Monday, January 14, 2013

Faith Lost, Faith To Be Regained

Quinn Abbey, County Clare
I have been in Ireland this past week.  I came for meetings—I come often and know the country well.  I have quite a few contacts here, both professional and personal.  And Friday evening where I was “down in the country”—meaning in the west of Ireland—with people I have known for some forty years we had a fascinating discussion regarding the challenges facing the Church here.  Now this small group of seven or eight are all still practicing Catholics—which, I must admit, surprised me somewhat.  As I said I have known them for decades and heard their gripes and complaints about the Church—gripes and complaints that I would say are quite justified in the particular situations that they had described—but here they are still going to Mass regularly and friends with their various parish priests (the term for pastor both here in Ireland and in canon law).  But they had some very insightful comments nonetheless.
Even a generation ago Ireland was strongly Catholic.  Two generations ago vocations were not only plentiful but now empty seminaries and convents were then swarming.  Was it the economic boom that killed the faith—I asked—the Celtic Tigre?  Well, they opined, that did play a role in it; the current recession has seen a slight rise in Mass attendance.  But they offered several other suggestions.  One is that while the practices of the faith: Mass attendance, meatless Fridays, family rosary, etc. were well defined, there was never good catechesis.  People knew what to do but they never understood what it was about. Even in the glory days of Catholic Ireland it was cultural but not deeply rooted.  They talked about going to Mass as youngsters.  The men, they said, would stand outside smoking until the Sanctus bell and duck inside the back until the priest’s communion and then were back outside lighted up.  The women would say their rosaries with rapid speed—making three and four tours around the beads in the course of a single Mass—but pay no attention at all to the Mass itself.  Priests were praised for the speed with which they could say Mass.  And after Mass on the way home the discussion was “Did you see that one?  And how does she have the nerve to come to Mass with her being out all night with her man from Doolin?   And him—and he was going to communion after he was in the pub last night and carrying on as if he weren’t a married man?”  It was a remarkably frank conversation about how shallow the faith sometimes was even where it was supposedly healthy.
One of my academic colleagues is from Krakow and he happens to be a priest. Now I have often been to Poland as well, though not as often as to Ireland, and remarked to him how strong the faith is in Poland.  He is quite cynical about the Polish situation and believes that for most it is only a cultural attachment.  He claims that while Church attendance is still strong, when it comes to issues from abortion to alcohol abuse to domestic violence the Catholic faith makes little impact on the church-going Pole.  “There is a ‘wall of separation’ between religion and daily life.  We are Catholics because we are Poles and aren’t like the Evangelical Germans or the Orthodox Russians—but if it weren’t that our historic enemies were either Lutherans or Russians, we would have no idea what it means to be Catholic.”
I think this points to the need for us to look long and hard at catechetics and the most effective ways to catechize the youth we still have.  I still believe the most effective catechetical tool we have is the liturgy itself.  This doesn’t mean that the priest should use the homily at mass to “teach.”  There is a world of difference between teaching and preaching and for my money there is nothing more deadly than an academic homily.  A homily is meant to relate the scriptures read at Mass to daily Christian living.  But I think if the liturgy were celebrated with great thought being given to the music selected, to the petitions being written, and to clear and honest ritual without the distracting fuss and bother so many priests overlay it with these days, the basic elements of our faith would be imprinted on our mind week after week.  Neither the happy-clappy liturgies of the left nor the ceremonial rigid pomposity of the right wing clergy does this but what we need is a good, prayerful, focus on the key truth of our faith: that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whoever believes him may not perish but may have eternal life for God did not send his son to condemn the world but rather so that the world may be saved through him.        

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