Sunday, January 17, 2010

Shouldn't Mass be more excititng, like a mega-church service?

Dear Rev. Know it all,
My husband is a selfless, dedicated family man who loves, honors, and respects me, our two young children, his parents, and extended family.  I often wish I could be more like him!  Our biggest difference is that, while I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home, he comes from a background of what I call "Church-hopping Parents".  He was baptized in an Orthodox Christian Church as an infant, but his parents both abandoned their orthodox beliefs long ago, joining an evangelical church when he was about 10 years old.  They now visit different churches, mainly  non-denominational and "born-again" type organizations.  This has caused some  conflict between us since I am firmly planted in my Catholic roots and he is more comfortable with a touchy-feely Christianity.  His core beliefs are very traditional but he firmly maintains that since attending the Catholic Mass with me these past several years, he does not find that he can spiritually or emotionally connect to God through the Mass. Initially I thought he had simply closed his heart to that possibility, but now I fear that he may have a point. 
On a few occasions I have given in, and against my better judgment, agreed to attend Willow Creek church with his family on some Sundays or special occasions.  After going to one or two of their services, you certainly can be tempted to feel that our experience in the Catholic Mass is lacking that spiritual fire!  The excitement, emotion, amazement, and entertainment you experience at one of the theatrical services at Willow Creek can leave you wanting more.  I myself get emotional there and feel like the speakers are reaching out to me directly, and I hate to admit that I have less often felt that at Mass.  My faith tells me to stand firm and not to give in to attending those services but when I see the spiritual food that my husband is indulging in I feel selfish preventing him from going.  I am caught between two difficult positions.  My biggest fear is to confuse our children and become the dreaded "Church-hoppers".  I would sincerely appreciate any suggestions or advice regarding how to help us experience the Mass more fully, how to explain why the sacrifice of the Mass is so important, and how to enable both of us to have a deeper spiritual connection to the Mass, our Lord, and one another.  
Anna Baptiste

Dear Anna,
You mention the “spiritual food” your husband is “indulging” in, I would venture that it is not food at all. It is more like spiritual Hot Flaming Cheetos, very exciting, but not very healthy for a long term diet. I know of what I speak. I am a founding member of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which we used to call the Pentecostal Movement, and love nothing more than good old religious emotion. But, I’ve found that when people value religious experience more than they value God, they are in trouble. They think they are worshiping God, but they are worshiping their own experiences.
I believe that the mega-church phenomenon is a symptom of the corrosive forces at work in the current spiritual life of the country. I say this not just as a Catholic, but as someone whose spirituality was, in certain measure, formed by Pentecostalism. People always assume that Pentecostalism is about emotion. That assumption has in large measure killed real Pentecostalism. What passes for Pentecost in these time is a sort of once a week catharsis in a mega church. The Pentecost I remember from my youth was an intense awareness of the power and reality of the Holy Spirit and was very easy to integrate into a Catholic spirituality. It didn’t matter how one felt. What mattered was radical dependence on the power and goodness of God. “Faith, not feelings” we’d remind ourselves.
What has all this to do with Mass being a dry experience?  It is the same thing. “Faith, not feelings.” The scripture tells us that we are saved by grace through faith. The mega-churches would have it, “Saved by positive feelings about God.”  People say that they don’t get much out of Mass. Who told you that you were supposed to get something out of Mass?  It is the sacrifice of the Mass. We go not to get, but to give. I place my life on the altar with Christ, who has placed His life, His flesh and blood on the altar for me and for the whole world. 
Evangelicals always talk about giving their lives to Christ. The modern mega-church crop of evangelicals don’t give their lives to Christ. The come to church based on the entertainment value of the service and how it makes them feel. Think about it. Mass is boring to those who want to be  entertained. Calvary was boring too. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter James and John fell asleep at the opening prayers of the first public Mass. Peter and James didn’t even bother to attend the canon of that first Mass. Perhaps the choir wasn’t very good at Calvary, or maybe the seats weren’t very comfortable. It was at least a three hour service. I doubt there was parking and the sermon wasn’t much to write home about, just “Father, forgive them” and “Why have you abandoned me?” That wasn’t very uplifting.
All in all, Calvary wasn’t much of a show. Calvary was dusty and dirty and bloody, a dying man writhing in pain, gasping for breath, choking on His own blood as He whispered forgiveness for those who mocked Him. Certainly the modern dramatic presentations in the Easter pageants are a great improvement, some charming actor staring meaningful into the distance, a daub or two of fake blood, all seen from comfortable theater chairs with an intermission for refreshments in the food court. We have certainly come a long way as Christians in this country.
I have never been able to see the stage play “Les Miserables.” I have read the book, but to see the play would break my heart. That is because one night I accompanied a Catholic deacon who, with his wife, ran an outreach ministry to male prostitutes in downtown Chicago and its Gold Coast. The ministry tries to get them off the streets and into drug rehab and prays with them to give their lives to Christ. These homeless prostitutes are despised, the poorest of the poor in a rich neighborhood. The deacon would make rounds to check up on these lost, hungry people, most of whom were drug addicts. I followed him into a dark alley next to a prestigious downtown theater where Les Miserables was playing at that very moment. He shook at some piles of cardboard and from out of these heaps came a small crowd of tattered young men, bundled against the Chicago winter. They had built cardboard shacks over the exhaust vents of the theater in which the well heeled crowds who could afford $70 for a ticket sat moist eyed and emotional over the sufferings of the street people of post revolutionary Paris. The only thing they gave the street people of Chicago was their hot air.
Since that night I have had no desire to see the play. In the mega church service, one may see a dramatic presentation and hear an uplifting sermon. One is certainly inspired and enriched. It’s very nice. But I think that to be emotionally moved by a dramatic sort of Christianity is nothing compared to kneeling at the foot of the Cross, as we do at Mass, to take and eat of His flesh and Blood, really present, as He commanded us to do, and in so doing commit our lives to Him whether we feel it or not. Let your husband have the show. You keep the reality. Your children will thank you for it in the long run.
As for practical solutions, read Dr. Scott Hahn’s books, “The Lamb’s Supper” and “Rome Sweet Home.”  Get him to read them if possible. They will amaze you.
Rev. Know-it-all

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