The calls, framed with just a bit of anxiety, are beginning to come, aren’t they? This is Cardinal Dolan’s, but perhaps you’ve seen them in your own part of the woods. I have.
Every time I run up against it, my knee-jerk response is a simple, borderline obnoxious, Why?
Cardinal Dolan does answer it, in a way:
We need medicine!
We need food for the soul!
We need vaccination from sin, Satan and eternal death!
We need herd immunity as sheep under Christ our Good Shepherd.
All this we behold at Mass!
How can we stay away?
But I am thinking his answer is not that convincing to the audience to which he’s trying to appeal. As if that audience would even hear his invitation, anyway. They’re probably not reading Catholic New York on the regular.
There’s a second part to the why response. It’s related: What have you done over the past year to show me that this should be important to me? That you actually believe that what I’m missing vaccinates me from eternal death?
Catholic apologetics experienced a bit of a renaissance over the past couple of decades, for good and for ill, and much of the concern in apologetics efforts was centered on the issue of credibility.
We need to offer a credible account of the truth of faith to the world.
Much of the time, that sense of credibility was understood in intellectual terms: Our explanation of the faith needs to be credible in a philosophical sense. It needs to make sense to a materialist, scientifically-oriented and relativist world.
Perhaps this is a moment to think about the credibility of our witness in another way:
When the world looks at how we approach faith matters, do they see a body that acts as if it believes in the vital, life-changing and shaping importance of what it preaches?
There is, of course, another sense in which this “credible witness” issue is articulated today – that is, in the question, posed mostly on social media, in relation to politics, as pundits argue that there’s no worse damage done to the credibility of Catholic claims than that done by …that particular pundit’s political opponents.
There’s validity to that – it’s an argument as old as, say, what Harriet Beecher Stowe pointed out in Uncle Tom’s Cabin – but that’s not what I’m focusing on here.
Also, of course, the very profound issue of the credible witness of an institution that has a history of protecting abusers at every level. There’s an issue to deal with, if you’re serious about wondering why people might be staying away.
But at this moment, in this space, I’m writing very specifically about the core of what the Body of Christ is mandated to do here on earth, as articulated by Jesus himself in the Gospels and through the depth and breadth of Church tradition: bring his healing, reconciling, merciful presence to the world. Face-to-face, through the works of mercy and sacramental action.
It’s time to come back to Mass!
What has your Church and its ministers, lay and ordained, done to show over the past year, that they really and truly believe that this suffering world needs Christ?
What images does the American Catholic Church leave us with from the past year? What impressions? Energy? Creativity? Courage? Conviction?
Or is more…this?
Perhaps it would be clearer if you look at the situation, not from the perspective of the administrator anxious about the bottom line, but from the outside.
Perhaps from the perspective of the average person, not “Involved” in much in the parish, who, pre-pandemic did make it to Mass most Sundays, got their kids through at least First Communion and maybe even Confirmation.
What has she been through this past year?
And what has the Church offered her in comfort and assistance, especially if she’s not a known quantity in the parish, if she was pre-pandemic “nothing more” than a name on a registration list? What wisdom, what outreach, what presence, what hint that in her and her family’s suffering, confusion and frustration, Jesus offers, still and now more than ever, his consolation and hope?
Has anyone even called her?
Has anyone reached out in a personal way at all?
Or has her main communication been a link to a livestream and an online giving portal?
Oh, but now, here’s something! ….A link to a video from the pastor, assuring this person, who, if we’re brutally honest here, wouldn’t have been “missed” on a typical pre-pandemic Sunday, because, you know, that doesn’t seem to be the charism of Catholic parishes in the best of times, oh, that he is so happy to welcome her back to the “parish family” because it’s just not the same without her there?
I’m telling you – I’m seeing some parishes where life does, indeed, seem to be back to pre-pandemic levels. I attended Holy Thursday and Good Friday at a parish where they were still doing limited, every-other row seating, they were packed, and I thought….how are they going to do Easter?
And the parishes that seem to have bounced back are those parishes that didn’t let pandemic measures stop them. Mass didn’t stop, even if congregations couldn’t be present or fully engaged – and those Masses weren’t bare bones run-throughs, either. Confessions didn’t stop. Ministry to the homebound and the hospitalized and the grieving didn’t stop. Bringing the Real Presence of Jesus into the community didn’t stop – because those pastors believed in the reality of this Real Presence, and all that it means.
They were safe. They were observant of civic regulations. But they were creative and energetic and even brave. They went to great lengths to continue to live out the Gospel in visible, helpful ways that ended up being a credible witness of the vital importance of that Gospel.
And their pews are full now. Or at least getting there!
How can we get them back? It is the question I’m sure being tossed about in countless chancery and parish meetings right now.
It’s the wrong question. It’s a clubby, cliquish, institutional question.
The right question is the same one it’s always been, in every era and situation Jesus’ friends have walked beginning with the era we’re focusing on right now in Easter Season. The apostles didn’t ask, How can we get everyone to join us in our upper room?
No, they left that room, unafraid, went out into the streets, face-to-face, and shared Good News. As Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel reading:
‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.’
Witnesses. Credible witnesses who saw the mess of the past year, not as reason to retreat, but as the best reason in the world to go out to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem – that is, the streets outside their own front door.
(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on April 17, 2021, on the Charlotte was Both blog and is reposted here in slightly different form with the author’s permission.)
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