Maybe it’s the Amish in me, but one of the problems I have with being a priest in America is that, after living abroad for twenty five years, suburban America seems like one big theme park. When you go to the Mall the shops are all little fake themed experiences. When you dine out you head down one of those commercial highways that every American town has and it’s like a trip to a theme park. Little themed restaurants everywhere. Here a cute little Italian eatery that pretends to be a Tuscan villa, there a pleasant little Parisian bistro, further on an Indian restaurant like the Taj Mahal…
Okay, so it’s life in America in the twenty first century. Get used to it. But the problem is that it is not just fake little themed restaurants, the Disneyland, “Please me. Please me now!” mentality runs through the whole culture. Napoleon said the British were “a nation of shopkeepers”. American is a nation of shoppers. We want what we want when we want it, and since the whole culture says, “The customer is king” we’re used to the Burger King experience of having it our way.
This is the air we breathe. It’s the wallpaper. If we’re fish it’s the water we’re in. We don’t even know we behave in such a self centered way. It’s just life in Murica right? It’s the theme park. It’s the TV. It’s the Mall.
What makes my life impossible as a parish priest is that we apply the same way of life to church. Church shopping has reached epidemic proportions. I accept that the idea of the geographical parish has ended. We drive everywhere. We choose what we want. We drive to the church we want. But now people are church shopping from week to week and from Mass to Mass. They hop, skip and jump from parish to parish and from Mass to Mass depending on what they want and when they want it. Now we have people cherry picking particular ministries from various parishes and turning up for youth group here and CCD there and Mass at this parish and a special seminar at that parish.
Priests and leadership teams scratch their heads saying, “How can we draw people in? We need to get them to be here and be involved. What special attractions can we add? So one priest makes sure he welcomes all the divorced and re-married people and wave a carefree hand at the church’s discipline on marriage. Another priest hires a paid choir and juices up the music program. Another priest tries to start a special school. We have budgets to meet and salaries to pay so if we’re not careful we soon fall into the commercial trap ourselves and start laying on special programs and projects to attract people and to attract their donations.
We’ve fallen into the trap of making church into a buffet. It’s the Mall not the Mass.
One of the reasons this has happened is that hip hop up to date Americans have been embarrassed about the concept of the Mass being a sacrifice. Instead the Mass is “the Gathering”. The Mass is the “family meal”. Along with this, one of the consequences of the priest facing the people for Mass is that the priest becomes the focus of attention. He feels the pressure to be the showpiece, the entertainer and the center of the action. The result of this is that the church (in my opinion) is more clericalized than ever before. Each parish takes on the personality of the pastor.
Even this is not exactly what happens. The parish does not take on the personality of the pastor, it takes on the persona of the pastor. The persona is the mask he wears, the reputation he builds up, the outward person he projects. The people collude in this deception. They don’t really want to get to know the pastor’s as a person. They want to relate to his persona because that’s what they bought into when they shopped to that parish.
So here you have pastor hardliner–the one with the reputation for being God’s Marine. No nonsense. Wear your combat boots when you come to Mass. Over there you have the people pastor. Father Hugalot. Loving and kind and gentle and warm hearted–his persona is the teddy bear priest. Then you have Father Carefree. Laid back and cool, he lets the people do what they want and sort of “leads from behind.” I could go on and list a whole selection of other priest personas, but they’re not the real person. They are an image the church shoppers have bought into.
The solution is authenticity. As priests and people we need to prioritize. Why exactly are we Catholics at all? What does it mean and why do we bother? This is why Pope Francis comes back time and again–as did Benedict before him–to direct us to the authentic encounter with Christ which is at the heart of the faith, and then the authentic life of faith which flows from that. This authentic Catholicism will focus on the sacraments, devotion to the Blessed Mother, care for the poor and following a simple life.
Most of all it will be centered on the Mass–the source and summit of our faith, for there the encounter with Christ takes place, and from there we go to live his life in the world.