Sunday, November 25, 2012


The Problem With Catholics: Do They Care if I'm There?

This piece, you will see, was written several months ago…after some encouragement, it is being posted now. 

I'm a Lutheran pastor, but when on vacation, I almost always hit up the most beautiful Catholic church I can for Sunday worship. That there will be a liturgical service is pretty much a given, and I get to appreciate historic architecture for an hour…all for free. It's also good to see how others worship, what they prize, what they value. And because I'm in the "evangelical catholic" category of Lutherans, seeing what Rome is up to (including the recent changes in the liturgy) is usually worthwhile.

But my experience several Sundays ago was less than dramatic. While I certainly witnessed no evil, and while the Romanesque space was awe-inspiring, the liturgy, preaching and hospitality left a lot to be desired. To me, it communicated a lack of thoughtfulness, a lack of care, and an arbitrary approach to the faith as a whole. I left with the very clear feeling that the church was there as some sort of favor to us, and we should appreciate it.

I'm not saying that was intentional, or that the presider, preacher and members wanted me to have anything but warm fuzzies towards them. And Lord knows the incredible devotion that most priests bring to their work, for which they are to be lauded. I'm just saying what I observed as an outsider. I say it in love, with no sour grapes and with no sense of competition. I say it so that Catholics may come to see how an outsider may view their worship for the first time at a Catholic service.

If I may, I'd like to break it down piece by piece. First, upon entering, there were no ushers, no one to say hello or offer a bulletin. Usually, Catholic bulletins help very little with the liturgy and are instead advertisements for parish member's businesses. I understand the financial pressures, but church bulletins really shouldn't resemble NASCAR drivers. The books in the pews are nice, but they are not always easy to use. And I'm a guy who loves perusing hymnals and missals. At three points before the sermon, we sung music that was not in the book. I followed along as best I could with my ear, but as a note-reader, I couldn't figure out why they didn't just use what was in the book. That follows only two verses of the first hymn (and every subsequent hymn) getting some love. To only sing 2 of 5 verses of a hymn is like reading 2 of 5 chapters of a book. Hymns are not ours to self-limit.

These decisions by priest and musician give a very arbitrary feeling to the worship. It's almost as though the worship leaders have given up: "Well, no one is going to sing anyway and whether or not they participate is irrelevant compared to the majesty of the mass, so who cares?" It is isolating when you want to sing, when you want to participate, and the leadership makes it either impossible (by self-selecting the verses) or difficult (by using unprinted music.) Many Protestants do this too, by the way. I just don't see how a culture of enthusiastic worship can be accomplished with these cultural norms in place. And that makes me wander if they even care if they offer enthusiastic worship. I had to ask, "Does the priest want me to sing along, or not?"

The sermon had some high points. The priest made contemporary connections to the Aurora shooting and the Olympics, which preachers should strive to do. He also spoke of the gifts of Baptism and the Eucharist, given to us by God through Christ. However, at the end, the only thing I really remembered were his injunctions to live differently in the wake of the Eucharist. Hint: if you have to tell them to live differently, it isn't naturally bearing the fruit it should.

I also remember his encouragement to follow the example of the Olympians, who were "good" people. Huh? Has he not heard of the rampant promiscuity among our celebrated athletes? Has he not seen Michael Phelps hitting the bong? Great athletes? Yes. Great people? Maybe. Hard workers? No doubt. Good moral examples? Um, sticking with the saints is a better bet.

It just seems like Catholic preaching rarely rises above the level of pithy moralism. Stop telling me how to live a better life and preach the Gospel with some passion. This should include the cross, some shed blood, and the FREE gift of grace. What Luther found in the 1500s is still true to this day. Catholics seem terrified or reluctant to preach the Gospel in all of its fullness (or the Law either, for that matter) because they just can't trust the people to be virtuous. We always need a little needling to be better and a reminder that we can - like the Olympians - achieve much with the right focus. The hardest thing to do in preaching is to trust that God's Word can accomplish much on its own, if it is simply proclaimed. Catholic preaching never seems to release that trust to God, always maintaining for itself a place of control.

From there, the Eucharist was celebrated quite well, though again, with different music I couldn't follow along. I won't hit that too hard. Many of my parishioners don't like the hymns I select. No pastor will ever get unanimity on that. There was the introduction of a dozen young volunteers to the congregation at the end that was uplifting. These recent college graduates lived in the convent and volunteered throughout the city for a year. Kudos!

