You may well ask, “If this stuff is so great, why didn’t we Catholics used to talk this way?” Catholics don’t “get saved.” They don’t “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior.” They don’t have altar calls, they don’t have revivals and above all, lay people, the rank and file doesn’t pray spontaneously with other people. Clergy don’t even pray like that. You might say an “Our Father” or for the really fanatical, you might say a Rosary, but praying with someone to “meet Jesus”? Unheard of! Impossible! My interior should stay right where it is: inside! That’s why it’s called interior. Religion is best left to the professionals. Let the clergy do the praying. My job as a layman is to go to Mass, shell out the bucks and keep my nose clean. Now you want me to hold someone’s hand, tell them to close their eyes and ask Jesus into their hearts. If someone did that to me I would suspect they were thinking about picking my pocket. No, sir! When I want religion I go to a professional and when I go to Mass I sit in the back pew because I am not worthy and proud of it!
Alright, I’ll admit we didn’t talk this way years ago, we didn’t have to. We lived in a world where we couldn’t help but meet the Lord. He lived down the street from us in the big house with the steeple. We went to Catholic schools where we were taught by nuns, some of whom actually had an intense faith. Our two parents, one male, one female, taught us to pray and took us to Mass. To see my parents pray quietly after Communion was to see someone who was talking to the Lord. We absorbed Him from our very environment.
Now, Communion is a chaotic melee as we get ready for the after-Communion liturgical dance, the speaker who wants to shake down the congregation for a worthy cause or the Communion class singing a “meditation song” that is sweet enough to give you diabetes. Kids don’t get the chance to watch their parents or anyone else in prayer. The only thing kids can absorb in church these days is a strong desire for donuts and coffee. The idea of lingering in church to pray after Mass is unthinkable. All the best donuts will be gone!
I was saved by watching my parents pray. Kids in this present age of the Church rarely have this experience.
The dear nuns reinforced this sense of the presence of the Lord, but at the same time as they encouraged us to have a strong spiritual life, they warned us never to talk about it, because that would be spiritual pride, and that would cancel out all the grace we had just gotten from prayer. Grace was sort of like points in a video game that you could lose instantly with one false move.
If as a kid you actually prayed, you never talked about it for two reasons: you were afraid that because of spiritual pride you would wake up one day roasting in hell because you had committed the sin of PRESUMPTION!!! And there was a yet more dreadful fate! You kept your mouth closed about your spiritual life because if you seemed excessively pious, they might just ship you off to a convent or seminary at the age of 13 just when those formerly yucky members of the opposite gender were beginning to get interesting.
It was just best to leave the whole religious thing to the clergy and to those rather strange children who demonstrated an unhealthy interest in religion and were obviously destined to waste their life in a convent or rectory. In the good old days you were a Catholic or some other flavor of Christian because everyone else was, not because you’d had an experience that convinced you this stuff was real. Of course it was real. Everybody said it was real. Hollywood made movies about it and the president of the USA said it was real.
Have you looked out the window recently? Things have changed. The important people in the world, Hollywood stars and the politicians who idolize them are no longer saying this stuff is real. Most of them are saying it’s all a bunch of hooey. Your kids don’t believe for precisely the same reason you did believe. Everybody says it’s NOT real. What evidence do they have to the contrary? Have they met the Lord? Have they heard the Gospel? Have they witnessed a miracle? They may have seen a lot of liturgical dances and learned some really zingy new hymns, but those get old fairly fast. Real miracles, the Gospel and above all a sense of the presence of Christ never get old. We are giving them theater and thinking that somehow showbiz religion will save them. It ain’t working.
In the old days when they dragged you to church as a little kid, you had a little kid’s openness to truth. That was before your brains had turned to concrete and you lost a sense of wonder and awe. The stained glass windows, the strange rituals, the music, watching your parents kneeling with heads bowed and eyes closed. It was special. Now not much goes on in a Catholic Church that couldn’t happen in your basement entertainment center or in a theater near you, that is if you don’t count the miracle of transubstantiation. We need a new strategy if we believe the Church and the Gospel are worth the effort.
