There's a great view from the pew.
Yet millions of men and women willingly embrace the Catholic religion, many of them cheerfully. For most, of course, it's only partly a matter of choice. These are the cradle Catholics, born into homes in which one or both parents are Catholic, baptized as infants, and quite often exposed to some or much Catholic education. As small children, most of us born Catholics accompanied our parents or older siblings to Sunday Mass or marched there in ranks under the direction of the good nuns. As we grew older, we were expected to attend Mass and approach the sacraments regularly, and even liberal psychologists would agree that there is much to be said in favor of the habitual practice of virtuous acts.
Many Catholics have also come to the church on their own, usually as adults; and it is the conventional wisdom that converts are more zealous in the practice of their religion than born Catholics. But like most conventional wisdom, this is sometimes true, sometimes not. Yet it is reasonable to assume that people often treasure more something earned than received as a gift. Who are these people who, with the pope, bishops, priests, and religious, we have come to know as comprising the church? In his wonderful book Why Be Catholic? (Crossroad), Father William J. O'Malley, S.J. has this droll answer to the question:
History books deal almost exclusively with the great
players on the Church's stage ... but by far the majority
of the Body of Christ is the small-time people who live
lives not worth the note of historians, like the people on
Chaucer's trip to the Shrine of Thomas Beckett in The
Canterbury Tales.... Perhaps the great had lost the spirit
that sinewed together the Body of Christ, but a great
many of the common folk had not.
Anyone watching television news programs regularly will undoubtedly note that nearly all of what passes for the news of the U.S. government and its works is intramural, or in the jargon of the nation's capital, is "within the Beltway." It seems rarely to occur to the pundits, and to those whose activities they report, that their "news" is of little concern to most of the Americans in the great heartland. Many who report would be shocked to know that most in the country care little about the subjects that so fascinate the reporters and apparatchiks at their cocktail parties and power lunches.
A similar paradox exists, I believe, in the U.S. Catholic Church. The intramural activities of the church that may matter much to bishops, priests, religious, and professional lay Catholics--those who make their living working for the church--are of little or no concern to the vast majority of rank-and-file Catholics. Most recall their bishop's name only when his letter asking support for the likes of Peter's Pence is read at Mass, and they neither know nor care if he is considered liberal or conservative.
The pastor of one's parish is less easily ignored. Many are active, visible, and available to their parishioners. More than a few can accurately be described as loved, and when diocesan- or religious-order rules dictate that they be transferred away, they are sincerely missed.
The quality of homilies, as Father Andrew Greeley noted so trenchantly in these pages recently, is important, terribly important to the people in the pews. But when that quality is intermittent (even the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen wasn't sparkling 52 Sundays a year) or, just mediocre, most Catholics have learned to tune out. Maybe they shouldn't. Maybe they should shop around until they find a homilist that turns them on, but most do not. They are such loyal Catholics that they hang in there, hoping for the best as they realize, without articulation perhaps, that there is a lot more to our Catholic faith than good homilies.
Granted that, at least in the long run, the charisma and wisdom of the reigning pope, the vision of our bishops, and the enlightenment of those who teach in the church does matter. But as the cynic said, "In the long run, we're all dead," and I for one find it tiresome to hear or read that someone has left the church or threatened such a departure because he or she disagrees with something the pope has said or because his or her bishop is terminally enclaustrated.
Some may say that the argument here is a recipe for a mediocre church, but the witness of millions of Catholics in the pews says to the contrary. To see these, Sunday after Sunday, taking partin the eucharistic liturgy and receiving the Eucharist, can only be edifying. Some bean counters will point out that Sunday Mass attendance in the U.S. has diminished substantially in recent years. But who is to say that those who have dropped out are no more than the nine lepers who were also made clean?
Who is to say? (I ask, not j' accuse!) Let's celebrate the leper who did return, the lamb who was found, or maybe the prodigal son.
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|Title Annotation:||participation of Catholics in church|
|Author:||Burns, Robert E.|
|Date:||May 1, 1994|
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