Monday, August 17, 2015

The insufficiency of a privatised faith

As a priest, I have opportunities to meet many people, in and outside of my capacity as a priest of God.  Sometimes, I have chance meetings with people who reveal that they are baptized Catholics.  There are generally two reactions when it is revealed that I am a priest – 1) surprise accompanied by a certain sense of ease, and 2) surprise which is accompanied by a sense of unease and discomfort, revealed often by facial expressions or mere body language.  The former would often reveal that the person is a practicing Catholic, church going and could be actively involved in the parish life.  The latter however, often reveals that the person has been struggling with regular Sunday worship, maybe not at all going to Eucharist, but takes comfort in the fact that s/he has been baptized.  These same people also often in the same breath reveal that they do pray privately at home, in front of their home altars, and may even say with some degree of confidence that “God and me, we’re ok!”. 

It is not at every one of these instances that I get these men and women to share with me their reasons for this privatized faith, but when I manage to remove their reservations which may prevent an honest sharing on their part, the reasons are quite similar, though not always the same.  They feel that praying at home is ‘better’, and that the Church is so full of hypocrites.  Sometimes they also say that it is much more convenient for them to do so.

I don’t think that many of my blog readers share the same feelings.  But I am very sure that each of my church-going readers would have friends and even family members who share similar sentiments, and who have a certain reticence in either going to Church, or being regular with their showing up at Mass each Sunday.  Someone even once said to me that we should do everything in moderation, and that includes going to Church.  It was later shared with me that this person goes to Mass about 4 times a year.

Is it hard to understand the preferences for a privatized faith?  Looking at the way that the social media seems to be touting ad nauseam the ‘I, me and my’ culture, coupled with a certain disdain for any authority outside of the self that is imposed by any moral code, I can understand why people may have such preferences.  Understanding is, however, not to be confused with approval or agreement.  I can understand how a drug addict can be so trapped and enslaved by the need for fix after fix, but I certainly do not approve nor would recommend that anybody become a junkie. 

What is the narrative that cuts across so many people of this generation, and which many baptized Catholics also seem to adopt and live by?  There are many differing reasons, to be sure, but I am inclined to see much truth in what Timothy Keller, a writer and thinker who is also a Presbyterian pastor, calls the narrative of the “sovereign self”. 

In his book “Preaching”, he deftly makes a convincing case that broaches what I would call the ‘elephant in the room’ when he goes for the jugular and hones in to the main problem that modernity has caused in the promotion not just of the self, but the self that sees itself as sovereign.  When the self and its passions are enthroned, it ends up with even animated characters like Elsa in Disney’s Frozen making that convincing case to just follow her feelings and ‘let it go’, singing almost with an aggression that is admired that because she is not holding anything back inside, there is no right or wrong, and no rules for her.

When the narrative of the inflated and sovereign self is blindly followed, it easily ends up making our needs and our feelings and our hungers far more important than the good of family, and people and society.  The hidden stilted philosophy behind this runs like this – I know what I want, and because society has told me to discover my deepest desire at all costs, I will.  It even applauds and affirms such actions and calls it ‘courageous’.  One only needs to see how much affirmation Caitlyn (or otherwise known as the former Bruce) Jenner has been called courageous to see evidence of this writ large.  Courage is no longer a term that is accorded to people who have listened to a higher voice of truth, and have a moral centre that is outside of themselves, but rather used to describe people who have identify fully with their inner feelings and preferences.  The modern poison is that unless you identify your dreams, and especially those most vivid ones, moreso if they are audacious and counter-culture, you should fulfill them or end up a loser and a failure.  It is no wonder then that categories like money, appearances, measureable and visible success, power and recognition, and of course romantic love become categories that are necessary for one to achieve perceived happiness. 

When this is the drive for a misguided self, it is no wonder then that even something like faith becomes driven by how the individual chooses to pray.  The community that one belongs to as a body of Christ is nary a concept that is on one’s horizon and the fact that one’s presence in a gathered community has a direct effect on one’s fellow Catholic at the Mass is at best missing, at worst absurd.  Much further off the radar of one’s awareness of community is how sin (no matter how personal) has an effect on wounding the community one belongs to.  An adulterous affair that I may be having on the side of my marriage is my business, and nothing at all to do with how this affects the state of holiness of the Sunday gathering in church!

Of course, no one would be willing to admit to this with a hurry, because admitting to this would be tantamount to admitting that I had been misled all the while, and that my sight had been off-target.  But when this is finally admitted to the self, and one truly becomes courageous, one can make that very challenging re-sighting in life to not make one’s preferences and one’s own standards the center of one’s life.  A re-alignment will be made albeit slowly.  There is a word for this in the Christian tradition.  It’s called metanoia.  It takes place when one is ‘born again’, as Jesus told Nicodemus.  It is to reconfigure oneself to be ‘in Christ’ and to finally truly be able to say that it is only in Christ that “God and me, we’re ok”. 

Short of that, we’re still pretty much our sovereign selves and we will continue with our privatized faith.  A privatized and insufficient faith.


  1. "...The latter however, often reveals that the person has been struggling with regular Sunday worship, maybe not at all going to Eucharist, but takes comfort in the fact that s/he has been baptized. These same people also often in the same breath reveal that they do pray privately at home, in front of their home altars, and may even say with some degree of confidence that “God and me, we’re ok!”.... They feel that praying at home is ‘better’, and that the Church is so full of hypocrites. Sometimes they also say that it is much more convenient for them to do so."

