By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published July 5, 2018
Ah, picture the perfect parish! The church is beautiful and serene, and the stained glass windows glisten in the sunlight. The congregation is friendly, and the music is exactly what you need to worship God.
No one sings out of tune, and no babies shriek endlessly in the pew behind you. The pastor is congenial, intelligent and compasssionate, and his homilies give you insights to help your faith journey. Most of all, you feel at home here.
Now let’s get real.
The air-conditioning system is broken, someone glares at you for taking their regular seat—and the pastor’s homilies sometimes lull you to sleep. The kid behind you is kicking the pew, and the guy next to you is sneezing so much, you wonder if he’s got the flu.
Unfortunately, some people stop going to Mass because they can’t find the perfect parish that suits them to a tee. They’re seeking a certain type of music and a pastor whose political opinions match theirs and whose sermons are scintillating. And they don’t want, under any circumstances, sneezing pew mates.
As a former church shopper, I totally get this, but there’s an old quote, “The devil is most active at the foot of the altar,” which means he’s keen on highlighting the flaws at every Mass we attend.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of “The Lord of the Rings,” attended daily Mass and drily advised that we worship in circumstances that offend our taste.
“Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest … and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children—from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn.”
Tolkien suggested that the crowd of 5,000 people Jesus provided with loaves and fishes was probably unruly and noisy, but Jesus fed them anyway.
There are other reasons why Catholics miss Mass. Maybe the church is stuffy or overly air-conditioned or too crowded. The pews may be uncomfortable, and the clouds of cologne give you a headache.
When tempted by these excuses, I remember the suffering Christians in the Middle East, who will brave the possibility of terrorist attacks to attend Mass. This image makes my craving for comfort rather shameful.
Some parishioners have a falling out with a priest whose political opinions clash with theirs. It helps to realize the center of Mass is Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, not the homilies, which can range from edifying and uplifting to boring and maddening.
There’s no obligation to accept a particular priest’s slant on the economy or the environment, and no reason to agree with everything he says, assuming it’s simply his opinion. We can, of course, dialogue with him after Mass when we have questions and objections.
It’s wrong to expect perfection of priests, who are, after all, faced with huge responsibilities. As Flannery O’Connor noted, it helps to keep in mind “the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he goes about it.”
Perhaps we’re so busy during the week, we see Sunday as a time to catch up on chores rather than attend Mass, but this injures our relationship with Christ—who is love incarnate present on the altar. And in Catholic teaching, Sunday Mass is an obligation, not an option.
Some Sundays we may be downtrodden and gloomy, and tempted to stay home. For me, Tolkien’s words help: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”
In short, let’s not use our emotions as a barometer for our faith because God doesn’t judge our feelings, but our actions. And when we gather with others on Sunday, we’re in the presence of Jesus Christ, who felt “sorrowful until death” but still gave his life for us. One hour a week seems a small way to show our love for him.
Artwork (“Last Homely Home,” oil painting) by Jef Murray. Lorraine’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.