I put down the missalette. I just couldn’t sing “I, the Lord of sea and sky,” as the priest and altar girl made their way down the aisle at a parish far away from home. Maybe it was the heat, maybe I was just feeling stressed from caring for a very sick friend. Maybe it was the lyrics — why do hymns “based on” biblical texts make them sound unbiblical? — or the tune that reminded me of third grade music class.
Whatever the reason, I just wasn’t feeling it on Sunday. I felt like an outsider.
The Mass that followed was reverent, the homily very good, the people clearly devoted and engaged. But I could see (we were sitting in the back, and my mind wandered) only two 20- or 30-somethings in the congregation. The parish has a 5:00 p.m. Sunday Mass for college students, so the problem wasn’t as dire as it appeared, but anyone who goes to Mass in different cities knows the average age at Mass is usually in the forties, if not the fifties or sixties.
More and more people, especially younger people, live — apparently happily — outside the Church.
Shouts and startling figures
The experience of feeling like an outsider reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s famous remark about reaching a secular reader. “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it,” she wrote. That would be “I, the Lord of sea and sky.” You may like it, but even if you don’t like it, whatever, it’s the Mass. That’s the way I usually feel.
But, she continued, “when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
That would be something other than “I, the Lord of sea and sky.” People out there know what the world offers. They’ve been there, done that. Some of them look for alternative ways to live their lives, for the sign that something new and different is breaking in, that something is on offer giving a more compelling meaning and significance to their lives.
Here’s the problem, though. They hope for a life the world can’t give them, but they are not necessarily trained to see it. Look at the people who bailed on Jesus when he said something odd (see John 6) and later when the authorities came down on him. As St. Paul says, we have this treasure in earthen vessels, but all they see is the earthen vessel.
We have to get their attention. We have to shout and draw startling figures. Charity, kindness, holiness, courage, truthfulness will do that. You want to bring someone to Christ and His Church, be Christ-like. Shout goodness. Be a startling figure of holiness.
Entering another world
True, but. That’s not the only way in. Not everyone will meet a saint. The Church’s central corporate expression of her life, the Mass, should signal that new in-breaking world as well. So should the church itself. Both should tell people that they’ve entered another world, one with different commitments, different beliefs, different goals and ends — different (and better) answers to their questions.
You don’t do that with “I, the Lord of sea and sky.” You do that with hymns whose lyrics and tunes tell the singer, “This is serious business.” You do that with formality and reverence. You do it with statues and candles, rosaries and novenas, holy cards and miraculous medals. Those are our shouts and startling figures.
Maybe it was the heat or the stress, but Sunday I just wasn’t feeling it. I had to will my participation. I wasn’t being drawn into the Mass the way I usually am. That gave me some feeling for how church must appear to many others outside her. I could have used more signs that God was there, that in his care, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. I needed the Mass to shout at me, to wave before me a loud and startling figure.