I just attended a meeting of “Clergy Here And Out South” (C.H.A.O.S.), the support group for Catholic pastors of the south shore parishes of the Diocese Frostbite Falls. We had a very interesting presentation about the nosedive that church attendance has taken in recent years and the disaster that is overtaking the Frostbite Falls parochial school system. We are going to close a bunch of schools this year and probably should have closed a lot more. In 1988 281,000 people attended Mass on Sunday here in Frostbite Falls Diocese. In 2001, 272,000 people attended Mass on Sunday. In 2014, 121,000 people attended Mass on Sunday. That’s about 5,000 plus a year throwing in the towel. We have been practicing “de-vangelism” while prattling on about evangelism.
One of the clergy at the meeting plaintively asked, “Why aren’t they coming?” I answered, “Because they don’t believe this stuff.” I did not realize that my fellow pastor’s question had been rhetorical. The brethren assembled looked at me as if I had made a rude noise…. Then they continued wringing their hands.
The question was rhetorical. My answer was sincere. The generation that knew how to pay, pray and obey is dying like ladybugs in a hard frost. Their grandchildren don’t have much clue what the inside of a Catholic Church looks like. They have never heard the Gospel and when they go to Mass with grandma and hear the a little bit of the Gospel they that think it’s rather odd: virgin births, corpses coming back to life, gods being whipped and publicly executed, waving a little round cracker sort of thing around. More than odd, grandma’s religion makes very little sense.
The world they have grown up in says, “If it feels good, do it!” The church of creepy old weirdoes that grandma attends is just the opposite: “If it feels good, you should probably avoid it all costs.” The Church of the Creepy Old Weirdoes can be downright nasty. It says that some people may actually burn in hell and same-sex marriage is a bad thing, even if two people really love each other, a woman has no right to terminate a pregnancy even if the baby is deformed, or is really like a total bummer. They have these odd ceremonies where they march around with round gold sunburst things with the cracker inside it; they finger prayer beads and mumble. They sit, stand, sit, kneel, for about an hour service during which they have to listen to some old man in a full length skirt drone on and on about some guy who died 2,000 years ago or maybe drone on and on about politics. The whole thing starts out with the guy in the full length skirt kissing this stone table up in front.
Says the young modern, “When I asked grandma what he was doing, she said, "He’s kissing the relic in the altar." I asked her, “What’s a relic?” She said, “It’s a piece of a dead guy’s bone or skin or something.” I said, “Eeewww… GROSS! I’m waiting outside.”
They don’t believe any of this stuff, and frankly, it is all rather implausible. Why should they believe it? The only good reason to believe it is because it’s true.
We the clergy have not really been treating it like it’s true since sometime in the mid-sixties. For some reason, we the clergy decided doctrinal truth wasn’t that important. Recognizing the basic goodness of humanity was far more important than a tedious insistence on truth. It became somehow impolite to tell people that we were right and they were wrong. Above all it was impolite to even hint that if they lived a certain way they might burn in hell for eternity.
I suspect that we had become obsessed with being polite because we had just staggered out of the Great World War, Act I and Act II with its predictable epilogues, the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam. The 20th century was a very impolite century, and we decided that perhaps it would be better to be polite for a while and not tell people that they were living in sin and just might go to hell.
Now we are re-doing an old play called “The War between Islam and Christendom” and we just can’t seem to shake this politeness thing. We hear daily reports of people cutting off other peoples’ heads and we just can’t bring ourselves to say that if a religion tells them to do that, it probably is not such a good religion and they should drop it like a bad habit. (I can hear you say, “What about all those people the Catholics burned at the stake in the olden days? “When you meet the unbelievers, strike the necks…” Quran 47:4. The prophet who gave us the Quran himself seems to have lopped off quite a few heads.
Jesus never told us to burn anyone at the stake. We decided to do that on our own initiative. It was never part of our religion and I suspect that Jesus is going to be rather hard on those who decided to do such things in His name since He never asked them to do it.
In short, we the clergy took grandma’s faith for granted. We didn’t explain it very well to her children, and they didn’t even bother to push the issue with the grandchildren. Now they don’t believe it. We just sort of assumed it would rub off on them.
So what do we do? (By we, I mean myself, my fellow clergy and those who are in the business of religion.) Step 1: Ask ourselves if we really believe this stuff. If the honest answer is “Virgin birth, resurrection, the hope of heaven, bread becoming flesh and blood? I guess I’m not sure I really believe it all.” We have to take stock of where our life is. We are living a lie. (Those who are believers will ask, “How can this be? A priest who goes to the altar every day and says, ‘This is My body. This is My blood.’”
Remember the recently dead founder of a famous religious order? He was leading a double life. He was the sainted founder of an enthusiastic religious community. He was the friend of popes and presidents, an inspiration to all, that is until his illegitimate children started coming out of the woodwork as did some of his very special friends. He never believed a word of this, but it was a paying job that allowed him to control the lives of thousands and pay for his double life, his houses his girlfriends, boyfriends and fairly numerous offspring.
I had a teacher who was not quite so corrupt, but he never really believed in the more sensational claims of the faith. He had a philosophical belief in morality, of a sort, and taught us seminarians how to think our way around the strict rules and ridiculous superstitions of Catholicism. He seems to have admitted on his deathbed that he really didn’t believe in eternal life or resurrection or all that stuff. He never believed and he taught us to believe half- heartedly. We in turn have taught the people of God to believe only minimally.
The above mentioned founder and the theologian were at least honest liars. They may have lied to us, but they weren’t lying to themselves. A lot of us practitioners of religion convince ourselves that we believe these things when we really do not. We think of them as useful symbols for moral behavior. We can’t convince others of the truth of these things, because we are not sure they’re true. We can’t win others to the Gospel of Christ with the joy of our salvation, because we are not really sure that we ever needed saving in the first place. Our religion is quite convenient, but rather joyless, and certainly not very demanding.
So, Father (or deacon or sister or religion teacher or chancery worker or parish secretary or janitor) stop kidding yourself, but don’t despair either. There is a step two. A friend of mine was told by a priest that he, the priest, thought he had lost his faith. My friend simply asked him, “When did you stop praying, father?” All this relic kissing, virgin birthing and rising from the dead is rather implausible. I only think it’s true because Jesus tells me it’s true. And I can trust Jesus whom I meet in prayer.
So, Step 2: Ask the Lord to let you know and love Him so that you might really serve Him. If once you knew Him and have lost Him, ask him for His friendship once again. I really can’t think of any reason to believe all this stuff, other than Jesus, and I certainly can’t imagine being a priest except for Jesus’ sake.
Next week: More about miracles.