When sects put us to shame: the enfeeblement of the Church.
My friend Fr. Roman Galadza, pastor of St. Elias Church in Brampton, has a problem. It is not his problem, in fact, but the problem of clergy all over the Western world who look out Sunday after Sunday over an all too typically dwindling, frequently dispirited flock. Numbers in almost all churches are down and show little sign of upward momentum. Young people are not coming to church much any more, and the old parishioners are rapidly dying off. This has been the sad trend for more than thirty years in virtually all the churches in the Western world.
It may be a common problem but, true to form, Fr. Roman--an archpriest of the Ukrainian Catholic Church--has a unique angle on it. In fact, he has recently built a brand-new, all-wood church--visually stunning and architecturally unique as being one of only two like it in the world (see www.saintelias.com). He has been able to attract a number of young families and people to the church, but, ever a perfectionist, he is not satisfied with the attendance at his Sunday morning service of Matins (which precedes the Divine Liturgy). So, when I visited him recently, he put to me the question that resulted in this essay: "Why are so few people coming to sing Matins with us at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings?" He manages no more than about 10-12 people, including his wife and son, and the protodeacon and his wife and son, on any given Sunday. Why, he asked me, are so few people coming out to what is such a manifestly felicitous liturgy in its own right, as well as a marvellous way to prepare for the Eucharist?
Before we answer that question, you need to know that Matins is no mean service. It starts at 8 a.m. and runs a full 90 minutes of singing and reading, largely of the psalms, kondaks, and tropars for the day or feast. The time required for this constitutes, for some people--indeed, many--the sum total of the time they can imagine spending in church for a week. To have them stand (Fr. Roman's parish, true to Eastern form, has no pews) for that and then for Divine Liturgy for another two hours (sometimes longer!) seems to border on the outrageous. You mean we have to be in church from 8 a.m. until after 12 p.m.?
Why do people think that? Why do they not, in contrast, say with the author of Psalm 27: "One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple." How far that psalmist is from the average Sunday's stampede ward the parking lot after divine services re finished in virtually every Catholic church.
Fr. Roman asked me his question bout Matins attendance with the tone of one attempting to put me into what the Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has famously called an epistemological crisis." An epistemologial crisis, MacIntyre argues, occurs when one tradition encounters a rival tradition which poses new questions or has better replies to perplexing older questions than the original tradition is capable of providing. Thus the original is thrown into crisis, and such a crisis is usually resolved in one of three ways: by incorporating the other tradition into itself (and thereby tacitly admitting the rightness of the other even while often denying it); by demolishing the rival through acquisition of superior hermeneutic resources; or by collapse and admission of defeat in face of a superior rival. In any event, an epistemological crisis is usually for the good if one is inclined to believe, as I am, that no worthwhile thinking is possible without enemies.
Do people seek beauty?
It was into such a crisis that I think Father Roman wished to throw me since I had advanced the (perhaps romantic) thesis that people in our meretricious age are starved for beauty and will respond to it by coming out to wherever it may be found. I am fond of quoting Dostoevsky that "the world will be saved by beauty." While, like all good academics, I think this a very sound thesis on paper, it does seem to encounter some practical difficulty with the troublesome example of Matins, which is both beautiful and sparsely attended. Thus a crisis of interpretation looms. Why are so few coming to Matins? And-- to return to the larger question-- why are so few coming out to church at all in our day? I think there are two reasons.
First, a good part of the answer lies in how soft Western Christians have become, unwilling to make even small sacrifices for God. We face no threats; we are not a Church of martyrs (at least in North America and Western Europe). Never before in history have we had such comforts so widely and cheaply available. Never before have we led lives of such length and luxury. And never before have we lived in a culture as nihilistic as that of contemporary North America. All these combine to make most of us corpulent, both spiritually and physically.
And yet we cannot resort to blaming the popular culture or indulging in cheap polemics about "secular humanism" to explain the malaise in which most churches are to be found. The prime enemy is not some externalized cultural phenomenon but, as with most things, is us. The God we present to people today is very small and asks (so we think) very little of us. The late American political philosopher Russell Kirk, in his remarkable essay "The Rarity of the God-Fearing Man," argues that "every age portrays God in the image of its poetry and its politics...It has been said that to many of our generation, God is a Republican and works in a bank; but this image is giving way, I think, to God as Chum--at worst, God as a playground supervisor."
We no longer fear God because the God of our worship is no longer fearsome or awesome. God, in the typical liturgy of the West, is a kindly figure, a "chum" in Kirk's apt phrase. Who gets out of bed early to worship a chum? Who fears transgressing the moral commands of the playground supervisor? Even children regularly thumb their noses at what few directives such characters give.
This brings me to my second, and primary, explanation for low church attendance. I think--counter-intuitive though it may sound--that so few people come out because we demand, not too much of them, but too little. Consider the situation in the churches of the West today.
