I am a recovering Evangelical.
At the age of fifteen I had a coming-of-age epiphany, realized that the world extended beyond my doorstep, and became a Christian.
I “grew up” in the Evangelical stream of things because those are the sort of people I knew, they helped me get saved, and fifteen years later through a combination of serendipity, reading and reading and reading, and resisting the Holy Spirit for only as long as humanly possible I became a Roman Catholic.
It was a good choice, in the end.
But like so many converts more illustrious and important than me I quickly came to discover that once inside the fold things didn’t always look as rosy as they did from the outside. The good old Catholic Church, it turns out, has some rather dusty corners.
So with aplomb, arrogance, and unabashed honesty I’d like to offer some completely unsolicited advice, Holy Mother Church, from one of your newest sons.
Catholics, Figure Out What You Believe Already
Some blame a wave of poor catechesis in the “Spirit of Vatican II.”
Some blame a Latin liturgy which didn’t encourage parishioners to take an active role in their faith.
Some blame the Popes, the government, or a multi-national secret cover-up (although aren’t all cover-ups, by their nature, secret?).
And whether you blame a haunting, a dead language, or an international conglomerate you’re making an excuse and, ultimately, the time for excuses has long passed “Go.” Do not collect $200 dollars.
Catholics, it’s time to get your stuff together.
Not only are poorly catechized Catholics bad for the whole of Catholicism they aren’t doing themselves any favours either.
I wasn’t raised an Evangelical, I found Jesus at the impressionable age of fifteen but even I, within months of meeting Christ, could talk circles around the average Catholic I bumped into on the street (as a good Canadian, I always apologized).
Fundamentally, Catholics are awful at explaining and defending their faith and whatever the excuse is it’s a poor one. St. Peter, the first Pope for goodness sake, was unequivocal when he wrote,
Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15)
He wasn’t out for a lark, he meant it, and poor faith formation is giving all Catholics a bad name. If I would’ve known what Catholics really believed—if I’d met some Catholics that understood it—I would’ve been a convert a dozen years sooner. How many more are there, out there, awaiting even the worst best example of Catholicism?
We need to take steps to understand our faith and live out what we believe, or get out of the way.
Catholics, Take Off Your Coats and Stay Awhile
Here’s a heart-warming true tale.
I was praying that our local parish—where I’d been taking RCIA classes—would make a good impression on my long-suffering Protestant wife when she agreed to come along with me one Sunday.
As Mass ended and we were shuffling our way out of the pew she turned to me and said, with a measure too much glee in her voice, “I saw a miracle happen at Mass!”
“Love,” I said, with a measure too much condescension in mine, “that always happens.”
“No! Not the Consecration,” she said, too wise for my own good, “The miracle of the coats!”
She went on to explain, “After the Eucharistic Prayer everyone around me miraculously had their coats on so they could slip up for Communion and right out the door afterwards!”
I sighed, not only outdone in the humour department, but dismayed at the truth of the situation as well.
Catholics, we need to get better at being together.
In far too many of the Catholics parishes we visited in a seemingly fruitless quest to find a “good” parish community I’ve seen a disappointing lack of loving, welcoming, community-minded Catholics.
The drive-thru culture is pathetic.
As an Evangelical, I was fortunate to find myself in an incredible Christian community. We actually lingered on a Sunday morning in the church gym to chat about the morning’s sermon (hint: Catholics would call it a homily and it would be much more poorly done).
In our community we had small groups, monthly lunches after church, prayer networks, community outreach, and people looked like they actually liked each other if you were to stumble into one of our gatherings.
During what we called “welcome time,” and what the Catholic liturgy rightly calls the “Sign of Peace” we greeted each other with genuine affection—and I don’t mean merely kissing our spouses. We shook hands, and meant it.
“Are you new here? Cool! Let’s chat after the service.”
As a Catholic I love going to Mass, I love meeting my fellow sojourners but for goodness sake, am I the only one?
When I returned to the parish where I’d completed RCIA, some months after being confirmed at the Easter Vigil, the elderly priest took me aside after Mass and quietly said, “I’m so glad to see you back here. Almost no one comes back after finishing RCIA.”
That kind of attitude of surrender is exactly what’s wrong with our Catholicism.
After a genuine experience of the Eucharist Catholics should be chomping at the spiritual bit for more.
How do parishes meet that need? By shuttering their doors and offering nothing in the way of fellowship, catechesis, and opportunities to get together during the week?
I don’t think so.
Catholics, Sing Like You Mean It
A close cousin to the stony-hearted approach to the Mass in many of the Catholic communities I’ve visited is the completely disastrous approach to worship music.Whether it’s Gregorian Chant, hymns from the folk revival in the 80’s, time-tested organ stuff from the 18th century, or contemporary worship tunes Catholics certainly have a confusing and complicated relationship with music. I’ve experienced a sum total of two parishes in my travels which seem to nail music right on the head and they were, interestingly enough, on either end of the genre spectrum.
