“My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupefied moment. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil! for to thee is this world given.”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Young Goodman Brown
A ponytailed, purple tennis–shoed altar girl rings the bells in her hand. “Rings” is the wrong word, really; this is more of a jingle. These aren’t the antiquated, clanging, resounding, piercing-through-the-night sort of bells — nothing quite so brash and determinate as all that. They are more akin to wind chimes, really. There is no clear-cut beginning or ending to their evanescent tinkling. They sort of muddily fade in and fade back out again — irregular, shiftless, ever changing. Bells for the modern era — for the new and improved Catholic Church. These are the bells that might indicate that a person is in the presence of Tinkerbell, or perhaps a mystical, shimmering butterfly has floated gracefully through the sanctuary. Maybe Santa has arrived early. Possibly the bells were intended to alert the congregation to the consecration of the Eucharist. You know, something along those lines.
Shortly thereafter (even shorter than the lector’s dress), the priest slits his own throat upon the altar as he deposits a bronze-hued cup full of Christ into the freshly manicured hands of his female colleague. She thanks God she remembered it was her week to E.M.; the shiny pink polish helps distract from the rheumatism that has begun to set into her aged hands.
The two of them, side-by-side, followed closely by the mostly irrelevant deacon in the Purple Striped Pajamas, descend the steps of the priestly throne, he in persona Christi, she in persona Christy from down the road a few blocks. She recalls, as she begins to administer the Blessed Sacrament to those faithful queued up for Holy Communion, how this wasn’t possible when she was a little girl. She disdains the priest, but she feels powerful and important when they stand together for those few brief minutes every Sunday. The act somehow still feels revolutionary and fills her with zeal.
She has tried her best to believe in the Real Presence, but she acknowledges that she falls short. She has settled comfortably in a firm belief in the Symbolic Presence. She can’t quite seem to figure out why the faith in transubstantiation has always eluded her, but at this point, she is disinclined to believe that she will ever be able to truly accept it. But symbols are important; it’s good enough.
She does believe in Christ, though. She sees Him every day in the Spirit of her fellow man — most especially in her fellow woman. Many of her girlfriends have secretly confided to her, often with some embarrassment and shame, that they don’t believe in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, either, nor do they believe in His presence in any of the other sacraments.
Regardless of her personal beliefs, there are faithful lined up here in front of her today, she has a job to do, and she can’t keep them waiting any longer. God knows that line is long enough. People have lives outside Mass.
She places the Eucharist in the hand of the man in the red hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans. She thinks she has seen him before, but she only very vaguely recalls his face.
He hasn’t been to Mass in years. Now in his early thirties, he attends on this second Sunday of Advent for his grandmother, a devout centenarian cradle-Catholic who is not long for this life. Today is her birthday, and seeing him at Mass is all she wanted. He is bored by Mass, has been since he was a child, and he remains plagued by the ennui of ignorance. He doesn’t understand the Mass, nor does he have any desire to. He isn’t married and has no immediate prospects. He has been addicted to pornography since he was a young teenager and has some healthy Catholic guilt about it, but he isn’t about to confess his sins to a flawed, sinful priest; it is no one’s business but his own. Half a lifetime of crippling depression and anxiety have shattered his faith. He is alone. God cannot possibly care about him because he suffers so much. He has lost several friends to suicide. Ambivalence about whether or not he wants to be the next one to go consumes much of his day-to-day life.
He stepped into the Communion line, bored and disinterested, if somewhat ill at ease, so as to not disappoint Grandma. He knows he is supposed to believe that Jesus is actually present in the Eucharist and isn’t sure he should be receiving Communion, but he doesn’t get what the big deal is anyway. He hasn’t ever seen how God could possibly actually be in there. It is all just needless guilt and superstition. He is disinclined to believe that any of this stuff is real. He has grown bitter and hates it all. He can’t wait to leave.
The old woman places the wafer into this hand. He hesitantly puts it into his mouth, turns, and passes a much younger woman with two young children in tow, in the next line over.
