communion
So there I was, a young lad in his early teens, listening to the sermon delivered by the pastor of a suburban Buffalo Catholic Church. The Monsignor took the opportunity to rail against the trends of 1960’s era rock music, on that day taking particular aim at the Rolling Stones.

“How many of you parents know that the lyrics of one song go on to say, ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’. This is what our children are hearing these days.” The sermon went on to decry such trends, and to urge all families to turn away from questionable messages of the media of the day. While he was concerned about the message being received through such lyrics, as far as I was concerned, that passage also reflected my view of the value of his homily.

The next chance I got when I was home alone, I scanned the local rock station (at that time WYSL) until I found the offending tune. Of course, I cranked it up and started doing the best air guitar that my chubby little body would allow. So there you have it, as a teenager, one of the longest lasting lessons I took from that sermon was my knowledge of who Mick Jagger was. And I confess that was the only sermon I remember from my youth.

A few years later, I struck out on my own, and while I would occasionally return to attend Mass, it was years before I became committed to finding a home parish and returned to become a ‘regular’.

I think about this because in the here and now, we are trying to increase involvement in a number of the ministries at our church. Since the best way to recruit persons is through personal, face-to-face contact, it follows that any recruitment effort is well served by getting more folks to show up at Mass.

The numbers are well understood. Regular church attendance for Christians has stabilized over the past decade around 37 percent. But the numbers are quite a bit more dismal for Catholics, with some 90 percent of Catholics admitting they don’t attend Mass regularly.

In short, as I continue my rehabilitation of faith and try to build the ministries that serve those less fortunate, I say this to all those who have left, those who remain distant, and those who find themselves indifferent to the Catholic tradition:

Please come back.

The Church has lost many ‘regulars’ – and the reasons and rationale for that exodus are beyond the scope of this brief note. And of course, I would be presumptuous to guess at the true reasons behind the personal choices involving spirituality. But I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground in saying that many people avoid regular church attendance because they don’t derive enough value from the experience – at least enough value to find time in a culture that seems intent on making  everyone do, buy, or watch something 24×7.

But regardless of age or station in life, to those who may be toying with the idea of returning, but just can’t quite bring themselves to do it, I have two suggestions.

First, do what Americans do best.

Shop around.
Catholic parishes are as diverse as the cultures of the 1.2 billion Catholics of the world. Each parishes reflects the character of its community. We are a church that currently celebrates with music and forms that characterize southeast Asia, Latin America, urban America and, of course, suburban America. It may take some time to find a new spiritual home, even the process of comparing parish communities will help open up a new perspective.

Please check your baggage at the door.
Many people have beliefs or opinions that differ from the teachings of the Church. But while there are just as many persons who think the Church is too conservative as those who think the Church too liberal, leave those obstacles at the door. The Mass is a celebration that goes to a core of our tradition – a tradition that has survived days much darker than these. We don’t attend Mass as one casts a ballot of approval. We attend Mass to try to reconnect with the source of our strength. When we leave our preconceptions and prejudices at the door we may be lucky enough to be filled with some more constructive feelings when we leave.

So with those helpful tips, let’s cut to the chase. To my fellow Catholics standing at a distance…

Please come back if you feel as if you are alone, that no one understands you, or that your life is a complete trainwreck.
I have a personal view that people truly discover their faith when confronted by some serious challenge. Once we have been around a few years, we invariably are confronted with problems that we simply can’t deal with, issues that seem to overwhelm our best efforts to stay positive and keep moving forward. As these problems persist, it is easy for some of us to descend into a dark place with no apparent way out. Worse, these can be times when we feel completely and absolutely alone.

Few problems of significance are solved instantaneously, but solutions invariably start with a choice to manage the things you do control (your personal behavior, your belief that life has meaning, your belief in things unseen) and accept that you control little else.

You may hear the story of Job who seemed to be the target of some unkind experiment. Or you may hear recountings by a people who spent a few hundred years being chased in the desert by other folks who always seemed angry with them. Chances are you may not immediately be able to connect the problems of thousands of years ago with your particular trial, but if you enter the sanctuary with an open heart, you will come away understanding three things –

  • most of us, at one time or another, have disappointed those who love us,
  • others have faced trials and tribulations that seemed insurmountable, but they were able to find the strength to see the sun rise another day, and
  • we have a God who is trying his darndest to reach each one of us through the love of those who stand ready to help us through our issues.

