Why We Stay Away

As the parish priest closes a Sunday, he replays in his mind the faces from the morning. He strives to remember the names of the visitors, the dates that quickly given about coming medical procedures, and he tries to forget any petty verbal jab or passive-aggressive confrontation. He also reflects on the faces he didn’t see. How many Sundays has it been since they were here? Are they traveling? Are they ill? Is something wrong?

The cut of a blade that is double-edged never heals. We should not be distracted by those who aren’t there at the expense of those who are; we know this. Yet we are also troubled by the stern admonition of the prophets and Our Lord himself who was quick to leave the 99 and snatch from certain danger the 1. We are not operating a commercial enterprise, needing the patronage of consumers happy consumers and yet, we are.  

The percentage of those who have received the faith from a previous generation is declining faster than even the most pessimistic cares to admit. The fastest growing faith is no faith at all. The church’s response? Give them what they want. But what do they want? They don’t know. Therein lies the catch. No matter what new thing we offer, the returns will, ultimately, continue to diminish.

Nearly 200 years ago, Blessed John Henry Newman asked the exact same question.

“Does it not seem a plain nature instinct,” he asked, “that every one should seek his own good? What then is meant by this unwillingness to come for the greatest of goods, life; an unwillingness, which, guided by the light of Scripture and by experience, we can confidently affirm to prevail at this day as widely and as fully as in the age which Christ said it?”

The Scriptural context to which Newman refers is John 5.40, “Ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life.” The context of his comments is from a homily preached (date unknown) on the First Sunday after Easter, as every priest knows, both liturgically and numerically, as Low Sunday.

Newman is a brilliant thinker; this we know. He was unique even among intellectual luminaries of his company. His gift for perception as a pastor, however, often goes unnoticed. He continues to develop the problem:

“Here is no question of a comparison of good with good. We cannot account for this unconcern about Christ’s gift, by alleging that we have a sufficient treasure in our hands already, and therefore are not interested by the news of a greater. Far from it; for is not the world continually taking away its own gifts, whatever they are? And does it not thereby bring home to us, does it not importunately press upon us, and weary us with the lesson of its own nothingness? Do we not confess that eternal life is the best of all conceivable gifts, before which none other deserve to be mentioned? Yet we live to the world”

 There is nothing new under the sun. The temptation, of course, is to give more information. How often have priests heard this from devoted lay leaders and how often have we spoken these words ourselves? If they just understood what the Church expects, they would come. If they just knew what the parish expenses were, they would give. If they just understood how rampant (fill in the social ill), they would serve. But that is not the answer. Rabbi Edwin Friedman would call this the Fallacy of Expertise. The answer is not simply more information.

Newman beat us to it. “And others fancy that if the doctrines of the Gospel were set before them in a forcible or persuasive manner, this would serve as a means of rousing them to an habitual sense of their true state. But ignorance is not the true cause why men will not come to Christ.”

To be clear, we are not given permission to judge hearts, for we can’t. We have no business declaring what is a weed and what is wheat. We are called to do the only thing we can do, acknowledge the presence or the absence of fruit. The fruit of the faithful Christian, Newman articulates, is the longing for and reception of the Blessed Sacrament. In his homily, he does not seek to condemn any soul, rather he does the only thing he can: acknowledge the presence or absence of the Christian. To downplay the importance of mass attendance is to reject any serious trust in the Sacramental Presence of Jesus Christ. Priests want their people in mass not because they receive a certificate from the bishop or a financial bonus from the vestry. We know that when we are at mass, we are in His Presence.  

“If then a man does not seek Him where He is, there is no profit in seeking Him where He is not. What is the good of sitting at home seeking Him, when His Presence is in the holy Eucharist?”

Having said that, Newman makes his case and it is a pill that does not go down easily. “The true reason why people will not come to this Holy Communion is this – they do not wish to lead religious lives.”

He anticipates the next objection that there are other reasons why Christians avoid mass, “Allow as much as we will for proper distrust of themselves, reasonable awe, the burden of past sin, imperfect knowledge, and other causes, still after all there is in most cases a reluctance to bear, or at least to pledge themselves to bear, Christ’s yoke; a reluctance to give up the service of sin once for all; a lingering love of their own ease, of their own will, of indolence, of carnal habits, of the good opinion of men whom they do not respect; a distrust of their perseverance in holy resolves, grounded on a misgiving about their present sincerity. This is why men will not come to Christ for life; they know that He will not impart Himself to them, unless they consent to devote themselves to Him.” 

Here Newman makes an interesting move. As harsh as it might be to hear for all readers, it is worth reading for he tells the truth. We are content in our brokenness. We are lazy and undisciplined. We think we are doing just fine, thank you very much.

“They may be told of their Lord’s love for them, His self-denying mercy when on earth, His free gifts, and His long suffering since; they will not be influenced; and why? Because the fault is in their heart; they do not like God’s service. They know full well what they would have, if they might choose. Christ is said to have done all things for us; “Far from it,” say they, “He is not a Mediator suited to our case. Give life, give holiness, give truth, give a Savior to deliver from sin; this is not enough: no, we want a Savior to deliver in sin…We want to do nothing at all, and then the gift will be free indeed. If our hearts must be changed to fit us for heaven, let them be changed, only let us have no trouble in the work ourselves…Let Christ suffer, but be it ours to rejoice only. What we wish is, to be at ease; we wish to have thing our own way; we wish to enjoy both this world and the next; we wish to be happy all at once. If the Gospel promises this, we accept it; but if not, it is but a bondage, it has no persuasiveness, it will receive no acceptance from us.””

Granted, Newman paints with a broad stroke, but the resulting picture is detailed enough to be recognizable. And how is the Church complicit in this? How are we not? Stream online, no need to come. No confession during Easter, who sins anyway? Churches are closing, the building doesn’t matter. Communion before baptism? Sure! Cohabitation before marriage, why not? Creed is offensive? We don’t ask you to check your brain at the door.

Blessed John Henry Newman, ora pro nobis.

His brush isn’t only for the nominal. He rightfully warns those who are present every Sunday. How casual are we at the altar? Do we even think about what is happening and Who is Present? Newman doesn’t worry about those who worry about their unworthiness in receiving communion. It’s those who aren’t worried who are in danger of an unworthy reception.

Postcommunion is just as dangerous. My portrait emerges from this stroke. How quickly does my mind leave the Sacramental sphere after I receive the Host? How quick is my tongue? How fast to my thoughts turn to cynicism?

 Newman doesn’t give a simple answer to the problem. That’s something we would try to do. The remedy is the Holy Spirit, of whom we can neither command nor coerce. He leads us, we do not lead him. Yet we can deny him. We can minimize him. We can mock him. We do all of that by rejecting the power and necessity of a religious life.

It is the Holy Spirit who warms the most frozen of hearts. It is the Holy Spirit who comforts and heals. It is the Holy Spirit who brings us the Sacramental Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

At the close of Sunday, the priest should not make the day’s attendance all about him. While he can drive people from Church, it is the Holy Spirit who draws them to Church. He is wise to understand the difference.