. We’ve painted over the frescoes and chosen the banal art of the late 60’s. When one meets a Catholic, is that Catholic any different from anyone else? We do not fast; we do not live by any other sexual code than the world.  We practice artificial birth control, abortion, co-habitation at the same rates as non-believers, and now we seem to be moving toward relationships that were formerly forbidden. How would the lives of those outside the Church be any different were they to join the Church?

Oh, yes. We urge people to be socially just, but so do the Boy Scouts. The pearl of great price is currently offered at bargain basement discount prices, but no one is buying cheap pearls these days. Why are we amazed that our churches are filled with grey heads? We offer nothing of enough value to cause someone even to inconvenience themselves on a Sunday morning by getting out of bed much less give up their lives for it. Catholicism is growing explosively around the world. It continues to grow everywhere except here. People around the world are dying as martyrs every day, just not here in the so called first world. 

So what’s the answer? What do we have that a young man or woman may eventually fine useful?  We have beauty. Admittedly in much of the church we have thrown off beauty for kitsch, but the beauty is still there. It’s just been stored for a while in the basements and attics of our souls. The world has become very ugly. We need to make sure that the liturgy is beautiful and not simply flashy.

The consistent and sustained beauty of the Mass, a ceremony that has endured in quiet simplicity for two thousand years is still the Catholic ace in the hole. I would be so bold as to suggest, as did Pope Benedict, that we stick to the rubrics. There is nothing so impressive as a priest turned away from the congregation for a few minutes while leading the congregation in addressing the Father in Heaven. Perhaps it is time to return this small bit of mystery to the celebration of Mass.

The altar is not a stage where the main protagonist faces the audience. It is an altar. A child who comes to his first Mass must wonder, “Who is that man in the special clothes talking to, Mommy and Daddy?”  “Be quiet junior, He is talking to God.”  Prayerful silence before Mass is another little bit of mystery that we might add, as suggested by the General Instruction for the Roman Missal. Have you ever thought how unusual it is for a group of people to be gathered together in silence? We live in a world filled with noise. A group of people sitting and kneeling in silence is a most unusual thing.

“Why is no one talking, Mommy?”

“Because they are talking to God in their hearts. Now be quiet.” 

Another way to add mystery is to dress up. People attend church in the same clothes that they use for working in the back yard. Maybe if we dressed like we were going to a wedding, we might eventually understand that we are attending a wedding, that of Christ and his Church. As it is, Mass is no more special that any event to which I would wear an old T-shirt. 

Let’s talk about music. This is not my strong suit. The council very much wanted the congregation to participate in the Mass, especially by singing. In much of my experience, Church music is a spectator sport. People don’t sing. The music is either too hard, or too entertaining to actually sing along with. If you are a church musician and the congregation is not singing, you are failing. Don’t assume they are singing. Put a recorder in the back of church. Get some spies to go sit in the eighth row from the back to listen to what people are actually doing. If all the congregation hears is you, you are failing. The Vatican Council re-emphasized the place of chant in worship. Chant ties us back to the temple in Jerusalem and to the early Church. Most of all, chant should be simple so that it can be sung.

I will never forget crossing the Adriatic years ago on a Greek ship. Since I couldn’t sleep, I went up top and from the bridge of the ship I could hear the grizzled Greek sailors singing along with the Sunday morning liturgy as it played on the ship’s radio. Music should be simple enough to be sung. Why? Where else in the modern world do people sing? We listen to music, but a group of adults singing together happens nowhere but in church. Even at ball games the national anthem is sung by a celebrity, of sorts. What passes as music blares out of speakers and phones and gizmos, but children have forgotten how to sing. 

“Daddy what are these people doing making noise?” 

“They are singing, junior.”

Next week: More suggestions to come