But regarding the sacraments, I was surprised that immediately after the service, there was a private baptism. Have not most liturgical scholars - Catholic and Protestant - pretty much agreed that this rite should be part of the mass? Isn't a momentous and public rite like baptism best served in the midst of the entire assembly? The priest preached about the impending baptism with great joy, even comparing - weakly, I think - the baptismal candle to the Olympic torch. (There's that Olympic theme, again.) But no one other than immediate family participated. Again, the impression is that the Church passively provides services and the assembly's participation is nice, but not necessarily expected.

It communicates a sense of entitlement, a sense of power that I can't imagine helps the church when preaching to already entitled people. The Church has to present itself as the servant of the people, not God's gift. Yes, the Church presents God's gifts to the people, but it must do so in humility and with an earnest desire that others respond to a life poured out. I just did not get the impression at all that the leadership cared if I was there, cared if I participated or cared if I ever came back.

I don't necessarily mind the anonymity and I absolutely do not want my posterior romanced. And I'm not advocating the insane "user-friendliness" of the Church Growth Movement. Their watered-down pop Christianity with teams of greeters and contemporary worship is miles worse than even the most apathetic Catholic mass. I just doesn't seem like the Catholic church really cares if people are there or not. And as I ride the buses and the El in Chicago, I see a whole lot of entitled and apathetic people roaming the streets. How can we possibly reach them if we act like we have so much to offer? That may very well be the case. But instead of projecting that, we should convey in no uncertain terms a passion to reach all people and a humility that meets folks where they are. Shy of that, it is hard to imagine any institutional church making an impact on a broken and entitled culture.

7 comments:

Scott Walker said...

I think many Catholics feel your frustration. The Mass is a beautiful thing that needs to transport the parishioners to another realm, that life of spirit. The music should reflect this, the homilies should reflect this, and the members themselves should reflect this. Far too often, it's only a tiny slice of the congregation who actually become involved in the ministries and groups of the church.

That being said, I'm not sure if it's a Catholic thing to avoid preaching the gospel, or watering it down to pithy moralism. That is a quality found among most churches of any denomination. In an attempt to appeal to the lukewarm ignorant members or visitors, preachers give a lukewarm simplistic sermons with injunctions to love more and pray more. At least Catholic priests keep this to 10 minutes or less whereas the bulk of Protestant ministers take 30+ minutes to accomplish the same thing. Nevertheless, a good sermon, and I've heard a few, covers the readings, interprets them, and present practical application either through actual actions to take or combating an unsettling convention that modern culture has laid on people. If more is desired, I'd recommend scripture study or apologetics. Protestants tend to treat mass (or 'service') like a classroom or a club meeting, so the holy participation of the mass seems inconsequential when it is, in fact, everything.

The Mass should restore the soul by providing the Eucharist, a enlightened spiritual perspective of the word, a sympathetic community of fellow believers and clergy, a reverent atmosphere, and visual and auditory beauty. Of course, being in the modern world forces us to remember what beauty, reverent, and spiritual actually mean. One really has to make a conscious effort to do this, something too many Catholics unfortunately avoid, being a particularly complacent bunch.

I'm as surprised as you to know that there was private baptism. That shouldn't be. Baptisms are indeed public, sometimes too much so. Now, the priests have taken steps to prevent the hooplah with photographers and banned that nonsense outright.

relieveddebtor said...

Scott,
Thanks very much for your comments. I agree with everything you said and appreciate your balance. Admittedly, my piece needed it. One argument against my piece could be that I am comparing one bad experience against a mythic Protestant experience that I would be hard pressed to find. I hope over the years my writings against the uber-pithy direction of Protestantism shows I do have some balance in my critiques. I said on Facebook I would choose Catholicism over much of Protestantism any day. I just happen to be a pastor so I can help create a positive evangelical Catholic culture that, from my vantage point, has the best of all worlds .Thanks again.

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Angela Sexen said...

This is truly awesome. Its exactly what I feel (and often times cant put into words haha)

You are an inspiratin :)

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thanks and God Bless! Read more

Nick Ables said...

I am Catholic and I have to disagree with everything you said. The Mass is not about the best preaching or the best music or about all the other people there. The Mass is about the individual encounter with Christ. That is the beauty that is inherent in the Liturgy. Some of the most beautiful Masses I have ever been to are weekday masses where there are 5 or ten other people there and no music. The simplicity and wonder of the words and actions of the priest shine through. If you are looking at the music or the preaching to be what is most important you are missing the entire point. The point of the Mass is Jesus Christ, and receiving him, his body and blood, in the Eucharist.

Nick Ables said...

You need to read Scott Hahn's book THE LAMB'S SUPPER

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