One of today’s Mass reading urges me to come out of my shell and speak about something that has been on our mind since attending Christmas Eve service at my home town parish, St Augustine in Chesterfield, Virginia.
In today’s Catholic culture, there is a lot of talk about renewal in the Church. This is because the Church is losing members. There are three main ones off the top of my head.
- Charismatic renewal
- traditional renewal
- Parish renewal
The Charismatic renewal focuses on a renewal by the holy spirit through a reawakening of the gifts of the Holy Spirit given at Baptism and Confirmation in parishioners lives. This is typically accomplished by attending a seminar or retreat, where the gospel is proclaimed and at the end attendees are encouraged to be prayed over to receive a rejuvenation of the Holy Spirit. Popular seminars/retreats include: Life in the Spirit, The Wild Goose is Loose, and Discovering Christ. While I do believe there is enormous benefit to a reawakening of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life, I do not think it fixes the overall problem with the Church.
The traditional renewal focuses on returning to pre-vatican II practices. This includes a variety of things including ad orientem posture, gregorian chant, uses of latin, use of iconic imagery, kneeling, incense, silence in the sanctuary , and hair veils on women. The rational is that the “liberal” changes and allowances made by United States bishops have negated the spirit of reverence and universality that used to exist. Since this spirit no longer exists, church just becomes another social club and a poor one at that. People have left the church, because it no longer caters to what people once knew. In order to win the people back, we need to go back to what attracted them in the first place. While there is some truth to this, I believe it suffers from the glorification of the past and fear of change. Some traditions with a capital T are non-negotable, but others are a matter of preference and culture. Finding a balance between embracing culture and remaining true to an authentic Catholic identity will go a long way to fixing the church. Furthermore if beautiful churches attracted modern man, then the cathedrals in Europe would be full.
Parish renewal takes the complete opposite direction. It seeks to modernize the church in some fashion. It demands a wholesale renewal of the Old School way of doing things. It emphasizes community over reverence. Some changes include incorporating modern praise and worship songs, making the homily center around a central theme, video announcements, causal wardrobe and atmosphere, and video screens to follow along instead of hymnals and missals. While there is much to be applauded for the willingness of these churches to make changes, in the end it assumes that parish life was broken. I believe that this renewal has been somewhat successful, but not for the reasons they think.
This brings me to today’s mass reading, 1st John 1:1-4. I want to focus on verse 3, “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” It seems to me that John is making a connection between preaching the gospel and fellowshipping. The two go hand in hand. What parishes who buy into modernized renewal get right is the need to foster authentic community. The need to be hospitable, the need to greet others as they walk in, the need to have a message that is relevant and that Parishioners can remember because of the catch phrase. The need to foster small faith communities, not so more parishioners can have more information hit at them, but so they can learn to support one another. The other key is that this takes effort and commitment. It takes more than just offering the Eucharist on Sunday (not to say that this is not important, just that it is not enough).
This is why I was so discouraged by mass on Christmas eve. There was no effort to be warm and inviting. In fact the doors were locked 30 minutes prior to service. There was no attempt to show how we could connect to community life. This parish is losing it’s english speaking parishioners at an alarming rate. The only reason my family and I attended was for the Eucharist. I will always attend for the Eucharist. If the church continues to hold the Eucharist hostage as an excuse to not to put in effort, it will continue to lose members.