It’s no secret that many people have stopped going to church. At most churches, you can observe what national polling data have reported.
Many say they get nothing out of religious services. Some complain about lame homilies. Others say they don’t find God in church. Many say it’s simply a boring waste of time.
I get all that, though my experience has been otherwise. I’ve come to appreciate, and even love, the Catholic mass. But it hasn’t been automatic or simply a part of growing older, which some people think makes you more amenable to religion. (People my age, it is believed, are closer to death and are more likely to be intimidated into faith.) I believe I’ve worked at understanding and appreciating the Mass, and it’s paid off.
Nothing in Common?
What I don’t get is the complaint I’ve heard or read by some who say they have nothing in common with the people they find at church. It’s as if we don’t share human feelings of inadequacy, joy in human love, regret for what we did or should have done and for our quick judgment of others. All of us bring these to church, and being conscious of them, we become part of a faith-sharing community.
Recently, my wife, Amparo, and I were attending Mass in the parish where our son lives in a Chicago suburb. In the pew in front of us was a man who appeared to be in his late 30s with his daughter, who appeared to be about eight years old and who has Down syndrome.
We speculated after Mass that he was a single Dad or that his spouse simply hadn’t accompanied him to church. From the moment he entered the pew, the man smothered the little girl with hugs and kisses and continually held her lovingly in his arms.
But when early in the Mass it came time for children to line up to receive a blessing from the priest before heading to another room for the children’s service, the girl didn’t hesitate. Her father encouraged her, and she was at the front of the line. And later he confidently left her alone in the pew for the few minutes it took him to go to communion.
Smothered with Love But Not Protectiveness
This showed me that though he smothered her with love, he didn’t smother her with protectiveness, and that reminded me of God. And it led me to think about what I believe to be one of Jesus’ principle missions – to help us understand who God is. He continually referred to God as parent. According to a web site on the Bible, Jesus calls God “Father” 145 times.
Jesus lived in a decidedly male-dominated culture. In our age, we may prefer to think of God as parent. God, after all, has no gender. If we have or had wonderful parents, the analogy is perfect. If not, we can imagine God as the perfect parent, the parent that we wished we had.
So what kind of parent is God? I believe Jesus paints “the Father” as kind and loving but not clinging. He/she wants us to be independent, to be open to direction but to think for ourselves; to be willing to take risks but to seek forgiveness from him/her and one another when it’s warranted, and to be grateful.
None as Compelling
What accounts for this belief? The Christian Bible has lots of parables and exhortations that show this but none is as compelling as the famous story of the Prodigal Son.
Most people are familiar with it. A son asks for his inheritance from his father and goes off to blow it in every direction. He soon finds himself destitute, understands his mistake and how he has hurt his father and returns to his father’s house to seek forgiveness.
And here is where we see that it’s the father, not the son, who is genuinely “prodigal,” meaning extravagant or lavish. The father embraces the son and even throws a party for him. This father has let his son be foolish and when the son shows regret for his actions the father simply showers him with love.
The man who attended Mass with his daughter was an inspiration to Amparo and me, and that’s the other lesson the experience provided. Besides the benefit of praying the Mass, you will see that you have a lot in common with the other people who attend church – if you are open to it. They are often inspiring, in fact, providing a sense of solidarity in the search for God.