Sometimes (especially when I am sleep-deprived and am feeling swamped by negativity), I get so tired of the Catholic Church. Okay, that's not totally true. I get tired of the local branch of the Catholic Church- my parish, and everything involved with it.
What's bothering me?
Is it walking in at Midnight Mass to hear someone on the loudspeakers saying something to the effect that, "We are trying to reach the next level of religion, where we realize all religions are the same,"?(What? What? That's Pope John Paul II turning in his grave)
Or yet another poor homily that either is gimmicky and low in any kind of solid truth or relevance to anyone's lives, or just priests talking AT people rather than TO them, or basically some kind of self-help better-yourself speech which again has nothing to do with either God's truths or people's lives, let alone connecting the two, or one that assumes the worst about people, or ones that are theologically unsound, or the plague of India- just lacking in any kind of clarity (wait, what was that homily about? No idea!)?
Or is the horrible Mass music that is lacking in any kind of reverence, depth or beauty? Why yes, I have written about that before. Going to Mass is often more a challenge of patience and gritted teeth, than a beautiful encounter with the Divine. If you sing 'Put a little more of Jesus in your life' one more time, I will scream! Or offer it up, if I'm being less of a brat.
Or is it the painful experience with priests who are impatient, ill-mannered, negative, bossy or closed? With the attitude that people need to jump through hoops to get any help from the parish, need to bow and scrape and prove themselves worthy to be treated with basic courtesy? With the abuse of authority, the complete opposite of the biblical model of servant leadership? Or people involved with the parish who gossip, criticize, dismiss or seem haughty and reserved and suspicious? Who treat the poor and ignorant very differently from the way they treat the educated and well-connected?
Pope Francis is not impressed
Or is it the many programmes, speeches, meetings, rallies full of flowery nothing-sayings, formality and self-congratulatory back-patting, lots of rhetoric and once again a lack of clarity, of truth, and of relevance? Or the obstacles to doing anything differently? Or the hostility and suspicion towards lay associations that are not specifically parish-based even though they are forming and discipling lay Catholics in a way that is not happening at the parish level?
Or is it the focus being on more and more activities and programmes instead of discipleship? On appearances instead of substance? Is it the desperate need I see in people's lives for real truth and real love, and the feeling that the local parish is doing little to meet those needs?
Or is it the thousands of strangers at every Mass, most of whom I don't know, the lack of family atmosphere? Is it how well-dressed everyone is, so well-dressed it seems like it's a club for the rich where vernacular-speaking Indians would never be welcome? Is it the resistance and irritation from average parishioners with our vernacular speaking Bishop, and our push for a vernacular Mass (just ONE Mass, out of the SEVEN English masses we have every weekend)?
You might ask "Well, Sue, why on earth ARE you still Catholic in that case?"
Well, if I was an average Catholic in the pews and the parish was my only exposure to what it meant to be Catholic, I probably would have left a long time ago. But it wasn't.
Personal encounter: When I was a teenager, I had my own personal encounter with Christ. I grew up in the Charismatic renewal, and so was exposed to far more retreats and talks focussing on the basic truth of Christianity- that I was loved by a personal God who desired to be in relationship with me, and through whom my life made sense. I met a Person, not a system of beliefs.
Witness: I met Catholic Christians (and other Christians) who were unlike most people I met at the parish (or anywhere else). They KNEW this personal God, and you could see the difference in their lives. You could see a Light shining through their genuine love and kindness and holiness. They loved the Truth and the Truth made them free to love. They were unapologetic about their faith, and they gave a consistent witness that Someone was changing them and causing them to be Lovers in a world that is lacking in love.
Truth Explained: The witness of these people I met and the personal encounters I had had gave me enough reason to start digging a little deeper. I read 'Rome Sweet Home'. I began to explore the world of online Catholic blogs, articles and forums. I met all sorts there too, from the permanently on the attack Catholic apologists to the obsessed with the Liturgy traditionalists. But I found enough writers* whose reasoned explanations and personal experiences and awe at the beauty of the Church and humble down-to-earth approach convinced me that my experience in my parish did not reflect what it really meant to be Catholic. I began to read the Catechism which is the opposite of boring- just read the section on prayer. (Priests, get your homily material from here!)
The Eucharist: I became aware of what exactly was going on at Mass regardless of the poor music and homilies. I began to look forward to Mass as I realized Whom I was meeting in the Eucharist. I began to listen to the readings, and hear God speak to me. For the first time, I heard the Mass prayers, and realized how chock-full of beauty and wisdom they were. (Look at this beautiful blessing over the couple at a Catholic wedding.) No matter how distracted or grumpy or tired I was when I entered Mass, by the time I received Jesus into my messy heart, something changed.
Facing the Human Condition: Yes, I'm an idealist who feels very frustrated when I see that things are not where they should be. But as I grew and experienced different people and communities and situations, I realized that deep truth- 'Human beings are messed up.' Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart." What makes me mad in our parishes is human sin, human weakness and human brokenness. But as I grew closer to the Lord I realized that the sin and weakness out there is also the sin and weakness in here. People in the parish are negative and closed and bossy? I often face the temptation to be negative and closed and bossy. In the worst people I knew, I would suddenly see moments of kindness. In the best people I knew, I would see blind spots.
And without excusing the horrible behaviour of some, I was able to have some compassion- who knows the background of each person? People are preaching lame, weak homilies? Maybe they have never themselves been exposed to truth. They misuse authority? They have probably been bossed around their whole lives by people misusing authority. They throw their weight around? Maybe they still struggle with insecurity.
Bottom line: We are desperate, wounded people in need of a Saviour.
Seeing the Good: Even with all the brokenness and imperfection and sin out there, there are so many jewels in the midst of the rubbish. I have met people in the parish who humbly and faithfully serve the Lord, people who are gentle and kind, people who are quick to forgive, quick to respond to a smile, quick to offer any kind of help, and go the extra mile. Many of the people who are not where I hope they would be are actually very open and wanting something more- sheep without a shepherd.
There are priests who ARE humble, who have humbly collaborated with lay people, been excited and zealous and encouraging when they see the good that God is doing even if it was not their project. There are priests I know I can call any time to hear my Confession. There are priests and church people who are quick to appreciate, to praise, to see the good, whom I have rarely heard speak a negative word. There ARE disciples- acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with their God... even if they do not receive any acknowledgement or praise for it.
Love People, Trust God: Finally I'm Catholic not because I have any faith in the church structures or even leaders. I'm here because I trust JESUS, and because I believe He called me to the Church, to be strengthened by the (priest-proof) sacraments, to be guided by unchanging truth (Jesus' teaching handed down over the past 2000 years), and to allow the Holy Spirit to work in ME to restore His Church so that one day it may reflect His Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
I dream of a day when I can go to Mass and hear solid, challenging, truth-filled homilies, where our pastors are visibly 'other Christs', in their humility, wisdom and love, treating parishioners as coworkers in the Kingdom, not inferiors, where the hymns radiate beauty and lift our hearts to heaven, where parishioners are DISCIPLES first, whose love for one another is visible, who welcome the outsider with open arms, whose priority is service to the poor and mission.
We're not there yet.
In the meanwhile, I need to hold on to hope, let go of negativity, and in humility, allow the Spirit to help me to 'be the change I want to see'. I need to absorb and live St. Paul's words- 'Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.' I need to allow Jesus to make me a saint. Let us begin.