Please come back if you feel that all is going well and that you are on the top of your game.
With success comes a never ending string of commitments to one’s enterprise. And if one’s compass is pointed in the right direction, the successful person is also focused on investing the precious resource of time to raising and guiding his or her family.

That can leave little time to return to the Mass and the Church.

An American president recently got into trouble by telling small businessmen that they didn’t build their success on their own, and he was right. There is no debating that people need discipline, passion, and much, much hard work to be successful. But along the way, there had to be teachers, parents, relatives and mentors who chose to help the successful on their way.  Chances are that the successes of today push away the memories of yesterday’s angels — such is the nature of things.

But the investment of time of just an hour or so (35 minutes for the ‘express service’ Masses of some parishes) can go a long way in reminding us of the important sacrifices of those who came before us. And I personally have found the Prayer of the Faithful to be a meaningful reminder that there are those among us who success has eluded, those who been given a more difficult road, those who could use our help, guidance, and mentoring.

There is also one other reason why we should return to the Church as regulars, even though things are going well.

Everything is fleeting.

The Book of Ecclesiastes includes passages which, depending on how good your Hebrew is, proclaims that earthly things are little more than artifacts of vanity. Other interpretations of the writings contend that a more accurate translation infers that the things around us are fleeting and without real meaning.

It doesn’t take much reading of any business newspaper to come across stories of ‘boom-to-bust’ occurrences that can turn even the best planned organization upside-down. And even if all goes well and one’s business or finances carry the aura of success to old age, the question will still have to be asked, “what did it all mean?”.

Revisiting our faith community and attending Mass are acts that may not immediately give us the answers to all our questions; but they can help make certain we at least start asking questions about those things in life that aren’t vanity or vapor, those things in life that do have a timeless meaning.

Please come back if you feel disconnected in an always connected world.
There is a place for social networking and electronic media. These tools extend the progress initially set by Gutenberg when he found a way to rapidly produce and distribute the written word to the masses.

But church, almost by definition, is a real social experience. You turn to a real person to wish him or her the sign of peace. You hold hands with a real person during the Lord’s prayer.

Whereas conventional media connects people with a flood of messages, most of which are of little, if any depth or meaning, the Mass, celebrated by our church community, connects us to a tradition celebrated by our parents, their parents and countless generations of parents before them. The Mass connects us to more than one billion others at roughly the same time – all reflecting on the meaning of sacrifice, all praying for those less fortunate. The Mass has been celebrated by small and large groups of faithful for 2,000 years, going back to the single event held in a house in today’s Middle East, when one Jesus of Nazareth, facing execution, asked his friends to remember him by sharing a meal.

That, is a real social network.

*******

Of course, I couldn’t write this without making a few modest suggestions for our esteemed Church leaders. And as a former outsider, I do have some recommendations for our Church leadership to reach more of those folks who think the Book of Job was a movie starring Denzel Washington.

Give dogma a day off.
I won’t speak for the masses (pardon the pun), but I wonder how many people feel as I when being informed of intrinsically evil acts that I have committed in the past. Not every act I commit that is contrary to Church teaching is done out of some convenient choice of self-interest. The problem is particularly acute when a teaching (or sermon) dwells on themes that are contrary to my personal experience.

No one is positively influenced when told, “never mind what you have seen, who you love, or what you feel, this is what we teach…”  God reaches us through the human experience that channels the truth of God’s love, and that reach trumps all.

Like the family member who feels dissed when someone says something wrong during Thanksgiving dinner, when clerics and parish leaders emphatically declare who is and who is not the ‘true’ Catholic, those struggling with their faith rightfully see themselves as ‘untrue’ Catholics; they remember the slight, build the sense that they are not welcome, and leave. Some, forever.

There are times and places for the Church to exert its influence in the political and business world. There is plenty of room to proclaim dogma in religious education classes, as part of political activities, and in the media – but the weekly Mass is where we all take time to remember the ultimate sacrifice and to reflect on the words of scripture. Those elements are all that matters.

It is time to develop evangelists who can reach the working young.
Many of our young people are working in the service or retail industries – meaning their weekends are full of 10-12 work shifts with any free time being directed to sleep or socializing. These are also folks who are just starting out in figuring out this thing called life. For them, attending Mass is probably just below the need to properly launder one’s socks on the list of the week’s priorities.