Dark-haired and pretty, this woman will be converting to Greek Orthodoxy soon. She isn’t particularly orthodox herself, non-doctrinaire, a fairly average Catholic millennial, but she knows beautiful liturgy when she sees it. She recently moved here from a major metropolitan area where they had a Byzantine liturgy just down the street. She misses all the singing and the reverence, and nothing like that is anywhere to be found in this much smaller city. A friend keeps nagging her to attend a supposedly beautiful Catholic Latin Mass, but it is an hour and a half away. Her husband is deployed. With the kids, that just isn’t going to work.
There is one Greek Orthodox church in the whole city. She went a few weeks ago, just to check it out. It is, by default, endowed with a gorgeous, reverent liturgy. It takes her breath away and satisfies the deepest longings of her parched soul. She knows that Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism aren’t the same but doesn’t quite understand how or why, and it isn’t something she is too concerned about. She just wants beauty and holiness again. She wants to catch a glimpse of something obviously divine. Vapid Ordinary Form liturgy has left her disinclined to believe that Catholicism can provide her with the same refreshment that she experiences from the East. She approaches the priest who places the Host in the palm of her hand. She feels happier than she did, but she sadly acknowledges that that the Catholic Church is no longer home. She can’t wait to feel something transcendent from the liturgy again.
The priest blesses her children, and she quickly exits the queue, just in time to see a man in a navy blue blazer and tie, polished brown shoes and ironed tan slacks, hurrying toward it.
He has just returned from the restroom, and barely in time. He didn’t actually need to utilize the facilities, but he has recently endured a few too many homilies from his parish priest about how Jesus is like WiFi. He wandered out of the chapel as the homily commenced, pushed his way through the heavy wooden restroom door, the one that reads “Men,” and briefly pondered how much longer it will dare proclaim something so bold.
He has always practiced, always been devout. He knows the Catechism inside and out and is not afraid to courageously proclaim his faith. Lately, however, he has been frustrated and baffled by his beloved Catholic Church. He reads things on his favorite mainstream Catholic news sites about the goings-on from the most recent synod. He is concerned about what those German bishops are up to. He disdains liberal, progressive Catholicism but hasn’t much use for the credulous, fanatic traditionalists who see wooden idols and demons and Masons peeking out from behind every Amazonian tree.
He has been disappointed and let down by every single priest he has ever known and trusts approximately none of them by this point in his mid-life. The priest of his childhood abandoned the name “Father” for a woman. His university priest recently got caught abusing a child. The priest who presided at his wedding, a close friend, left the Faith entirely and has begun to call the Catholic Church “a joke.”
Growing up, he looked to these priests as imitable heroes of grace and virtue; he even seriously considered becoming a priest himself. Now he sees that they are just men, flawed and sinful, like everyone else. This priest is not at all different than the rest — he started out okay, when he first came to the parish, relatively conservative and orthodox, but has slowly succumbed to the demands of the world. Just as they all did.
As he meandered back from the restroom and slowly returned to the chapel, he was surprised to see that the Communion procession was almost over; his wife and six kids had already been through and were seated in the pews again. There are fewer people here than he realized (there are fewer and fewer people, it seems, every week), and it would appear that he took longer picking a few small pieces of lint and a couple of Golden Retriever hairs off his jacket, running his fingers mindlessly through his beard, and working on his Christmas shopping list than he had intended. All of these things were, however, a decidedly better use of his time than Father’s rambling, incoherent homily and the inevitably disappointing perfunctory Mass.
The man in the navy blue blazer is having a crisis of faith. He has tried everything he can to stop the hemorrhage — prayed, fasted, begged, implored. He believes that God is disinclined to care. He prays he makes it through this period of trial and that sanity will soon return to his church. He can’t wait for all of this to pass.
He rushes into the Communion line and glances to his right at the girl with the purple veil, kneeling in the back row of the pews. He recognizes her but doesn’t know who she is.
She is a woman, really, not a girl anymore. Her youth and fugacious beauty are evaporating quicker than Pope Francis can fish a Pachamama out of the Tiber. The last year has taken it out of her. She has packed on some pounds recently, you have to admit. She didn’t process into the Communion line, again. For months now, she has held back. The sin and despair are paralyzing.
She too is enduring a crisis of faith. She can’t reconcile so many things about God and His Catholic Church. These aren’t the things you say aloud in her community. She is alone. Always. Alone. It often feels like too much to bear.
