Why We Still Go to Mass on Sunday: We Need To Be There, for Our Own Sake (I)

Breaking the BreadCambridge, MA. An ongoing subtheme in the current round of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, fueled by the new revelations and the tawdry failure of the hierarchy to have shut down the dishonest Theodore McCarrick decades ago, has to do with the question, “Why Still Go to Church?” Good question. We know that the numbers attending are way down. I am a priest; I still go to to church; but I can hardly complain about Catholics who’ve walked away: may they find spiritual nourishment as they can, elsewhere, and perhaps come back after some time!

Granted: there are other ways to engage in spiritual practice, alone or with others, on a chosen holy day. Few of us do or should come simply out of obligation (though giving up on communal worship is no light step to take); the hierarchy and its local priests (including people like me) are not sufficiently inspiring to make attendance irresistible; and other large issues continue to stand in the way, including especially the question of the call of women in the Church to ordained ministry (an issue that is not really settled, not at all). Etc.

But for those of us who do continue to come to Mass, I think we should not underestimate the benefits of being people who still show up: not for the sake of attendance, meeting membership requirements, or to listen passively,* but to participate in our formative education as 21st century Catholics. (*I write as a priest, who usually presides at Mass when I attend on Sundays, and so my perspective is not “from the pew;” I am privileged not to have to be passive, simply tolerate the inept, or rejoice in the good, of the particular priest at the pulpit and altar any given Sunday. But still, I am a Catholic who is making a choice to still care, still be there, when I too could walk away.)

The world is a hard and sometimes bitter place, and the crisis in the Church only makes things worse. But this means that there is a still greater need, then, to “go to church:” to deepen our faith by hearing the Word of God, learning from it, and taking it to prayer, us together, in communion, sharing in the body and blood of Christ, and then returning to daily life. Why do we still go to church? Because we need to; because the world needs us to. (In another context, I would say the same to people in other faith tradition: we need you to continue to worship, and bring the richness of your faith to us.)

I will offer two examples, this being the first (posted on October 7), the second following in a moment. Take for example the month of September, when in both the Church and Washington, scandal and anger burn so harshly, and our leaders failed us yet again. On all five Sundays in September, the second reading was from the Letter of James, one of the most challenging (and properly opinionated) books of the New Testament. All five Sundays, James confronts us directly:

September2 — Chapter 1, 21-22: Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But become doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

September9 — Chapter 2, 5-6: Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor.

September16 — Chapter 2, 15-16: If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

September23 — Chapter 3, 17-18: But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace forthose who make peace.

September30 — Chapter 5, 4-5: Listen, you rich people! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

Again and again, James is cajoling, rebuking, begging us not to be naïve, not to be sucked into the ordinary flow of a violent and corrupt society, not to be passive in the face of injustice. We are rather  to live by the example of Christ, and to profess a faith that means something, does something. This is hard message — perfect for hard times. We need to hear this right now, whether or not the Church is burdened by scandals. Yes, I might stay at home and read the Bible on one’s own, but really: if I leave behind the Church, won't it be easy to leave behind the Word of God too?

James was enough for the month of September, but each week, of course, there are readings too from the Hebrew Bible and from the Gospels, most of this year from Mark. These greatly enhance the word we hear from James. On September 30, for instance, James is rebuking his listeners — and those they know — for cravings and fears that lead to an aggressive and selfish way of life that prospers by stealing from workers and poor. The readings from Numbers and Mark put it the other way: why be afraid and stingy, why imagine that I have a monopoly on righteousness, when God is overwhelmingly generous with the Spirit —and yes, even outside the community?

Numbers 11, 28-29: Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses' aide, said, "Moses, my lord, stop them." But Moses answered him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!"

Mark 9, 38-40: “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me,for whoever is not against us is for us.” The Spirit is not under our control.

That is to say, we need to bear down on the doing of the faith, with as much intensity as we can manage — and still be humble enough to allow for the fact that others in the community speak other words and act differently than we do. Neither the right nor the left owns the Church nor can domesticate the Spirit of God. In church and society, it is simply not Christian to demonize those with other views.

Now all of this is instructive and corrective, but the setting is also important: we hear this word, we share it (provided the priest does his job, and preaches on the Word of the day) — and then we bring our prayers before the Lord; and then we share in the meal initiated by Christ, the sharing in his body and blood. We pray, we sing, we bring our needs before the Lord, we worship, we share in the Body and Blood of Christ; and we do all this week after week. It makes a difference, it transforms us.

There is nothing about the abuse crisis, nor about the failure of the Pope and the bishops to do their job, nor the failure of the clergy – me included — to be prophetic enough, nor about too-passive congregations that also do not do enough, that adds up to the notion that it is not good for us to gather on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings to hear the Word, be confronted by it, and pray and worship and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. (Even better: go to Mass during the week too.)

We don’t go to church because of a charismatic pope or some particularly persuasive letter from a bishop, or because of the announcement that some earnest committee has been set up to tighten up the rules “as we look to the future.” We go to Mass, because we are the ecclesia, Christian, Catholic, and simply doing what we have done from the beginning: gathering to hear the Word, break the Bread, share the Cup, praise and worship God together. Ought the faith of the people come to a halt, because of the sins of the Church?