There is also the issue that our Mass and Church communities center celebrations and social events around the key benchmarks of family (marriage, birth, death). I would guess that for those Gen-X, Gen-Y and Millenials who are unmarried or without children, attending church services could feel like a lonely experience. These are folks who probably need some form of re-introduction to their Church before committing to regular attendance.

This is the kind of task best accomplished through electronic media.

But since we are talking about persons who have drifted from the Church, conventional evangelical messages won’t reach most of them. Networks such as EWTN speak to a segment of Catholics who are highly reverent and positively engaged with the message of the Church. A slightly different outlet needs to be used to reach persons who need to be convinced that ours is a church designed to deal with the issues of the modern world.

Several programs on Serius XM Radio’s Catholic Channel are a bit more in tune with such an audience (though I think sometimes the producers try too hard to be funny). The iPadre site (http://www.ipadre.net/) is also an example of a strong effort along the lines of new media evangelization as is the Catholic Stuff site (http://catholicstuffpodcast.com/audio) But a basic search of ‘Catholic webcast’ shows far too many links to sites of uneven quality, few with any keywords that would draw young adults, and most with programming consisting of discussions led by priests talking about things they know best – theology.

It is time to nurture a generation of young persons who understand and who can use today’s media to deliver positive, sometimes humorous, but always inspiring messages that integrate Catholic core values towards decisions involving relationships, family, career choices, as well as with illness, addiction, and loneliness.

Such an outreach won’t turn an inked-up roadie into a member of the Knights of Columbus overnight, but that’s not the intent. The intent is to re-establish a connection between the positive, uplifting message of our Church with those whose time is dominated by messages of lesser value.

It is time for women to serve as deacons.
Some of the suggestions here require greater pastoral resources from our Church. As a man, when I sit in church listening to sermons, I admire many of the priest’s sermons for their insight into scripture and his witness when describing the Church’s work for the poor and disabled. And I am fortunate that when our deacons stand to speak, their words integrate faith with the problems of fatherhood, of parenthood, all from the perspective of a man. I smile when I hear the stories of dealing with the nuances of family, and I nod agreeably when their words resonate with my experiences as a guy.

Who can say, with a straight face, that the women among us don’t deserve the opportunity for the same type of connection with those who help lead us in worship?

The reasons for the denial of female deacons are un-changed  since the Vatican revisited the issue in the 1970’s – opponents argue that deacons are sacramentally ordained, the same privilege available to only to males as priests since Jesus selected only men as apostles. From there, the argument degenerates into a shouting match between those who cite historical precedent with those who cite Jesus’ intentions.

Maybe there is a case to be made for only male priests – but our Church desperately needs more voices speaking the gospel to the flock from the full range of human experiences – and that includes the experiences of women in ministry to the Catholic faithful.

Conclusion
As part of a church community that has ambitions and interests in delivering more services to those in need, I understand that the first major step to helping staff and support those initiatives is to fill the pews with more persons who are Catholic, but who, for any number of various reasons, never seem to remember the Mass times for the weekend.

I have been there. I know what it is like to walk away.

But despite the fact that many times I have felt like the teenager who derived little from the liturgical experience, the fact is that attending the Mass has always provided me with a touchstone, a distant flickering light if you will, that marked the way back to an experience that forces me to turn off all that is temporal, and reflect on the truly important issues in life.

I make some observations that I believe are keeping the Church from doing a better job at drawing back those who have drifted. I don’t think we want to be happy with a smaller, more ‘pure’ church at the expense of those who need her wisdom. To reach those on the sidelines, we need more people, of a wider range of experiences, to deliver the Church’s message of joy through any and all means available.

And to any out there who are waiting for the right time to return, I submit a humble invitation to rejoin a community celebration that spans a globe of continents and more than 20 centuries of time.

Please come back. You home needs you. Your home wants you.


References:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2013/september/back-to-church-sunday-pew-research.html
http://chnonline.org/special-sections/parenting/10172-why-wont-my-kids-go-to-church.html
http://usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/order-of-mass/liturgy-of-the-word/the-lector-at-mass.cfm
https://bible.org/seriespage/here-today-gone-tomorrow-ecclesiastes-11-11
http://americamagazine.org/issue/422/article/catholic-women-deacons

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