“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD.
— Jeremiah 23:1
Look, I totally get what Bishop Tobin was going for here, and I think it is valid to remind people that an hour at Holy Mass is distinct from strolling the midway on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore; that it warrants something better of us than water bottles and Bermuda shorts.
But this is a destructive and unpastoral piece of writing. It’s really difficult to square calling the sheep “hirsute flabmeisters” with a bishop’s charge to shepherd and teach the fold in the love of Christ.
His prose suggests that Tobin realized he was treading the boards of a get-off-my-lawn porch rant when he wrote this:
And what about the trend I’ve seen increasingly in recent years, even in our cathedral, of people coming to Mass carrying their water bottles and coffee mugs? Do they really need to be hydrated or caffeinated during that hour they’re in church? Is it a sacred space or an airport terminal? And I wonder how many people even think about the Eucharistic fast (one hour before receiving Holy Communion) when they prepare for Mass? I’m old enough to remember when you couldn’t have any food or beverage, except water, from midnight before receiving Holy Communion. It was a sacrifice, to be sure, but also a clear reminder of how special it was to receive Holy Communion.
Well, yeah…what about it, Bishop? What you are old enough to remember, a great many Catholics have never even been taught. When studies show that fewer than 30% of Catholics understand that the Holy Eucharist is the true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, what do you actually expect of them?
And while I’m venting, I still find it inappropriate and disrespectful to have a church full of people talking and creating a boisterous atmosphere before Mass, completely ignorant of the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the spiritual needs of their fellow parishioners who wish to spend a few moments of quiet prayer with the Lord. The Church should always provide a sanctuary of quiet, peace and prayer for anyone who wants to escape the barrage of noise and technological intrusions of our daily routine and enter into the presence of the Living God.
No moment reveals our attitude of respect than during the actual reception of Holy Communion.
Heaven knows, I’d love it if people would pipe down or take their loud conversations out to the lobby when I’m trying to pray before Mass, but again — the blame for this redounds to you, Bishop; to you and to all of your peers and pastoral teams. If you have not taught people that they are in a holy, sacred space, what do you expect? Priests are facing the congregation; the choirs are upfront with the guitars; the Mass is full of applause. Unless you have strenuously taught them otherwise, it’s not unnatural for people who really do not have a great grasp of what’s going on at Mass to act like they’re at the local multiplex. What’s playing this week? Oh, Father Longwind and Deacon McFriendly! Did we bring the Cheerios?
I read this frustrated rant from the bishop and I feel very frustrated, myself, because while I share some of his concerns, I’m staggered by his myopic focus on the ignorant slobs amid the laity, and his apparent unwillingness to consider any part of “Lord, is it me…” — as in, “have I, have we, been so negligent that they really don’t know better?”
Yes, it is you, Bishop; it is the “we” of those apostolic descendants who have sat too far away from the sheep to teach them well; who have given cursory reviews of the lowlier shepherd’s fields and foods and never asked whether they were really following best practices for the raising of healthy sheep.
We are all responsible in some measure, particularly those of us who actually do have an understanding of the great Mystery and Reality that is before us; if we have tried to raise our children in understanding, it’s makes barely a dent amid a church where Religious Education is minimal (and minimalist), usually undertaken by untrained, well-intended volunteers who themselves do not know what they do not know, and fades out almost exactly when teenagers most need to know more, and to know it better.
Continuing education, meant to help further understanding of the faith and to keep adult Catholics so inflamed they wish to keep drinking, deeply, from the wellspring? That doesn’t exist on any formal, planned and provided-for level. One look at the website at the USCCB spells it out: If you think you’re interested, well, here are the documents; you’re on your own. Oh, and close the light when you’re finished.
If Catholic adults understood the Reality of Christ Present as reality, they wouldn’t be avoiding Mass, or they wouldn’t be coming to Mass and acting like they’re killing time until the game starts. Why do Catholics not understand what is before them? Why do most Catholics not even know what it is they do not know?
It’s because somewhere between Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s televised instruction of the past and the handful of Churchmen and Churchwomen today willing to embrace media tools of the present, our leadership lost its focus. We are daily, here at Patheos, enjoying emails from people sharing with us why — in the face of a world that doesn’t understand — they remain Catholic. Over on twitter, you can peruse this #WhyRemainCatholic thread, and survey why these “hirsute flabmeisters” and Cheerio-kid-lugging people remain in the pews. Amid their varied and heartfelt responses, you know what you never read? “Because of the bishops who try to visit our parishes frequently, and talk to us and really hear and see us; the shepherds who know their sheep.”
Sad to say, many Catholics could not name their bishops, if you asked them, and that’s a damn shame. It is tragic, actually.
This is not a gratuitous Bishop-bash; we appreciate the thankless role of the bishop, and Bishop Tobin’s concerns are valid, but their validity should be moving him to do something more than standing at the door of the sacristy, shouting “do better, dammit!” at the wandering, disinterested sheep. The sheep are just being sheep. They don’t understand what he’s yelling about.
There are other ways to invite better comportment from people; this is not how it’s done. Calling people names and sneering at their ill-trained kids is no way to make them feel attracted to feed at trough of Catholicism; it makes no friends for Christ Jesus. It drives them away.
I hope the bishop reconsiders what he’s written here. I’m sure he is a very good man, who is simply feeling frustrated; well, aren’t we all.
It’s a tricky subject, I know. On one hand — particularly given this daunting reality — we should be glad people are showing up for Mass at all, and Jesus probably really doesn’t care much about it. On the other hand, when people are coming to be in the Presence of the King, why leave them so ignorant that they don’t feel inspired to dress and comport themselves for the occasion, at least as well as they might to meet the president of their company?
Still though. I wish someone had told Tobin to sleep on that thing before hitting “publish.”
If you don’t believe me when I say people don’t know what they don’t know, read some of the quotes, here.
Rebecca Hamilton: “I want to see our bishops succeed. I pray for their success, and when they shoot themselves in the foot this way…”
Jen Fitz: There’s a right way to do it, and a wrong way…