(One was a Ordinariate Mass with Gregorian chant, the other was a contemporary and very tasteful praise band.)
The problem, I think, isn’t simply a lack of focus but a certain level of “singing it like you mean it,” that I’ve found sorely missing in the Catholic Church.
Russell E. Saltzman, himself a convert from Lutheranism, and a contributor to First Things magazine, writes with a clarity that I couldn’t muster if my life depended on it. On hymn singing in the Catholic Mass Saltzman says,
“The hymn singing I hear hardly amounts to a “joyful noise.” Sounds more like plaintive squeaks from depressed marmosets.”
Depressed marmosets. Saltzman is right, and this will bear no excuse.
Catholics, we’re joining our songs with the choruses in Heaven, singing in the unimaginable presence of God. Unless we’re handing out sets of earplugs to the celestial choirs we’re going to have to at least put in a little effort.
As my aforementioned far-too-clever wife says, there’s a distinct difference between doing something and doing something well. And good grief, when it comes to worship, God deserves the latter.
Catholics, You’re in the Very Presence of God (Act Like It!)
OK, so you’re too bored to sing.
The liturgy drones on and on and the homily was slumber-inducing (many are but that’s a different problem!) and you’re checking your watch to see how much time is left in the Countdown to Denny’s as you fantasize about devouring an All-American Slam.
All told, poor faith formation, a lack of genuine community-building, and a disappointing commitment to belting out the baroque boils down, I think, to a complete lack of understanding about what’s really going on in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Catholics, we’re in the actual presence of God.
As an Evangelical who intentionally and wholeheartedly chose to leave behind an incredibly fulfilling faith tradition for the fullness of the Catholic Church this cuts me right to the core.
Do we get it?
As a freshly minted Catholic I can’t wait to get to Mass.
When I’m there, I can’t wait to do everything humanly possible short of dragging my corpus across the nave like a prostrate snail to show God my utmost reverence and love.
But, in my experience, we’re a few-and-far-between breed. Or am I wrong?
Too often I’ve seen my fellow Mass goers pass by the altar or tabernacle like they’re passing by the dining room table with nary even a bodily tremor, nevermind a bow or, for goodness sake, a genuine genuflection.
Too often I’ve heard lectors read from the Bible like they’re reciting a poorly-conceived grocery list, awkward after having mispronounced “jalapeno” for a second time.
Or cantors who offer up a responsory psalm as if they were a semi-finalist for world’s most boring poetry recitation. Congrats, you’ve just won first prize!
At its core, the Mass is an incredible time-bending, grace-giving, mind-blowing experience of God. So why don’t we act like it?
We should be the most excited, enthusiastic folks on the planet but instead we slink through the whole event, punching the clock as if it’s our last shift at Taco Bell before skipping off to college (and who cares if we put in any effort, what’s the boss going to do, fire us?!).
And I get it. We haul a toddler up the aisle with us and into a pew, and then out of a pew, and then into a pew again and we’re tired but we still do our best to bow, and pray, and act like we get how it’s all very sacred.
Why do we have to feel like we’re the only ones?
It Starts with Me, And You
In the end, there’s a rather mind-numbingly simple, and disappointing, solution.
It starts with me, and you.
I became a Catholic for a reason. There was an unbelievable appeal in the Church’s two thousand years of beautiful, seamless theology, liturgy, and worship that drew me in like a fat old horsefly to one of those zappy lights.
As Catholics we have access to the abundant fullness of the Church Christ founded and we should have no doubt of that. Nevermind the winds of change that blow in every age the Church stands and, as Christ promises, will never falter.
We can feel safe, secure, and possess hope in abundance.
But we need to get ourselves in order, and no one’s going to do it for us.
Disappointingly, it’s down to us.
We’re the ones to begin the Bible studies (which help us learn our faith), we’re the ones who begin to hang about after Mass (to get to know each other and make newcomers feel welcome), we’re the ones to sing off-key like we mean it (because we’re singing with the angels after all), and we’re the ones to bow, deeply, to the Eucharistic Minister because in that moment we’re giving all honour and reverence to God.
Catholics, I write to you as one of your own flock, and I say that with unbridled satisfaction and love. I write because what I see is disappointing, depressing, and down right crummy.
And it needn’t define Catholicism.
There’s nothing Catholic, after all, about poor faith formation, a lack of community-mindedness, lousy singing, and an absence of reverence and respect.
On the contrary.
We have to be the change. I have to be the change. And something certainly needs to change.
Thank God for His grace, in abundance, because we’re going to need all the help that we can get.