When we declare that we are Catholics, we tread the same path as Christ.
A couple of weeks ago at Christmas – particularly on Christmas Eve – our church was full; yours was probably, too. We had over four hundred people at the 4 pm Mass; at this one Mass we had more than half of the attendance we usually have for all five Masses on a regular weekend during the school year (attendance is lower in the summer, as might be the case by you too). At Christmas, many people come who otherwise have little to do with our parish. They still feel a sense of belonging, even if it is highly attenuated.
But this sense of belonging, or rather this weak sense of belonging, is not unique to our parish: it is symptomatic of larger social trends. Our society is experiencing a fraying and withering away of many kinds of belonging. Communities of all sorts are dying. Families are under enormous stress. Affiliations with political parties, churches, all sorts of voluntary organizations and groups are down. What can account for this? After all, this is not new and not unique to our time.
Affiliations – the decision to belong to groups – waxes and wanes historically. The question for us is why is it waning now?
Certainly, one cause is the frenetic pace of life which characterizes American life in general, which we can say has become “New York-ized”: our whole 24-7 society has become “the city that never sleeps”. Sleep deprivation, as we have recently come to recognize, is a serious public health hazard because it diminishes our overall state of well-being, may shorten our life span and leads to tragic accidents. This frenzy no doubt helps to account for the widespread and trendy interest in yoga, meditation and other pursuits of well-being, deracinated from their original religious contexts and adapted and repackaged to prop up sagging (and tired) American egos.
Rather than strengthening the “religion of me” – the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that passes for what many Americans erroneously consider to be Christianity – it would be beneficial for us to take a first step away from this addiction to speed and velocity – click, click, click – and slow down, pause, breathe, think, pay attention, reflect, meditate and contemplate.
“Paying attention” would be a very good resolution for 2015: “Do what you are doing,” as the traditional Latin maxim "agequod agis” encourages. This is certainly good advice for participation in the Mass and a remedy to those who find it boring.
“Paying attention” is probably a better translation of “participato acutosa” than “active participation” since it places the correct emphasis on attention and intention and not on activity (which tends to detract from both). Pay attention to what you say and do – yes – but even more so to what you hear and whom you receive. Our age pays too much attention to activity and too little to receptivity. If we come to Mass, we come to receive the Word of God in the Scriptures and, especially, in the Blessed Sacrament. Our activity ought to be a preparation for this receiving. Otherwise, we will leave the church empty because we have placed our activity and ourselves in the center of the Mass rather than God. Couldn’t this be part of the reason why people don’t come back?
Another reason – the more seductive and compelling one – for the decline in belonging is the fact that all groups have shortcomings, mean members, a history of mistakes and errors, even bad deeds and sins. Today, there is an opportunity to feast on self-righteousness as never before because these stories and examples are so easily accessible. Tailor-made scapegoats are on offer just a click away, whereby we can focus our gaze on their sins, thus averting it from our own and our complicity with the structures of sin that shape our world – not because they must be, but because ultimately we believe – thereby excusing ourselves – we have no choice. We have to be practical. We have to do what works.