This Christmas my local parish was something to behold. Midnight Mass began with light only from decorations on the Evergreen trees, the Priest, escorted by the Deacon and members of the local Knights of Columbus, processed through the Pews with an icon of the baby Jesus to be laid in the Manger. The entire Church was silent and it was beautiful.
As is typical of Christmas and to a lesser extent Easter Masses, the Church was full. This is an unusual circumstance for my parish, as on any typical Sunday the Church is probably half empty. In New England, people who don’t usually come to Church come to Church on Christmas. This is a disheartening aspect of Catholic life in America. Is there anything that can or should be done about it?
Faithful Catholics try to have the mind of Christ. They care about these people that show up in a Catholic Church once a year. Once a year, after all, is not good enough. If they are Catholic and they are not attending Mass every Sunday of the year, they are in grave sin and put themselves in danger of eternal separation from God. This is a reality more distressing than the lack of universal health insurance. Indeed, these people are not simply at risk of dying, like everyone else, but they are at risk of dying and being separated from God forever. I think that if this is true something needs to be done about it.
There are lots of factors that contribute to infrequent Mass attendance and poor catechesis is chief among them. Lots of good people, good Catholics, simply do not know that they are obligated to attend Mass on Sundays. If you are reading this you likely know that Mass is not optional for Catholics; if we are to consider ourselves Catholic then we must consider Mass attendance a necessary component of our salvation. Another factor that contributes to poor Mass attendance is simply lack of faith. Many Catholics do not believe in the God of the Bible. Rather they believe in a god of their convenience, one that fits their particular idiosyncrasies and who is conducive to them “being a good person.”
Given that it seems that poor Mass attendance is largely the result of intellectual problems, it is wise to think an intellectual solution will be the most efficacious. So my question is this: why don’t priests say anything about this? Is it wrong to include simple truths about the Faith in Christmas sermons? And I don’t just mean priests who aren’t deeply in love with God – even very holy priests, very orthodox, very prayerful priests would seem to have qualms with discussing the truths of the faith at the pulpit.
I would be the first one to admit that the Sermon cannot be only an exposition of the Church’s teaching on faith and morals. The true proper place for this type of teaching is during Confirmation classes. But another sad fact about Catholic life in America is that catechesis doesn’t happen at Confirmation anymore. At least in my Diocese, we have moved from teaching the truths of the faith to trying to teach the experience of a personal encounter with Christ (this is difficult to teach for a number of reasons). So more often than not, a person’s only encounter with the Church and Her teachings is that once a year experience at Christmas or Easter. This is a holy opportunity to reach out to these wayward souls, and it is being squandered.
My priest, who I believe to be very holy, very orthodox and very much in love with Jesus and the Church (even the teachings) gave a homily that spoke of the obligations imposed on a person in relationship with God. This was good – very good, except that the content of these obligations was left undefined. Yes! The Incarnation means we are in a new and holy relationship with God. Yes! Catholics have obligations to God. But what those obligations exactly are, well, we’re not allowed to talk about? Does a priest have an obligation to define these obligations, especially on Christmas? It would seem to me he does.
Or maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Maybe the sermon isn’t the place to catechize the Catholic people. Maybe I’m supposed to accept the thousands of Catholics who are being left out of life’s greatest joy, which is the fullness of the Catholic faith. But maybe I’m not.