Making the church more relevant
There is little doubt that the Catholic Church, which is an institution that is highly steeped in centuries-old traditions and dogma, is often out of touch with reality. The Church’s staunch opposition to contraception, sex education, and empowering families, couples, and women are not the only indicators of the growing irrelevance of the Catholic Church.
There are a number of empirical studies that show just how irrelevant the Church has become today. In most countries, the number of people who attend mass has been on a steady decline, there’s a growing number of people who are Catholic only in name—they were born Catholics and
identify as such, but don't really practice the tenets of the faith.
Given our burgeoning population growth, one would imagine that our churches would be bursting to the seams. This is not the case as the numbers of church-goers has been declining. This also applies to those who receive the sacraments. Except during Holy Week, I haven’t seen a line outside a confessional box lately.
I talked to a cousin who is a priest and he pretty much confirmed my observation. The only reason why there still seems to be many attendees to the masses in his Church is because they have reduced the number of masses that are celebrated. Collections during masses have also been dwindling. The same applies to participation in Church activities. Interestingly, he also admits that there is a major need to make the Church more relevant today and for it to find ways to connect with the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Of course, like many others, he cannot afford to speak up and break his vow of obedience.
I have already written in the past about my misgivings with the apparent misuse of power, influence and authority by some of the leaders of the Catholic Church. Because they are supposed to be epitomes of virtue and kindness, we expect our cardinals, bishops, and priests to lead the way in terms of nurturing sincere, ethical and civil discussion around controversial issues. Instead, we often find the princes of the church indulging in hateful discourse, or even worse, deliberately obfuscating the issues through blackmail.
But like many others who do try to continue to practice the faith, continue to go to mass on Sundays (in my case, also Wednesdays), and who continue to participate in Church activities despite the misalignment of values and beliefs, I try to stretch tolerance and rationalize the Church’s actions. These are not ordinary times and given the enormity of the challenges, the Church often finds itself with its back against the wall. It is therefore left with no choice but to engage in drastic and non-conventional warfare.
However, I do rile against what I think is the root of the disaffection towards the Church: The utter lack of intellectual or even emotional stimulation in the activities, rituals, and celebrations of the faith.
The problem with the Church is that not only are its teachings detached from the everyday realities of its flock. Many of its rituals have also become incomprehensible. There are priests who continue to perform some religious rituals in Latin. And then there are priests who celebrate mass from the altar as if there is a fourth wall that separates them from the mass-goers. Most of the rituals are conducted in ways that offer no meaning and relevance whatsoever. It does look like many of our priests go through the motions of dispensing their duties without any effort at all to explain the significance, much less the relevance of the rituals to the day-to-day lives of the faithful.
Most homilies are of extremely poor quality. I’ve listened to far too many sermons where the priest droned endlessly—and in horribly fractured English at that—about things that were clearly theologically wobbly. It is pretty obvious that many of our priests do not prepare for their homilies and don’t bother to deliver them in ways that engage the faithful. This is why I do empathize with the many who have found refuge in the various sects, religious groups, and even cults that have sprouted like mushrooms. I can’t make sense of their theological acrobatics either, but at least they bother to make their rituals emotionally engaging. At the end of the day, spirituality is really about being able to make a connection with a higher being.
But every once in a while, you do come across priests that do push new frontiers and engage the faithful in many different ways. These are priests who connect with their flock; priests who see themselves as leaders and guides rather than as stern wardens of the faith.
I don’t know their names, but two priests have recently impressed and moved me. The first one was a priest at the Saint Joseph church at Baguio City. I was in Baguio City recently for a conference and I had the wonderful opportunity of hearing mass twice, both celebrated by the same priest. What set this priest apart from everyone else I know is that he seemed to have prepared heavily for each of the two masses I attended. I talked to a friend of mine who also hears mass at the same church and he validated my observation —the good reverend does prepare for each mass. This becomes very evident in the fact that he delivers a well-organized, very logical, and very clear introduction to every mass that he celebrates.
The introduction even came with a Powerpoint presentation where he summarized the points of his message – in bullet points! The result was that the mass goers came out with a better appreciation of the significance of the mass and the day’s Scripture. How many priests actually bother to think about the relevance of each mass in the Roman Catholic faith’s calendar? This priest also delivered his homily the same way—in well argued, well-organized fashion, complete with slides. Thus the whole experience was not just auditory but visual as well.
I also attended a late mass last Wednesday at the Baclaran Church and was impressed with the way a young priest tried to connect with the people who offered to the Mother of Perpetual Help their woes and tribulations. Noting the number of those walking on their knees toward the altar, he stopped the mass. Others would have reprimanded the seeming disrespect for the celebration of the mass. Not this priest. He appealed to everyone who felt the urgent need to be “closer to God” to join him at the altar but to do this in an orderly fashion making sure that no one got hurt in the process. I was amazed at the way hundreds of people were able to file in an orderly fashion toward the altar without shoving or pushing each other out. He continued to say mass with barely enough room for him to stretch his arms. It was a moving experience.
I think it was Stephen Covey who said that the way to manage change in this world is to maintain a changeless core inside each one of us. That changeless core is faith. The Catholic Church should tap into this wellspring of faith that continues to live inside each one of us not by preaching the same old dogma to which less and less people are listening.
(Image of Pope Benedict XVI's coat of arms taken from The Vatican's official website)