Catholic Mass begins and ends with the presiding priest touching his lips to the altar. That is because there is a stone encased in altars that holds a relic of a saint. The kissing gesture connects the people of earth with those of heaven through our touchstone. It is in worship that humanity and divinity co-mingle. Unfortunately, in recent years and decades amidst ecclesial scandals, Catholic parishes have lost thousands of parishioners, deaneries have lost tens of thousands, and dioceses have lost hundreds of thousands. The mass exodus of worshipers is a symptom of people’s struggle to relate to God through the church and desultory ritual.
The primary purpose of our Sunday Mass is to worship God: to give praise and thanks. There is an order and structure to the worship that is grounded and universal; it connects us to God’s kingdom, like the touchstone. Unlike congregational faith-communities, Catholics do not divert from our common worship though some parishes are far more lively, inspirational, creative, and engaging than others. Most people today are attracted to their Sunday experience because of the community of faith that assembles with them; a family of faith is an extension of our domestic family, and we love seeing them. This is different than in ages past, when most people attended primarily because we feared going to hell (missing Mass on Sunday is a mortal sin according to a Catholic precept) or we genuinely felt the sacramental presence of Christ in our lives through the Eucharist. Of course, most of us still feel the divine and loving presence of Christ at Sunday worship—far more are motivated now by love than by fear.
Many Catholics who are frustrated by church scandals and who may not attend Mass as often as in times past, if at all, still seek to strengthen their relationship with God and they look to the church to help them. They hope the church can be their touchstone. For many it is through our schools. They are amazing in assisting families to establish a foundational moral code that guides actions, habits, and patterns of domestic living and sets them on a course for more successful lives. The church is also incredibly good at helping members put faith into action by offering outreach to those who are poor, aid to people who flee from violence or starvation, or assistance to children whose families could never make it without financial support from others. Lots of Catholics also seek God through the good spiritual direction that some churches offer. Some people get their spiritual tank filled via worship services; others will get it through retreats and faith formation offerings; still others will find it through personal spiritual guidance or companionship.
Saint Charles Parish and Borromeo Academy provide a place to discern, problem-solve, and think critically. This is a pillar of the classical model of teaching that we embrace. Beyond the classrooms, I have probably seen more adults, 18-92 years old, for spiritual retreats, counseling, and direction in the past five years than I have in my previous twenty-five. I believe it is because we long for a connection to God through the church more now than in the past. We want to touch the divine presence of The Lord within us. At our retreat house, we do lots of personal and family discernment, critical thinking, and problem-solving with our first and primary desire to do the will of God. We don’t always demonstrate it well or get it right. For example, our school team is currently going through some growing pains that cause strife as we seek to move forward together, embracing our common mission and values. Yet, the difficulties can be solved if we’re willing to address them, learn from them, and grow from them.
The Catholic Church, here in 2020, is in a position, I think, to begin healing from wounds that have fractured us and left some deep scars and some empty churches. Those of us who are able to do so need to stay anchored in worship as our Sabbath touchstone. Those who’re responsible for worship should do our best to present a message that challenges, music that inspires, atmosphere that welcomes, and an environment that enhances the gathering. Jesus offered us some guidelines for worship when He sang hymns of praise and linked worship with service while also challenging Pharisees about their empty words, legalistic rituals, and showy gestures. Rather than walking around with a rules book, Jesus referenced King David who danced before The Lord in worship and broadly interpreted liturgical practices. Mostly, Jesus challenged the attitudes of fear and legalism. Like Him, we ought to rejoice in the presence of God in our worship.
We may not fill up our churches again, at least not anytime soon, but I think we have a tremendous opportunity now to engage people along their journey of faith, to impact families in positive ways, to help heal wounds and fractures that we caused, problem-solve as we face challenges, and be the touchstone that others need in their relationship with God.