What if you were told that you had to come to church?
What if you were forced to come, just because the church needed to fill the pews?
What if someone begged you to go into their church building to sit there, to admire the architecture, to listen to the music, or to come for the socializing?
These are not bad reasons to come, in and of themselves, because God uses various ways to bring us back to Himself, but are they really the right reasons, and would you truly feel like going for these things alone? We should remember that the Eucharist is the primary reason why we go to church.
But if your heart was really not interested, or you felt that something was missing, or if you knew that you believed in God but just wanted pray in church silently, or participate in the Mass in your own quiet way, should you not do what is best on your faith journey with God? Perhaps you are not ready to go to Mass until you go to confession or speak with a spiritual director or religious person? After all, we each have a unique relationship with God and are at different spiritual stages on our faith journey.
You see, this may be contrary to what we normally say to non-practicing Catholics, or to lapsed Catholics who want to return, or to those who are thinking about becoming Catholic, or to the youth, or to families – just go to Mass, participate, and you would be welcome – and you surely would be, but we in the Church family need to be very careful about how we are calling people to come.
Catholic leaders always want more people to come to their churches and Masses. A packed church is seen as a ‘successful’ church. I’ve heard the comments: “Oh the church was full!” or “Many people came!” or “It was a full house.” or the rather crude aim of more “bottoms on seats” and so on. I’ve even heard of the holy liturgical celebration being referred to as a ‘gig’. It is as if we are just keeping track of the numbers and who is more popular. On the surface, some may say that it shows how a church is active, successfully engaged with people, vibrant, and alive with a community spirit. But does it really? Is this authentic? If we scratched the surface a little deeper, what would we find in each soul there, including our own?
Most of us know that, especially at Easter and Christmas, our churches are suddenly filled to overflowing, or we notice more people during warmer weather, during other major liturgical feasts, or at Confirmations, Holy Communions, weddings, and funerals. But where do all of these people go afterwards? And many of the appeals for more people to participate in the life of the Church seem to be explicitly and only directed at the youth. In fact, the wording in literature I have seen lately is that there is a ‘preference’ for the youth. A preference for any one group of people in God’s family means that other people will be pushed aside and forgotten about. This can result in an exclusive rather than inclusive church community. I wonder what Christ would think? I don’t believe God plays favourites, or wants His Church to be like that. He loves and wants us all.
While the young are definitely the future of the survival of the Church and more vocations to the priesthood and religious life, they are not the only members of Christ’s body, and we need to be very, very careful about excluding people based on their age or frequency of Mass attendance. Everyone is called to come and be together in our shared faith and love for God. It is as if we are saying that our eyes are more important than our toes, where in fact both are cherished and just as important for our body to be healthy and whole (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). We never want to make anyone feel like they are not wanted, welcome, appreciated or needed just because they are older, single, married, regulars, or are returning to their Catholic faith. In short, everyone is needed in God’s Kingdom, on earth and in heaven, and we are called to be in the world but not of the world – listen to how Jesus prays to the Father:
My prayer is not that You take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify Myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. (John 17:15-19)
Sometimes I feel that in our efforts to ‘recruit’ more Catholics, or to get more people to come to our Masses, especially the youth, we can seem too desperate. We try to attract the youth in ‘popular’ and secular ways so that they may ‘relate better’ to the Church or so the Church can be seen to be more ‘relevant’ to them by putting on barbeques, pizza/pub nights, special concerts or other exciting ‘events’. We may think this will entice them in positive ways in order to ‘get them in’. It is as if Christ Himself, His real presence in the Eucharist, His Word, and His pure love which is offered through the Sacraments, is just not good enough. So we have to add more layers and complicate things to make the Church more ‘appealing’. I think that – although we may be well-intentioned – this can offend God. His beautiful Son is good enough as He is. In fact, He is perfect.
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him!” (Luke 9:35)
What could be more attractive than the all-consuming eternal love of Jesus, the Son of God who loved us to death? How can our hearts not be drawn to His after the way He demonstrated such a great love through His suffering and sacrifice for us – all of us, no matter our age or background? I had one person say to me once that it did not matter what people did, as long as they were coming into the church and were there at Mass. Really? Surely, there must be substance and a personal commitment in our being in His Presence?
What about the virtues, and developing humility, purity, and true holiness? How about asking if people are actually interested in the reality of Christ and truly believe in His teachings? How about emphasising the importance of understanding and wholeheartedly accepting Church teachings? What about the condition of people’s spiritual life and the authenticity of their faith? How about offering people more faith formation to keep that faith alive?
By asking these questions of ourselves and others, we do not intend to be judgmental, but to challenge each other and ourselves to do and be more for Him. We need to be each other’s champion for our faith. We need to be accountable. Perhaps we are too afraid to put these questions to our congregations and ourselves because we feel that we are being too critical. We are too afraid of offending each other, when in fact most of us are roaming the earth hungering for the truth and are deeply wanting to talk it out – no, shout it out – with like-minded companions. Perhaps we would be afraid of chasing people away? Not so! We are doing others and ourselves a disservice if we are not concerned about the welfare of souls and where we will all spend eternity. We need more fire in our bellies, and the strongest spark of love we can muster in our souls. That is why I love the examples of the saints so much. They were battlers and warriors for God. We too in our present age need to take risks to be a Church that is truly alive and passionately in love with God.
If we look to the Holy Spirit and Christ’s words in the Bible, we will notice that His is a simple invitation to “Come and see” (John 1:39). He did not say “Hey, come to Mass where you will see a great performance, then stay for drinks and nibbles afterwards”. He just told it like it was: “Come and see”. No force, no entertainment package, and no door prizes – just a pure and humble invitation to come and receive Him in His house. That is the only thing we need – all of the extra bells and whistles we think of in our modern methods can appear shallow and superfluous in comparison.
His. Love. Is. Enough.
Let us always take up His invitation together and set the world so ablaze that no one will ignore us. They will see us on spiritual fire from every corner of the earth and wonder – ”what substance are they on”? It is only then that everyone will see who we are and Who we belong to. They will doubt no longer and deeply desire to join us.
They will see that this “substance” we are on…
is Jesus Christ.