    This is happening in my own household. My mum in law who stays with me, is a 'monthly Sunday' Catholic. She believes that there is no need to go for weekly mass and that weekly mass is for the pious. She also thinks that it is alright to pray privately at home as faith is between her and God. I guess it is hard for her to see Sunday mass as a faith community. I had tried explaining to her that going mass weekly does not mean people are pious and that I go weekly because it is my way of being faithful to God and showing my gratitude for all that He had done and to ask for strength to continue in my work.

    My husband is a 'fortnight Sunday' Catholic, who also shares the same belief as his mum, that there is no need to attend mass weekly. He needs the 'extra' time and freedom for himself, his pet and his exercise regime. He also does not want to be bound by routineness of going mass weekly. Sometimes, my kids would ask me, "Why isn't Daddy joining us?" They see it as 'unfairness' that Daddy can 'choose' not to go for mass while mummy is dragging them to Church. Often, I find myself frustrated with this issue of getting my hubby to go for mass.

    Marriage is a sacrament and a vocation. When couples marry in Church, aren't we supposed to help each other enter into a deeper relationship with God? to become more holy? I do feel helpless in my situation. If I falter or choose not to go for Mass, there will not be anyone in the family who will be the 'push' factor. Hence I often have to pray for strength and courage to plod on, to continue to be faithful in attending Mass, not out of fear, but out of gratitude for all the many blessings that God has given me.

    Honestly speaking, sometimes, I no longer want to ask my hubby if he wants to join me for mass because his standard answer will be either "I had gone last week already." or "Go for later mass" (of which the "later" mass becomes no mass). Then, both of us will end up being unhappy with each other, with me being unhappy with him for not going and he being unhappy with me for 'forcing' him to go.

    My question to you, Father Luke, is this :
    Given my situation, how can I still live out marriage as a sacrament and a vocation? Do I continue to 'push' my Catholic hubby to attend Mass or just let him be, hoping that he will follow me whenever he wants to? Or should it be that through my daily living, he will come to realise that God is a big part of our lives?

    1. Dear reader

      I am sorry to hear of your predicament, but I am not sure if you would want me to respond to you in this public way through this blog page on such a personal matter. I am wondering if you would prefer me to write you on a personal level. If this is your intention, please write another comment to me including your email address and/or a contact number. This will not be published. Speaking or writing you personally will give me a much clearer idea of your situation. I do know that what you are facing is a rather common problem, but each story has its own peculiar background as well. It is this that needs respecting as well. As it stands, there are no one-solution-fits-all response to these uniquely individual struggles and challenges. I await your follow-up email. Thank you.

      Fr Luke

  2. Thank you father. Your reflection today serves as a good pointer for me . I am at the cross road of my life. I am trying to define MY dream. The" MY" is very BIG. It confused me . Father, you are pen of God. Thanks be to God.

  3. Dear Father Luke

    Thank you for your sharing. Being a born-catholic, I knew all about God up in my head, took my blessings for granted and even had the audacity to think that I can do without God. I am so wrong as with a recent family problem, I realised that it is only with God that everything is possible. I had since surrendered all to God and I believe that I had the metanoia experience. This re-alignment would not have happened if I didn't surrender my trial and my all to the will of God.

    Praise The Lord for the blessing of a trial.

    And thank you Father for your blog entries have been a part of my metanoia journey. (And I didn't know there's a name to this re-alignment) 😊


  4. Metanoia is definitely happening to me right now, and your blog posts have been God sent. The 'Me' culture most certainly came from the Americans, generally speaking of course. True courage to me is when you completely and willingly lose yourself in order to be filled with nothing else but God. Your eloquence in writing provides such clear imagery and relatable examples.

    The church I go to is full of hypocrites and have hurt me so deeply, to the point where I am all alone handling my debilitating illness that has struck me about over a year ago. I lost my job, health, 'friends'.. everything. I am 24 this year. People are all talk and no action and I guess when 'church friends' only offer lip service, it hurts a MILLION times more. But then again, everyone is a sinner right.. So am I.

    But I have never given up on God, on days where my illness is still manageable, I find the will to get to mass because I believe in the bigger purpose God has for me. Hope anyone who is in a similar predicament as me would read this and be encouraged!

    Just sharing my thoughts after reading this post.

    God Bless you Father Luke, please do keep writing! :)


  5. Dear Fr. Luke,

    When told by someone that, “The church is full of hypocrites” I usually answer, “Yes, I know. I am one of them!” Jokes aside, it is good to see that you’re continuing to write. This is what (?) your 301st blog entry? Here’s to the next 300!

    Concerning the issue of non-attendance at mass, this whole idea of “Jesus and me” is actually more prevalent that one might think. But at the heart of this attitude is, I suspect, a refusal to obedience. After all, as a people we have been commanded to “keep holy the Sabbath day.”

    In practising the ‘privatised faith-life’ it is all too easy to fall into the trap of re-writing the rules to suit one’s own agenda and then rationalising that we are actually ‘doing God’s will’. It is extremely tempting to delude oneself when ‘operating in this mode.’ Because we are answerable to no one, except the Jesus of our own design. (Just my 2 cents worth). God bless you.

  6. I used to be proud of my privatized faith, taking advantage of God's magnanimity. But I was and am graced by God to also give Him a blank cheque of my life - giving Him the permission to correct me where I am wrong. He did. Thank You, Father.