I heard a comment about the celebration of the liturgy in America that “every priest seems to be making up his own version.” The way they celebrate Mass (the complainer went on) is infused with their own personality and what they think the faith ought to be.
So Father Friendly, who thinks the faith is all about fellowship and family and friends, says, “The Lord be with you, and isn’t it a grand day today? How wonderful it is for all of us to be gathered here in the Lord’s presence realizing his love for us and our love for one another….” Meanwhile Monsignor Maniple intones, “The Lord be with You” in his stained glass voice showing that his version of the Mass is all about solemnity and worship of the transcendent God in the beauty of holiness. Father Peaceanluv says seriously, “The Lord be with you, and as we gather let us remember all those who are excluded from our church this day…”
It takes other forms as well. There is a tendency amongst some Catholics to turn their religion into an intellectual quest for ‘true orthodoxy’ or ‘solid theology’ or ‘a message that is relevant for people today.’ Others turn it into a search for ‘a spirituality that really suits them’. I heard another priest going on the other day about “modern man’s search for meaning and how each person must search the depth of their heart to find their heart’s true desire and then at that point they will have the Christ encounter.” Whaat? Sound like Jean Paul Sartre meets Dorothy Gale from Kansas.
I’m exaggerating, but you get my point.
What I’m realizing more and more is how very far the twenty first century church is from the simple preaching of the gospel and the core of the Catholic faith. What we don’t hear is the old time religion. What has gone right over our heads is how influenced we are by modernism and the thought of Rudolph Bultmann who insisted that Christianity was old fashioned and needed to be ‘de-mythologized’. He said modern man couldn’t deal with the old, out dated cosmology of heaven and hell and sin and repentance and all that stuff.
After him the psychologists swept in and told us how ‘sin’ was all a mental construct of an ancient age and how we were all really victims because our mother didn’t breast feed us enough (or breast fed us too much) or because our father didn’t pay us enough attention (or paid us too much attention) and furthermore didn’t we know that preaching about sin only made people feel guilty and was counter productive?
The gospel message is simple: You don’t have to turn it into a quest for the perfect liturgy or a campaign for justice or peace or the creation of the perfect self help group. You don’t have to turn it into an intellectual or existential quest to discover your true self or the source of your heart’s desire.
The New Testament, and the message of the church down the ages is straightforward: “Repent and believe the gospel and be baptized”. In other words, “Admit you are a sinner, turn to God for forgiveness. Accept the strange, but compelling truth that Christ died on the cross to forgive your sins. Receive his gift of new life with an open heart with nothing held back. Change your ways. Begin to live the Catholic faith in simplicity and honesty. Empowered by God’s grace, live in the church, learn to pray, live with the sacraments, love others. This is the way you follow Christ.”
People will say that preaching against sin is counter productive. It makes people mad. They stomp off to another parish and take their money with them. They reject what you are saying. But this is part of the deal. It’s there in the New Testament. Preach the faith. To some it will be a stumbling block. To some it will be a stepping stone. So be it.
Now the marvelous thing is that if everyone did this–if everyone really went back to the core gospel message and took it seriously and tried to follow the old path of sin, repentance, faith and sacraments, then all the other problems would be solved too. You would have a wonderful Christian fellowship. You would have the right kind of liturgy, you would have justice and peace. You would have the answer to your intellectual questions and you would find your heart’s desire.
Try to seek those things first though–and without sin, repentance and faith–and all you end up with is piffle. You may find the treasure chest, but it will be empty. Worse, you may find some sort of religion, but it won’t be the Christian faith.
It will be something you made up yourself.