The Second Vatican Council led the way for all Christian communities in the West in its attempts to be liturgically and spiritually up-to-date, efficient, and progressive. For more than thirty years, following the promulgation of the so-called Pauline missal in 1971, Catholic worship according to the Roman Rite has been rendered transparent, short, and simple. Extra holy days of obligation have been scrapped. Grovelling on your knees in a darkened confessional is so 1950s: there are now "reconciliation rooms" where one can sit in comfy chairs and talk about how one feels and then be absolved with great ease. All that degrading business about penance--especially manifested in that inconvenient practice of fast and abstinence on Fridays--has been rendered optional, which in practice means it has disappeared entirely. In sum, Christianity in the West has been made so very easy. You can roll out of bed on Sunday morning, throw on whatever clothes happen to be handy (no need to worry about modesty in dress at Mass any more! That would be puritanical), drive the air-conditioned minivan to the church door, and be in and out in an hour (or an hour and fifteen minutes, if you get some witless preacher telling jokes about his golf game and his rabbi friend.)
This new, slimmed-down version of Christianity Lite was supposed to be the key to evangelizing the masses of our day and bringing the gospel to our busy culture's demand for something the 60's sociologists dubbed "noble simplicity." We know now how disastrously wrong all of this has gone! Instead of a flood of people back to church, they have stampeded out in the other direction.
T.S. Eliot, in his 1931 essay Thoughts After Lambeth, warned us against such an approach. Writing in the aftermath of the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops--which issued, for the first time in Christian history, official sanction for the use of artificial birth control--Eliot deplored the idea that Christianity would have to junk a great deal of its tradition, liturgy, and teaching in order to be more rational, efficient, and progressive:
There is no good in making Christianity easy and pleasant; 'youth,' or the better part of it, is more likely to come to a difficult religion than to an easy one... Thought, study, mortification, sacrifice: it is such notions as these that should be impressed upon the young...You will never attract the young by making Christianity easy; but a good many can be attracted by finding it difficult: difficult both to the disorderly mind and to the unruly passions.
Where to go?
And yet, where can one find "difficult" or disciplined Christianity today? We have given our faithful so much slack that many of them follow the loose thread to its natural conclusion and don't bother practising their faith at all. We have made it so easy--too easy, in fact--that they simply take the path of least resistance and sleep in on Sunday mornings, or go shopping, or whatever.
If we want to find disciplined faithful today, we can find ex-Catholics among two of the fastest growing cults in the world, namely the non-Christian Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. They have left the Church, I would argue, precisely because we offer so little challenge and thus so little fulfilment. I think these two groups--and similar ones which are growing, like Islam--show enormous discipline, a willingness to sacrifice, and great effort at evangelizing. They have made large demands on their followers and they are successful precisely because of that.
If we are to win many of these lost sheep back, keep the ones we have, and embark upon the new evangelization for which Pope John Paul II has called, permit me to suggest that we have much to learn from the practices (rather than the doctrines, almost all of which are utter rot) of these groups. In what ways are they demanding, and in what ways can we imitate them? I think there are five practical things that we should begin to undertake in order to encourage greater discipline and devotion, and to promote a spirit of self-giving among Christians of today.
The first is the ancient practice of fasting. This is one of the oldest spiritual practices common to all of the world's religions. Our so-called peace-loving Muslim friends have considerable discipline in this regard during the month of Ramadan; and the Mormons are quite clear about the dietary demands placed on their followers (no coffee or tea, no alcohol, etc.). What do we have by way of comparison? For most Christians, abstinence from just about anything is unthinkable, while outright fasting is completely unheard of. It's never talked about, let alone required, in any mainline Protestant denomination with which I am familiar. And the current discipline of the Latinrite Catholic Church strikes me quite frankly as pathetic: there are only two prescribed days of fast in the entire year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and both of these are treated with great laxity. (Editor: this information is incorrect: every day of Lent is a day Of fast, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence; the faithful are encouraged to keep all Fridays, especially during Lent, as days of abstinence. It is true that after Vatican lithe Canadian bishops played this down, and thereby, almost destroyed the practice.)
I think this should be changed. In this regard, permit me to suggest that we look to the discipline of the Eastern church, which insists upon fasting four times a year: the Great Fast of Lent, the St. Philip's fast before Christmas, and the fasting prescribed before two other major feasts, those of Sts. Peter and Paul (the Apostles' Fast) in June! July and of the Dormition in August. The requirements for each fast are similar, but the most discipline is of course demanded for Great Lent, during which no meat or dairy products--indeed, any animal products at all--may be consumed; as well, all alcohol and olive oil and their derivatives are forbidden. One meal a day may be taken, preferably after sundown, and this should be simple, largely uncooked, and without a lot of adornment. This, one may be permitted to suggest, is how serious Christians ought to fast! As the Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to remark, "Any religion that does not tell you what to do with your genitals and pots and pans is uni nteresting."
