Now that some weeks have passed from the initial hubbub, I can find no better words to describe the sapiential oracles about the Mass attendance census than those used by contemporary Catholic French philosopher of Jewish descent Fabrice Hadjadj. He writes that, most of the time, controversy does not catch the exactness of thought because the pleasure of tearing things as puppies do – and this is the pleasure typical of adolescence, not of adulthood – impedes from entering into the patience of long-term reflection.
Needless to say, in no way am I in a position to say that the outcome is not somewhat worrying. It is worrying that people take upon themselves the Christian commitment through baptism (even though most are baptised as infants, parents do make such a commitment, not only on their child’s behalf but also renewing theirs!) and then do not live up to it.
It is worrying that people pretend to be Christians by simply saying a morning prayer or going to Mass on the commemoration of Our Lady of Sorrows, as if to square their accounts with God, without realising that going to Mass is not an issue of doing God a favour but that it is about opening ourselves to that which only God can give us: the gift of Himself.
But people may worry for different reasons and come up with a plethora of conclusions, depending on one’s standpoint and hermeneutics.
If we were to analyse the census from a ‘political’ perspective, then the reduced attendance would indicate that we need to change according to public opinion, as political parties do. After all, even in politics that’s what’s happening: party policies and action plans are no longer inspired by ideologies or beliefs but by vox pops, and since we no longer know what politicians believe in, we choose the best package deal, like we do with internet and mobile packages. But God forbid that it becomes indirectly an obsession with popularity and power.
Nor is it simply a question of PR and finding the best way to promote our products. Surely, in recent years, there were too many things that harmed the credibility of the Church, both as an institution and in its individual members. And this is a great burden that we have to carry.
Tell the story of Jesus to the people of our age so that it can shed light on our lives today and touch our hearts deeply
But let’s just focus on the object of the census: the Sunday Mass. Attending Mass is not exactly like going to the cinema or watching a play. The liturgy should be a lived and life-giving experience, but this is not entirely dependent on the product we offer (and I’m using the first person singular pronoun on purpose because it is always a temptation to think of the Church as a “they” rather than as a “we”), the quality of the show, and the ability of the actors. Although these are extremely important because that which is spiritual has to pass through the senses, yet they do not have the last word.
On the other hand, we may also exonerate ourselves completely and cling to the litany of ills of today’s secularised society, which is not entirely false – there is much truth in this version of the story. However, this should make us point our fingers toward ourselves and realise that part of our lack of credibility comes from the fact that we too got infected with this spirit of our age (actually, the spirit of the last 200 years or so) and, consequently, we ceased to be prophetic and relevant because we have nothing better or more inspiring to offer.
In all honesty, it has to be admitted that we cannot castigate ourselves with all the guilt. But coming out with an exact analysis of who is guilty and how much we are guilty would lead only to pointing fingers like little children do, instead of being adult enough to ask ourselves what can be done – or better, what we can do, because it’s always easy to say that others have to do something.
It is always tempting to come up with mega action plans and strategies, but I would like to suggest something very simple – and maybe ridiculous for those who forget the power hidden in the insignificance of the seed... something that worked for two millenia. And I’m optimistic that it will continue to do so if given enough space to mature.
In a lecture about the Gospel of John that I attended a year ago, Professor Beate Kowalski explained that, faced with the concrete situation of his community marked by conflicts within and from outside, and tainted with failure both of its leaders and members, John the Evangelist goes beyond a cursory understanding of the concrete problems and responds by means of telling the Jesus story anew, with a fresh style according to the concrete situations afflicting the community, leading his audience to the spiritual depths of Christian faith.
And Kowalski proposed this method again, emphasising that this is what we should seek to do even today: tell the story of Jesus to the people of our age so that it can shed light on our lives today and touch our hearts deeply.
I think this is where we are truly failing, and it is here that we need to put our focus if we want to be relevant and fulfil our mission and live up to the Church’s raison d’être even today.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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