The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran an article on declining church attendance that began with a woman who had been actively involved in her parish and a weekly communicant ... until her parish was closed. She was directed to a new parish only three miles away, but instead she stopped going to church. It wasn’t as convenient, she said, and her kids’ activities conflicted with Mass.
Such stories must chill the heart of every bishop and every priest. For the truth is that in most dioceses over the next 20 years, Mass is going to get a lot more inconvenient.
Half of all the priests currently active will be hitting retirement in the next 10 years, and the new and recently ordained are not going to be able to take up all of the slack. Parishes are being closed because of debt and lawsuits and population shifts, and parishes are being closed because there simply are not the priests to man them. Either way, it will mean a lot more inconvenience than a three-mile commute for most of us.
When foreign priests are drafted to fill the void, many Catholics find that inconvenient as well: Their accents are difficult. Their attitudes are different. Mass simply isn’t as interesting or comforting anymore.
Even where there are priests, some are judged too conservative. Others are judged too liberal. Some are too wishy-washy. Others are too opinionated. Every Sunday their perceived flaws grate on us. At first it is inconvenient to not have our inclinations validated. Then it becomes irritating. And finally, intolerable. Going to Mass doesn’t seem worth the aggravation.
There are a hundred excuses for not attending Mass, for denying oneself the “source and summit” of our Catholic faith: the Eucharist. And none of them are good ones.
There may not be a quick remedy for the sin of inconvenience, but it is surely easy to diagnose. Catholics who do not recognize the treasure they have been given — the pearl of great price that many of their brothers and sisters are suffering and dying for in China and Pakistan and Iraq — lack both faith and an understanding of what that faith encompasses.
If the world is supposed to know Christians by their love, what will it make of their apathy?
These may seem strange thoughts to mark the celebration of Easter, yet it is the reality of Easter that seems so lacking in the lives of many of us. We so often do not behave like an Easter people, transformed by the suffering and death of Jesus and his resurrection as savior of the world.
Ours is not a comfortable God who confirms our habits and prejudices. Instead, we are asked to believe that God became man, that he lived among us, that he offered up his life for us, and in so doing, vanquished death. This is an event that transformed lives, starting with the apostles, and still transforms lives today. This phenomenal, indescribable, transcendent act of love changed everything.
In his newest book, “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week,” Pope Benedict XVI writes an extended reflection on the Resurrection. He insists that the Resurrection is not a metaphor, not a figment of the apostles’ imagination, but something so new and yet so certain that it transformed the apostles and sent them out into the world to preach the Good News of salvation.
Pope Benedict reminds us that what we profess is both completely serious and utterly joyful.
This Easter, we as a Church must beg our Savior God to transform us, to rekindle the fire in our hearts and draw us closer to himself in Mass. And if we pray this Easter prayer with our whole hearts, we can know one thing for sure: God’s answer will not be convenient, and it will change everything.