Our parish has sixty-two programs, projects, and ministries. I counted them. Have you miscarried? There’s a project for that. Do you struggle with pornography? A parish ministry can help you. Don’t have enough to eat? We have a program to assist you.
What if you are in your seventies or older and feeling abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church? Nope. We do not seem to have a program, project, or ministry for that. We’ve got bereavement support, suicide prevention, and depression assistance, but not a Crisis of Faith Hotline for the Elderly.
Such a ministry is urgently needed. The group in need is getting to the end. We want – no, we need – to get this right. How we spend eternity hangs in the balance. But there’s a problem: we’re just not sure anymore.
What’s the big deal? you say. If you are so concerned about this heaven and hell thing, just go to Mass every Sunday and Confession at Easter, and you’re good. If you’re lucky, they’ll give you the Last Rites just before you die.
I wish I could believe that it is that easy.
Our Generation’s Catholicism Has Never Been Easy
Our generation’s Catholicism always has required effort – effort to understand its teachings, effort to assist at Mass, effort to live up to the Church’s requirements. But not so much effort that you couldn’t do it with the help of the grace of God. Although it took effort to be a Catholic, we knew there was no other means of salvation. We knew this was true because the One True Church said it was true, and we had confidence in what the Church said.
At the beginning, we were told that nothing was being changed. We have been told for fifty years that nothing has changed. People like me believed it. Maybe our generation believed it because we were too busy to pay much attention. We were just starting out in life. Our families and our careers commanded most of our time. So what if the Mass used to be in Latin and now it’s in English? How is that a problem? Was not the first Mass offered in Aramaic? Besides, we are talking about the Catholic Church here, not Flip Wilson’s “Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.”
Things have slowed down enough in retirement that I have had time to look around and see what’s been going on while I was busy living my life. The first thing I noticed was that most of my friends and relatives no longer go to Sunday Mass. Some have even quit the Church and joined another religion. Some say they really don’t need any church; they have a direct and personal relationship with God.
Too bad for them, I say. Having once had the Faith and then rejecting it is worse than never having had the Faith at all. I may not have been paying close attention to the Faith, but at least I’m still Catholic.
Ah, but what does it mean to still be Catholic? In 2010, I found myself attending Mass in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y. It was Trinity Sunday. I remember that it was Trinity Sunday because the deacon read the Gospel and preached on “God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sanctifier.” Ouch. No wonder pastors joke that this Sunday should be called “Heresy Sunday.”
Another memory of that Mass is that the Consecration passed almost unnoticed. No bells, no special reverence from the celebrant, barely any elevation of the host and chalice. The congregation seemed unaware of what was happening at that particular point in the Mass.
Then came the Our Father. Oh, brother! The celebrant was animated, the people were loud, and (almost) everyone was holding hands and raising them in unison to heaven. This was the high point of the liturgy.
After receiving (what I hoped was) Communion, I prayed silently that God would forgive that pastor for what he was doing. I also prayed that my attendance at Mass that day satisfied my Sunday obligation.
This was my first realization that the Catholicism of the people in that church, their Catholicism, was not the same as my Catholicism.
Seven years later, summer 2017, I had another experience at Mass. Again it was in upstate New York, this time at a resort community in a non-denominational building that is used for concerts and lectures as well as Protestant, Catholic, and other religious services.
A family came in and sat on the bench in front of me. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to people coming into church and continuing to chit-chat until the Mass begins. So their doing so this day did not bother me. Besides, this was not a church. Other than the rustic altar with a couple of flickering candles on the stage facing us, there was nothing that would put one in a proper frame of mind for what was about to take place.
Mass began, and the woman in front of me took one final swig of coffee from her Yeti thermal tumbler. I was immediately concerned. Mass in this venue takes half an hour – forty minutes, tops. Communion happens about twenty-five minutes in. She had started the one-hour clock on the Eucharistic fast. There was no way she was going to be able to make it.
It probably goes without saying that she did, in fact, receive Holy Communion. And immediately upon returning to her bench, she took another swig of coffee and washed it down!
The Eucharistic fast is not the point. The point is that this woman manifested no awareness whatsoever of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. My God, the surveys are right.
The Mass is the clearest and most obvious manifestation of the change from Catholicism as I learned it to Catholicism as it is practiced today. And it is more than just the language of the liturgy.
It used to be “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” Today, the Mass is a communal meal. Don’t worry about that old “state of grace” requirement for partaking in the meal. Today, the Eucharist is food to accompany us on the journey. All are welcome to share in the meal, regardless of the presence or absence of sanctifying grace in their souls. There is no mortal sin; there is only falling short of the ideal.
It used to be that the priest offered the Perfect Sacrifice on our behalf in worship of God. The Mass was complete even if there was no “people’s communion.” Today, the priest is there to lead us in prayer and song. Today, the Mass is for and about us. If the priest is a poor homilist, we “don’t get anything out of it.”
Abandonment of Dogma
The Mass is not the only manifestation of the transformation that I now realize has taken place in the Catholic Church. Each day, it seems, there is a new contradiction or a new ambiguity regarding what I had learned as fixed, firm, unchangeable dogma. Take, for example, interfaith initiatives.
In my Catholicism, the Catholic Church is the one, true church. Outside the Church there is no salvation. There were rules against attending the services and ceremonies of other religions. Missionaries went out with zeal to every corner of the world so that all people could hear the Gospel and be saved. The Catholic Church, by definition, was and is open to all of humanity.
Now one religion is pretty much as good as any other. Priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, gurus – they can all offer their own brand of worship in each other’s buildings. It’s unity that is important, not those inconvenient statements still contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and not some notion of the necessity for valid, sacramental holy orders.
The rationale for these interfaith initiatives seems to be that “we all pray to the same God, even if we refer to God by different names.” Really? The God of my Catholicism is a Trinity, three distinct Persons, one divine nature. I’m quite certain that devout Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are not worshiping that God.
It’s that Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, that seems to be the impediment to unity. The other two Persons are so – what’s the word? – abstract that it is easy to relate to Them (or not) in your own particular way. But that Second Person, who dwelt among us with an in-your-face message, who created for us a Church as the means of eternal salvation, and who was the embodiment of the Divine – that’s where the problem lies.
My generation’s Catholicism reveled in the knowledge of Jesus Christ and all that He did and all that He taught. Today’s Catholicism seems to be running from Jesus Christ.
Just as the Church abandoned its liturgy, it is abandoning its dogma. Do not tell me that it is not happening and that nothing is changing. You got that by me once, when I was not paying close attention. Now I am fully alert, and I can see for myself that it is indeed happening.
As the Church abandons its dogma, it abandons me and my generation. The priests and nuns of our youth did a good job of teaching us our faith. You might call us the Bishop Sheen Catholics. We bought in early. Many of us have stayed in for fifty years. It is terrifying to think that we still have it right and it is the Church that is getting it wrong.
My generation needs a ministry of reassurance. When the Church gets it wrong, to whom shall we go?