I went on a road trip today (Sunday) and as I set out from my home to the highway, I drove past five, six, seven churches—United Methodist, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian. Nine o’clock Sunday morning and there was not one car in any parking lot. I am sure that by 10 30 or 11 it was a different story but there is no doubt that Church attendance is on the decline. It would not have been that way twenty years ago. In our parish, one of the priests said that there are two less masses and about a thousand people a Sunday less than when he was stationed here thirty-five years ago. Sure, demographics play a part. Families are smaller. The ethnic pool is more varied with more Asians and others from non-Christian cultures. In fact, we see the occasional mosque opening—something that we didn’t see thirty years ago. And yes, south of the Mason-Dixon there are new parishes opening up with large churches to hold an expanding Catholic population of transplanted North-easterners and Mid-westerners. But when the dust settles there are still fewer and fewer people attending Church now than a generation ago.
And as my observations of late-opening parking lots this past Sunday would indicate, this is not just a Catholic problem. While Bible Churches and fundamentalist groups are growing, the liberal denominations are shrinking. The Episcopal Church, despite an influx of converts from Catholicism and other denominations, has shrunk from 4 million members a generation ago to 2.5 million today. What is the problem? Is it, as some allege, the vapidity of liberal Christianity? Or is it something else?
Neo-trad Catholics have blamed the decline in Mass attendance on the Second Vatican Council and the move away from the old Latin liturgy, but the even more severed falloff of mainline Protestant Churches belies any attempt to pin the problem to anything within Catholicism itself. And the Catholic Church has not drunk the “liberal Kool-Aide” of same-sex marriage, ordination of women, abortion rights, and other causes that have caused dissention and defection among the liberal denominations. If anything, we have lost more members because of our intransience than of any alleged accommodation to the liberal agenda.
Of course not all those who have stopped going to mass regularly have stopped going to Church. While many Catholics have often found new homes in Episcopalian or Lutheran Churches because of issues of divorce and remarriage or for reasons of acceptance of same-sex marriage and families, most ex-Catholics who still go to Church have joined Bible Churches or Pentecostal Congregations on the other end of the social spectrum. Of course, even more former Mass-goers seem just to prefer having Sunday mornings to themselves to read the paper, do brunch, play golf, or just sleep in.
In all the arguing about the reasons for the fall off in church I think we are failing to acknowledge that our cosmology has taken a serious hit. Those of us on the shady side of Medicare (how I never dreamed that day would come), still remember a heaven above and a hell below. God dwelt in that heaven. The Devil lived in that subterranean hell. One died and one went up to heaven or down to hell. It was not quite clear where purgatory was, but as it was only a temporary arrangement we could live with the ambiguity. Today, of course, without much thought such a tiered universe has completely disappeared from the human immagination. Long before Sputnik or Alan Shepherd and Freedom-7, we knew the vast infinity of space but it was only when people started to pierce it that the boundless vacuum of the universe began to sink into our consciousness. And when it did, it left God homeless. It seems embarrassingly naïve to us now to admit that we bought into the picture of Trito-Isaiah who has God declare: “The Heavens are my throne; the earth is my footstool.” And indeed we may not have put it quite that way, but we did have a place for God and we don’t anymore. Five hundred years ago, a helio-centric cosmos threatened Christian orthodoxy but now the situation is far more disturbing. It was bad enough that Copernicus told us that we were not the center of being, but that we were a planet orbiting the sun; now our earth has been reduced to a mere neutron orbiting an atomic nucleus—one of trillions and trillions in a measureless universe. Such immensity makes us totally irrelevant to a Deity that could not possibly—in our imagination at least—be any more aware of us than we are aware of whatever subatomic particles comprise that neutron that orbits the atom that is one of the trillions that make up the “h” key on our keyboard.
On the other hand, there are those for whom God, dispossessed of his home in the heavens, has taken up residence in the human soul. I am not sure what word to use. I have chosen soul, but I could equally have chosen psyche or even heart. I would prefer heart, in fact, but don’t want to confuse that to which I am referring as merely the emotions. I mean that center of consciousness which has access to the emotions, but also consists of the intellect and of the will. So let’s say soul. I am not quite sure exactly what the human soul is. It is a metaphysical category rather than a subject of the physical sciences, and so I mean it simply as our self-conscious being.
The idea of God dwelling in the soul (or heart, or psyche) is not anything new. Long before the space program began shooting monkeys and then humans into space, people like Augustine of Hippo and Teresa of Avila wrote of the human heart (or soul) as God’s dwelling place. You find it in the psalms. You find it in the Christian scriptures. Among my favorite spiritual writers, an early twentieth-century French nun, Elizabeth of the Trinity, wrote eloquently of heaven being within the human heart. She builds her theology on Saint Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle.
The Mass, as it was celebrated before the Second Vatican Council, reflected the cosmology of a God in Heaven above. The theology, built on the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages—Saints Anselm and Thomas Aquinas in particular—saw a priest, who was a sacramental representation of Christ the High Priest, offering the propitiatory sacrifice of the Cross to God the Father above on behalf of the People gathered below. An anthropologist could explain how the ritual of the Mass reflected this cosmology and theology. The people knelt silently—hopefully attentively—beyond the railings that marked the sacred space that only the priest and his assistants (all males) could enter, ascending anywhere from three to ten stairs to do so. At the top of the stairs, the priest standing (others kneeling) and with the faithful gathered behind him, approached the earthly altar which was a sort of “stargate” that opened into a world beyond and there made a sacrifice of Christ mystically (i.e. sacramentally) re-presented (that is, made present again) in his Body and Blood by bread and wine. It was a making-present-once-again of the one Sacrifice of Calvary and it was done with the aim of winning forgiveness of our sins. It really is a lovely conception and when carried out with full ceremony (which was quite rare) is an exquisitely beautiful ritual. But it sacramentally represents a cosmology that has disappeared. This tiered universe with God looking down from the clouds above has gone the way of Zeus on Mount Olympus or Woden in Valhalla.
