Fr. Joel Sember serves as pastor of three churches in the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin. When he shared the audio recording of his most recent homily, entitled “The Problem with the Catholic Church is…,” I found it hard to suppress my curiosity. The homily’s theme was prompted by the cancellation of Saturday evening Mass at St. Anthony, one of his churches–a consequence of declining church attendance. As Fr. Joel notes, an area once served by seven priests is now served just by him. “The work is declining too. I only have two weddings this entire year…We’ve wondered for a long time: is there an answer to the decline in the church? And it’s not just the Catholic Church. Lutheran churches, Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches–they’re all kind of looking the same,” Fr. Joel said.
That trend is felt here in Ottawa too, where on June 23rd, 2019, St. Margaret Mary Parish–established in 1931–will celebrate its final Sunday Eucharist. Parishioners, who are now collecting photographs and memories of their soon-to-close church, may attend Blessed Sacrament Parish, located less than 2 kilometres away, or Holy Canadian Martyrs, at a distance of just 2.2 kilometres. The physical footprint of the Catholic Church in much of North America and Europe is vastly out of proportion to its current demographic reality. Additionally, the concept of the territorial parish is losing its meaning among Catholics. Many practicing Catholics, especially if they are mobile, do not necessarily attend the parish closest to where they live, but rather the one where they feel most comfortable.
In his homily, Fr. Joel suggested that practicing Catholics who are worried about identifying the problems of the Catholic Church, and searching for possible solutions, should look beyond the traditional divides, with liberals thinking that they have the “magic potion” to make the church more relevant and conservatives or traditionalists convinced that the root of all trouble is a faith that has been compromised and diluted. Fr. Joel notes in his homily:
“I haven’t lost faith in the Catholic Church over the recent scandals, because I lost faith in the Catholic Church a long time ago. Seriously. I went into seminary, right out of high school. I was kind of interested in being a priest, but I wasn’t totally sold on the idea…By my third year in college seminary, I had gotten pretty disillusioned with the Catholic Church. Let’s face it: the people weren’t perfect. The bishops weren’t perfect. Not all the priests that I had to deal with were great. I had gotten a little bitter and jaded. I thought that the Church was going to be somehow more perfect and wonderful, and it was pretty disappointing.
I was doing a study abroad in Rome and Rome is sort of the centre of the Catholic world. Italy is around 95 percent Catholic and has the most gorgeous churches in the world and I thought this will fix my problem. I went to Rome and found that Italians don’t attend Mass. They have these beautiful churches and nobody goes. I remember being at Mass in the Vatican. It was February 11th,the World Day of the Sick, and it was more like a tourist event than a real Mass. People were snapping pictures of Pope John Paul II at the time and there just wasn’t a lot of reverence. I was feeling disappointed in the whole thing. And as the Mass ended, a seminary friend of mine said hey, let’s get closer to the front to see the Pope…The chairs were set up like a barricade, so you couldn’t get up too close, so we went right up to the barricade. Since it was the World Day of the Sick, they had a bunch of people in wheelchairs that were being tended to by nuns. And they were being wheeled in one at a time to meet the Pope. The Pope had finished Mass, but he didn’t process out, he was sitting in a little chair up front. The Pope would bless the sick person, the nun would kiss the Pope’s ring and she would push the chair out like she had just won the lottery…
And in this moment, as all these sick people were coming through, the guards looked like they had had enough, the rest of the people were waiting for things to end, but the Pope was patiently greeting every one of these people in wheelchairs. In this moment, it was as if a light-bulb had turned on. It reminded me of Jesus. It reminded me of the way Jesus had cared for the sick and for the poor. In that moment I saw that it wasn’t about the big fancy basilica or the big fancy Mass, or even the nice music. Underneath all of this was the presence of Jesus. I began to see Jesus in all kinds of things that the Church did and taught…The Church’s moral teachings were about living like Jesus–reflecting Jesus’ love for the world.
I had never seen it–that Jesus was there the whole time. I had been stuck seeing the Church and I hadn’t seen Jesus who was underneath it. So the answer to the Church’s problems is Jesus.”
I would like to suggest a similarly simple response to some of the problems of the Church–the idea isn’t mine actually, but it runs along the same lines as Fr. Joel’s Christ-centric message. A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting and the point of discussion was how Catholic churches might be made relevant in a society where the Christian church has been disestablished and where most people are no longer engaged with any denomination. We sat around the table discussing strategies, ideas and formulas, until one participant offered the simplest, yet most profound response.
“When people visit our church, we just need to make them feel like they matter,” she said, and a reflective silence settled over the room.
This is where so many Catholic parishes fail–regardless of whether they are “liberal” or “conservative” or else traditional or contemporary in their liturgy. Chances are that when you visit a Catholic church for Mass, nobody will really acknowledge you, nobody will come by to say “hi” if you look a bit uncertain or lost and at best–but even this is hardly universal–the celebrant might shake your hand at the end, as you leave the church. Unless you make the effort to stay in touch or reach out, you will never hear from anybody again. You will have arrived and departed a nameless stranger. There is a sad irony to this, given that the Christian faith is based on the teachings of a man who both welcomed the stranger and who was himself the stranger. Theologian and priest Henri Nouwen put this well, in his book The Wounded Healer: “Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler.”
If you already have a deep faith in the centrality of the Eucharist to your personal salvation, then the lack of even the most basic welcome, and feeling as though you don’t matter, may not stop you from attending church. After all, you are coming to receive the consecrated Host, and that’s that. The validity of the Sacrament does not depend on whether or not the priest or the community is welcoming. But the minority that has the sort of unwavering faith and piety that appears in Catholic novels such as Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory already attends Mass. The majority of lapsed or non-practicing Catholics are not bound to the concept that the celebrant priest dispenses God and salvation to the faithful. More than through the formal Sacraments of the Church, God may begin to reveal Himself to them through experience. And one of these can be a positive–perhaps a positively surprising–experience as a visitor at church.
The church also has an opportunity to meet people wherever they happen to be in life–and it is very likely that they’re not in the pews. There is an ingrained sacredness to sharing a meal with a neighbour or a stranger and this belief is common to many religions and to much of secular society too. When Fr. Joel speaks about connecting with Christ and connecting others to him as well, the first image that comes to mind is that of breaking bread; it is of sitting down together at a common table–and doing so in a way that transcends boundaries–again, much like Jesus did with so many. Even the simplest acts of hospitality within the broader community, perhaps offered outside the walls of the local church, can serve as vivid reflections of Christ. Words often attributed to St. Francis come to mind: “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if necessary.”
A few days ago, I was waiting for a friend in the bustling ByWard Market at lunch time. A few metres from me stood a man who preached loudly and passionately–about heaven, Jesus, damnation, faith and eternal rewards. He was a self-appointed preacher–articulate, but chastising and angry in his tone. I saw perhaps a hundred people walk by–not one was stirred, infuriated or curious in any way. The common response seemed to be total indifference. Although this self-appointed preacher was thankfully not representing any church, the broad indifference that is displayed towards all churches in society should be a worrying sign. When dissenting people move from passionate opposition and thus a willingness to debate and engage to a position of complete disinterest, the church is in trouble indeed.
So perhaps the way forward is by sharing–through acts of generosity and kindness, and sometimes in brave, surprising ways–the belief that everyone has intrinsic dignity. Everyone matters.
(Featured photo: Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington, KY in 2018. Photo by: Christopher Adam–originally published here.)