In the 1960’s there was this big convention that a lot of bishops went to. I think it was called the Ecumenical Council, or just Vatican Two. It was odd as far as councils go. It wasn’t a response to a heresy or anything like that. It didn’t produce any new Church teaching as such. It didn’t change the liturgy very much. That came later. It was about the role of the laity in the work of the Gospel. It seemed to be saying that the people of God, clergy and laity together, are the Church.
When people heard that, they decided it meant everybody in the Church is the same. I remember a truly blasphemous comedy song written in the style of rag time tune that mocked the Church and the Council. One of its lines went, “Everybody say his own Kyrie Eleison, doin’ the Vatican rag.” And “Say whatever prayers you want if / you have cleared it with the pontiff.” The attitude after the Council was “Anything goes.” We have not recovered to this day.
We may all be equal in God’s eyes, but we most certainly aren’t the same. We all have our jobs to do in the Body of Christ. Eucharistic ministers are a good case in point. A priest I know suddenly had a surplus of priests and deacons in his parish. They all were happy to help distribute Holy Communion. This meant that lay extraordinary ministers of communion were less necessary.
This drove one of the extraordinary ministers to a near crisis of faith. She railed at the pastor, “You’ve ruined my ministry! This was the only thing I could do and now you’ve taken it away!”
To which he responded, “Why don’t you visit the sick or help with religion classes?”
She had failed to notice that part of her title was EXTRAORDINARY minister. The priest and the deacon are the ordinary ministers. She served the Lord just by being available to help. Her ordinary ministry is the one thing that belongs to all lay people, to make Christ present in the home and the workplace, to join in the spiritual and physical works of mercy. The aggrieved minister had lost her moment to shine, not the opportunity to serve. This sort of thing is a clear example of the misinterpretation of the Council.
The Council didn’t teach that the laity were to do the work of the priest. The Council taught that the priest should stop doing the work of the laity. I had another good example of the misunderstanding of the Council when some parishioners wanted to start a Charismatic prayer meeting. It was an obvious thing to do. I am, in effect, one of the founding fathers of the Charismatic Renewal, though I heartily dislike the name “Charismatic”. I prefer to call myself a Pentecostal Catholic as we did at first because Pentecostalism is a spirituality of conversion, not a movement.
It seemed absolutely natural to have a prayer group here. It was a colossal failure. Few of the lay members of the group took responsibility. If they had something better to occupy their time on Sunday afternoon, they were no-shows. Father had to be there. If Father couldn’t come, we had to cancel the meeting. Father set up the chairs, made the coffee, played the guitar, gave the teaching, prayed with people after the meeting, turned off the lights and locked up the hall, all this after having said two or three Masses. The prayer group was not a calling for anyone but the priest. For the others it was an optional entertainment. It was the post Vatican II Church in miniature. The only person who now has a Sunday obligation is the priest. For everyone else there is a Sunday option.
Clericalism is alive and well, not among the clergy, but among the laity. All those people who are unhappy with the Vatican Council are quite mistaken. The Vatican Council has gone unimplemented. The laity who now dominate the liturgy offices and the parish councils assume that they are supposed to tell the priest how to do his job. The Council was really about getting the laity to do their job, not to tell the priest how to do his, or worse to do the priests’ job themselves. Where the laity doesn’t learn how to share the good news, the Church will invariably die.
The Church is currently growing by leaps and bounds. Conversions, vocations to the priesthood and traditional religious orders are up. The Church is flourishing in places like Africa, Mexico, China, India, the Philippines and the rest of Asia. In Europe and North America, the great consumerist societies, the Church is evaporating, but even there, those Catholics who can share the beauty of the Gospel without hesitation are creating dynamic enclaves of Catholic faith.
Next week: What is the job of the priest?