I have heard it as a lament time and again that our Catholic Liturgy is staid, slow, repetitive and boring. And these are just some of the repeatable adjectives that I am willing to put in writing. Some are just rude, almost bordering on vulgar. Oftentimes, these descriptions are used by the Catholics who have been baptized and confirmed in the faith, and some time down the road, left the Church for one of the glitzy mega churches, where each Sunday’s worship is a well produced and orchestrated affair of lights, camera and action. While the patient, gentle (when I can restrain myself) and kind side of me listens to the litany of complaints of how our Catholic sense of worship is so ‘fuddy duddy’, slow and ‘lame’, the theologian in me often needs to pull all the reins to stop me from lambasting the complaining and sometimes whinging apostate that he or she ‘just doesn’t get it’ when it comes to the true spirit of worship.
The truth is that our Catholic liturgy is so rich – in history, form and meaning. However, this is something that is not easily appreciated by someone who is present at the Eucharist for the first time. If I could use a metaphor to express this better, it would be akin to a non art-lover being taken to a Picasso or Gauguin exhibit for the first time, where even though the person could be standing in front of a masterpiece, there would be no appreciation at all for the depth of beauty and form of what is before him or her. Rare would it be that an art newbie or greenhorn would immediately understand and fully appreciate Picasso’s Cubism or Gauguin’s Post-Impressionism. But if one were to have paid attention to an art initiation class or have some exposure to art history, one’s appreciation of the wonderful works of art in the gallery would be so much the richer. The same goes for any art for that matter, like the Opera, or the Ballet.
But when one has not been well exposed to the Liturgy, and has not from a young and impressionable age been taught what the Liturgy does to us, does with us, and does to the participating community, it is no wonder that post confirmands have the tendency to leave the Catholic Church for something that appears far more engaging and ‘entertaining’ to the untrained heart. That these teens were actually confirmed in their faith leaves me wondering what they understood as a confirmation and all that it signified.
I am of the opinion that the main problem is really a combination of secularism, relativism and egotism. At the heart of these three evils that the Church faces is the overwhelming need for the unenlightened individual to worship not God but the self. When I am at my charitable best, I can understand that there is an almost irrepressible need for one to put one’s needs and demands above all else. It is a very prevalent evil, and is almost too easy to justify. The self wants to be in control, to be engaged on all levels, to be doing something that appears ‘relevant’, and not to be told what to do. This same self is also terribly impatient and allergic with anything that has rules or rubrics, perhaps because these things can cramp one’s personal style or worse, show up one’s weaknesses or one’s limited moral horizon. Leaving the Catholic Church to go somewhere else where one is ‘entertained’ and ‘engaged’ at all sensorial levels throughout the service often reveals that one has given up the struggle to see our steadfast God working slowly and steadily. Rarely have I heard that one has left the Catholic Church because another place of worship offers a more disciplined and contemplative approach to prayer and adoration. Among Christian churches, ‘discipline’ and ‘contemplative’ seem to be something particular and unique to the Catholic faith.
It would be tempting to pin the blame for this kind of exodus on a single group – bad parenting, deficient catechesis, haphazard celebration of the Mass by the priest, or appalling preaching standards. After all, doing that would easily exonerate those of us who do not fall into any of those blameworthy causes. However, the painful truth is that we are all co-responsible for each Catholic’s exodus, because in truth, we are all members of the broken body of Christ. Yes, the individual may have made the choice to leave the community, but this community is made up of you and me. How we have lived, worshipped and cared for one another affects in no small way how each person encounters the living God in a real and true way.
Is there a simple solution to this problem? Would that there is one. In reality, there is no simple solution because this kind of exodus took a lot of time to reach that critical point. However, we do have one comfort and that is that it is only with God’s grace that one makes that turnaround in life to return to the broken community that one was baptized into, and to re-appreciate the faith with new eyes and a new heart. Without God’s grace at work in a receptive heart, no matter how clever a theologian may be, no matter how clear one can explain the Liturgy with its depth of meaning and beauty, the individual concerned will only hear words that rests on the ears, but not a rediscovery that beckons the heart and stirs the soul.
Linked to all that has been said of this issue thus far is the fact that for many who have left, and perhaps even for those who stay, the problem is that we have been largely worshipping our emotions and not God. When we are so attached or addicted to our emotions, we may end up even being physically in Church at a Mass, but silently and secretly worship our emotions. If we understand that our emotions are but a part of our humanity, and that we are not our emotions, we would have made that crucial and critical step toward the true worship of God who is so outside of ourselves, and at the same time, so much closer to our hearts than we even know.