There is a question any Catholic homilist could ask when he looks over almost any congregation. It is one of those “modern” questions: “Why, indeed, did we come here? Would we not be happier somewhere else?”
From the view of the pew-sitting congregant, the same question may arise. I am assuming he is “a man of little faith,” like most moderns. He half-believes. He was brought up that way. But he believes himself to be conscientious.
He has committed no major crimes in private life, at least nothing mentioned in the criminal code.
He has no strong opinion on what a mortal sin might be. In earlier life, he may have had, but since then it has worn down. There may be some mild curiosity in his head, about what the priest believes; but as a modern, emancipated soul, he knows this is none of his business.
More likely he has heard, in all forms of the mass entertainment media, about priests and nuns who have committed egregious offences. Some of these he may in fact have committed himself, without worrying too much about it. How much, for instance, does fornication matter these days?
Whether or not he confessed and was absolved – and probably not – he has put all that behind him. He has thought, “Everyone is doing it. Surely God would not punish me for being one of many?”
But it is different if a priest badly slips. He wears a collar; he took vows. We judge him by another standard that leaves no room for hypocrisy. I’m (not) surprised how many people who do not even consider themselves Christian, have reserved “a special place in Hell” for erring clergy.
Sticking with our lukewarm Christian in the pews, however, the question remains, “Why am I here?” And the best answer many might come up with is, “To do the right thing.”
Let me say, I love these people. They already have one foot in paradise. To the degree that they are in church at all, they are struggling Christians. Maybe the only struggle was to get up in the morning (it was Sunday, after all), but in their small way, they made it for Jesus.
Newman said the first step to sanctity is to get up in the morning. It is, on waking, to get right out of bed.
I have no special entry into other people’s minds. I do not even have a degree in psychology (or anything else for that matter). The best I can do to understand them is to think back over my own experiences. Often I have been among the trivial and the bored. Sometimes I have not been, however.
Sometimes, the “idea of the real presence” has struck me not as a point on some doctrinal list, to which I have apparently signed my name, but as the Real Presence. Often this was inspired by the conduct of a reverent Mass, with fewer than average distractions.
But rather than make my usual pitch for the Old Mass in Latin and “traditional” garb, I should like to back up a bit, to that man whose mind buzzes in trivialities, while he settles into boredom.
Not bothering is one answer for him. Why should he go to church when he could as easily be bored, elsewhere? The answer might be something like, “I needed it, like I needed to take a shower.”
I think many half-believing moderns do it in order to feel better about themselves. They may avoid Confession, imagining it as a cold shower, but are still seeking a deodorant of some kind.
To that mindset, a bad priest is lethal. For unless the Church herself “smells nice,” she loses her attraction. The weak in faith need no more excuses. The bad priest stands in for all the rest of them.
How often I have heard some lapsed, cradle Catholic, fulminating against “those priests,” the way they have been doing in Ireland, having all but memorized a list of clergy crime stories. That Irishman’s whole history of his former church is one long act of child molestation, and other acts of filth.
The fact that he was never acquainted with any particular incident, adds to the sheet of charges. Not even HE knew what was really going on. It was happening behind everyone’s back, he supposes. “Now we know the truth!”
The contrary “truth,” that Catholics like him are here today and gone tomorrow – that their own loyalty to the Church left little moisture to evaporate – is not available to his amour-propre.
But such people are, indeed, gone. We shall not see them back. They have been building a new faith, if only in negatives, and in a sense a non-Church, or anti-Church, is what they now belong to. No amount of information could contradict their new, essentially atheist, outlook. They will never forgive.
No amount of pleading will change their minds. There were times when Saint Paul himself, on the road, shook the dust off his sandals.
My hope is for the trivial and bored, actually occupying pews in the churches. One might almost say, these are among the few in reach. So far as every baptized Christian is a missionary, these are the souls given for our mission.
And these are, by Christ’s memorable definition, our neighbors.
Which does not mean that we should hector and scold them – a truly counter-productive approach. It only makes them avoid us; or wish they could.
The challenge, to my mind, is to befriend them. Admonition has its place in the broader scheme of things, but first one must prudently consider whether the straying will is capable of being admonished.
In the circumstances of today, that is a very delicate calculation. Backs go up quickly, in our surrounding “victim culture.” The guard comes down, however, when instead of arguing, one actually tries practicing to be a saint.
*Image: The Good Samaritan by an unknown artist, c. 6thcentury [Rossano Cathedral, Rossano, Italy]. The image is from an illuminated Gospel also known as Codex purpureus Rossanensis due to the reddish-purple appearance of its pages.