The pope loathes people like her more than he seems to dislike sin. They reassure themselves by recalling Christ’s warning that they would be despised for following Him — they just didn’t ever imagine that it was going to be His own vicar on Earth who would be doing so much of the despising.
The People of the Trad Catholic Internet have tossed their John Paul II Catechisms into the trash like so much garbage — they have been relegated, now, to the dustbin of history. She has a lot of time invested in those marked up and Post-It-noted pages. Hers is still sitting, suddenly more awkward than it was, on the bookshelf. But one has to admit that it is relatively obsolete now. The Magisterium seems to be up for debate these days — ever morphing, ever being reinterpreted. Updated, improved. Much like those jingly bells. Catholic Tradition has been consigned to the ever expanding Marketplace of Ideas.
She doesn’t see God’s plan for His Church, cannot fathom that people are being led away from the Truth by the Church itself. The laity stamp their feet and demand to feed themselves and each other at this Divine Banquet, on their own time and with their own unconsecrated hands — an ordinary mockery, a quotidian torture. The Church, somehow, condones it.
Cursed, like Zechariah, silent and unable to speak for months, she turns her famished cheek away and pleads to the priest from all the way in the back — please, Father. Make us wait. She is disinclined to believe he ever will. She cannot wait for the reception of Communion to be over.
Perhaps by next week she will have had some revelation and be able to come back to Him. Perhaps it will simply be a battle eventually lost by attrition. Starvation. Malnutrition. Pray that she will soon be given the grace to indefinitely delay a détente with the Devil.
Communion ends. The Deacon in the Purple Striped Pajamas hastily helps Father clean up the dishes and intones a caffeinated, singsong, lullaby dismissal. He wakes the congregation once again. They are on their way to watch football. Thanks be to God. They can’t wait.
Lord, there are those among us who say Your Beloved Church has been infiltrated by the Dark Powers, by Satan himself. We don’t know how that can possibly be true. We don’t know how or why You would let that happen. Lord, we do not understand. For some of us, the questioning, the struggle to keep our faith, and the discord in our souls have not been theoretical and abstract. For some of us, these things have not merely happened to someone else.
You have felt, for so long, as beams of winter starlight shining from far, far above. Cold and distant. Impossibly remote and absent. We can oftentimes barely distinguish You from everything else in the sky. We fail to see, with our meager human reason, how You can possibly be guiding this Church — she has become a star we have struggled to follow to salvation, a map we second-guess.
Give us the grace, Your abundant grace, our Chief Shepherd, this Blessed Advent, to believe. To believe, despite the failings of the men in your Church. Though this has been one of the most difficult years of our collective Catholic lives, You bring perpetual gifts of renewal and replenishment. As this liturgical year is born anew, drive the doubt from our hearts and pain from our souls.
Help us seek not to understand every daily crisis, every abnegation of our glorious tradition. Give us the faith to recall your words — I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matt. 28:20) — and to follow the echoes of your ancient shepherds through the winter wilderness of this modern age. The clouds are dark, and night surrounds us, but their wisdom and guidance will lead us ever onward toward the Star of Bethlehem.
And when we find that blessed manger, Lord, let us prepare ourselves for the birth of the newborn king. We cannot make a bed of straw within our hearts for the quiet repose of an infant messiah when our souls are ablaze with irascible fire. Instead, kindle within us the warm glow of a candle’s flame, tranquil and calm, small and untroubled, by which we will welcome the Christ child to His earthly home. May we rest, Lord, hunkered down by your lowly bed in this cold stable, through the coming days, with not a feeling of cold abandonment, but one of peaceful anticipation.
We will wait, God, because You are the One worth waiting for. We wait, in perpetual hope that our faith will be reborn this Advent season. That we will find you, the Source of Warmth and Light, who somehow still shivered in the cold. We will hold Your tiny hand close, kiss Your perfect cheek, and pray we don’t betray You again. We will pull You close and cling to you, in a gentle embrace, as did your Blessed Mother. We will whisper in your brand new ears, “I am with you always, even unto the end.” Until you come again in glory. O Come, O come, Emmanuel. You cannot come soon enough.
But until that time, we will wait.