The second practice--or, rather, group of practices--to be restored concerns our common liturgical life and calendar. On this score, the current Latin discipline has been--as everyone from Cardinal Ratzinger downward has remarked countless times--an unmitigated disaster. The loss of the sense of Sunday as distinctive, as well as the denuding of the festal calendar, has done nothing to transform our culture. And so, instead of this deleterious and dreary course, I would like instead to reclaim the major feasts of the Church's calendar and reestablish them as obligatory. The current Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church lists ten holy days of obligation, in addition to Sunday. That list has been whittled down by our hapless episcopal conferences to two only, Christmas and January 1st. (Contrast this with the Eastern Church, which has twelve major feasts at which it expects its faithful to be present for Divine Liturgy). The Jehovah's Witnesses make no apologies for differing from the calendar and schedule of t he secular world--ignoring Hallowe' en, not celebrating Christmas with gift-giving, and so on. They are not afraid of being distinctive. Why should we be? Let's resurrect May crownings, processions of the Blessed Sacrament on Corpus Christi, and other practices which once marked Catholic parishes as something holy, mysterious, "other," rather than just another building for just another "denomination."
The third practice we need to recover is basic evangelism. This is a practice foreign to most Catholics, but it is one we must discover and restore fully and quickly. It is here that the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses show a discipline that is most impressive, especially among the Mormons, who expect their young people to give up two years of their life and go to a foreign territory to witness to their religion and preach it to people.
If Catholics had half that much discipline and courage, the world would be a vastly different place. I think if Catholics were serious about evangelizing the larger culture and preserving the faith among their own young people, we might well consider asking our young people to donate a year of their lives--like the Mormons--to learn the faith more deeply in order to pass it on to others, either through direct evangelism or through the equally important and effective means of charitable service. This could be a way for the many sadly declining religious orders to woo new members to their ranks. A year's service could be performed under the tutelage of, say, the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, or the White Fathers (Missions of Africa) in Tanzania, or the Studite nuns in L'viv, or whatever. In any event, we need to ask more of our young people if we want them to take their faith seriously.
Power of the keys
The fourth discipline I would call the power of the keys: one of the more irritating things for Catholics is the extent to which many politicians are willing to identify themselves as Catholic while giving no evidence of that either in their lives or their policies. Indeed, their policies give enormous scandal and put the lie to their putative claim to be Catholics. I refer of course to the war on the unborn, a slaughter of innocents in which many so-called Catholic politicians have blood on their hands. In response to such scandal, what do our bishops do? If they comment at all--and until very recently none of them did--it is to issue a timid, anemic slap on the wrist which of course accomplishes absolutely nothing.
Contrast this once more with the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons: they break ranks with the faithful who espouse heresy, cutting them off. In a word, they are excommunicated. Where is the excommunication of the many members, beginning with the prime minister, of our federal cabinet who support the abortion licence with an enthusiasm that can only be described as diabolical? To let such heretics go unchecked is to make a mockery of us all, to sow seeds of confusion among the faithful, and to look divided and incoherent--in a word, ridiculous--to the world. There are no fences in the Kingdom on which to sit. You are either with us or against us and, if against us, a declaration should be issued that you are no longer in peace and communion with the Church.
Fifthly and finally, money. The Mormons in particular have been able to construct a vast empire based on not only required volunteer commitment but also mandatory giving. This concept of tithing is entirely biblical, and the Church still recommends it to us today--even though it might require some amendation in view of the levels of taxation in this country to support social programs once paid for by the Church.
Why do we exhibit an enormous timidity when it comes to asking the faithful to contribute significantly to the propagation of the gospel and the maintenance of the Church? Catholics in particular are notoriously stingy givers. If we wish to be as effective as the Mormons and others, we must be prepared to give like them. It is a scandal that people in the wealthiest part of the world in the most developed part of history should be so parsimonious. There is nothing at all wrong with making this demand of the faithful perfectly clear. It need not be coercive or unpalatable, like so much televised evangelical hooliganism. It can be simply stated that one of the obligations is to contribute, if not 10%, then certainly a significant portion of your income to the Church. What could be simpler than that?
These five practices, let it be clearly stated, will not contribute overnight to a revival of Christendom, or to anything near it. But they would go a long way toward reenergizing the Church to take on the modern world. We should remember the words of Chesterton, who also disdained easy Christianity when he forsook his native Anglicanism for what he called the one "fighting form of Christianity," Catholicism. Let us be like this saintly, jolly warrior who had:
No use for a Church which is not a Church militant... We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world. We want one that will move it away from many of the things which it is now moving toward...It is by that test that history will really judge, of any Church, whether it is the real Church or no.
Let us show the world that we are part of the real Church, and let us move that Church to move the world to come to know Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life. To Him be glory forever!
This essay was originally given as a lecture to the Chesterton Society of Brantford, Ontario, Canada. It is dedicated to Fr. Roman Galadza, from whom I have learned so much about the rigours and splendours--especially musical and liturgical-of Byzantine Christianity. +
Adam A.J. DeVille taught history at a private Catholic school in Ottawa. In October 2009, he started work for his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, England.
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|Author:||DeVille, Adam A.J.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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