Now to be fair, the old liturgy could also be a contemplative experience. The operative word here is “could.” For most it was a quasi-magical ritual. The right person (the priest) had to say the right words (the prescribed text) in the right way (in Latin)with the right gestures (the rubrics). If anything was off, the ritual was “invalid.” Similarly many of the laity had their self-imposed prescribed prayers and rituals. They said the rosary or worked their way through a stack of novena booklets preparing themselves for Holy Communion. There was a huge disconnect between what happened at the altar and what the average person in the pews was doing until the moment of intersection when the person approached the communion rail and received the Holy Communion that had been offered on the altar. Then the individual went back to his prayers and the priest to his ritual. But for some, the quiet and the aesthetics of the church building, or if the full ritual was used, the choir and a full set of sacred ministers, could still their souls into an interior quiet of genuine contemplative prayer. But even this was a bit complicated as some confused an appreciation of the aesthetics of the Liturgy with supernatural prayer. The aesthetics could, and often did, emotionally sweep a person into a sort of sweetness that was easily confused for some allegedly spiritual grace.
One of my favorite operas is Puccini’s Tosca, probably because I lived for a good number of years in the area bordered by Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant’Angelo: the sites of Acts I, II, and III of the work. And Act I concludes with a magnificent scene of a religious procession with the Blessed Sacrament carried in a monstrance by a richly vested prelate and assisted by equally gorgeously garbed clergy beneath a tall canopy carried on poles by lace bedecked acolytes. There are multiple thuribles sending clouds of incense into the air as the stage is filled with scores of singers chanting a melody reminiscent of the Pange Lingua. It’s wonderful. It’s mystical. It carries you away. And the host in the monstrance is, of course, a dud, probably a cardboard cutout. Supernatural grace and aesthetic appreciation can find themselves in a shared experience, but feelings of religious transport are no sure sign of grace. The only sure sign of grace is an increase in charity. I wish I could say that I find that increase in all those who prefer the old rituals. I wish I could say that I find it in all those who prefer the new liturgy.
The problem with the new rites is that they side-step the challenge of a collapsed cosmology and never address the issue of where to find God. Just as the pre-conciliar rites are built on a medieval scholastic idea of the priest offering a propitiatory sacrifice for the forgiveness of the sins of the people, the novus ordo is based on the patristic understanding of Christ, in his Body the Church, announcing the Evangelion of the Kingdom of God and proclaiming the Death and Resurrection of the Lord until he comes again. The focus is not on the priest alone but on the assembly which is Christ present in his Body the Church. The various members of the assembly have, as members of Christ’s Body, their diverse ministries. The priest sacramentally represents Christ, the Head of the Body, in the dual ministries of Announcing the Word and Breaking the Bread. By Breaking the Bread I mean, of course, not simply the distribution of the Eucharist but the entire Eucharistic Action of offering the Great Thanksgiving in which re-present the One Eternal Sacrifice of Christ. But the emphasis is Christ and Christ in his Body, the Church. Where is God (the Father) in all this? That is never really cleared up—at least not in the ritual itself. And it is hard to make this liturgy a contemplative experience. In the first place, I am not sure that the Mass is meant to be a contemplative experience, but at least as it is structured now, we are all rather busy being Christ to one another. There are readings to be read and responsories to be sung and processions to be processed and all within 60 minutes. I have seen the liturgy prayed, really prayed, but almost exclusively in monastic settings and not always there. Cistercians tend to do it well, but then they don’t seem to have much else to do. I envy them for that. But in the average parish, the Mass tends to be just one thing after another. Entrance rite. Penitential Rite. Gloria. Opening Prayer. First reading. And so on. Maybe we sprinkle a little silence here and there, but it often becomes just as mechanical as the old ritual but without the magic. Without the bad magic, but also without the good.
I don’t think the answer is a reform of the ritual. This isn’t that the ritual doesn’t need some reform, but that all the liturgical tinkering in the world isn’t going to solve the problem. The problem is where is God? Ok, we got Jesus in his Word, in his Sacramental Body and Blood, and in his Body the Church. That is good. But Jesus is meant to bring us to the Father.
We Catholics have a very rich tradition of spirituality and it is for the most part untapped. O we do the piety thing but I am not speaking of piety, but of spirituality. We have to recover our spiritual heritage and start making it accessible to our people. Richard Rohr writes
…. Much of the Western world has given up on the church and is going other places for wisdom. Unfortunately, in these other places they are sometimes “willingly filling their belly with the husks the pigs are eating” (Luke 15:16) But we in the church must ask ourselves if we have not been the parent who sent them away because there was nothing trustworthy or life-giving at home. [i]
Our Catholic faith has long known that God dwells in the human heart. I think for worship to make sense to people, we need to recover that awareness and provide the introduction to the spiritual life that allows the liturgy to be that “stargate” that opens us to a Mystery that is already at the center of our own souls.