Sunday, December 7, 2014

Godseekers and Liturgical Accessibility

The Gospel (Matthew 9:35-10:1,5,6-8) from Saturday of the 1st Week of Advent is a clear reminder of what is expected of those called to gather in the lost sheep, to pasture the flock, to tend the vineyard:

"Jesus made a tour through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and sickness.
  And when he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest.’
  He summoned his twelve disciples, and gave them authority over unclean spirits with power to cast them out and to cure all kinds of diseases and sickness. These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them as follows: ‘Go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. And as you go, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils. You received without charge, give without charge.’"

Watching a TV News report on a media campaign for the Brooklyn Diocese which hopes to be more than your average "come home for Christmas" attempt to reach out to fallen away Catholics, something dawned upon me. There are people out there who have walked away or fallen away from Church, some still seeking God's place in their lives and some not seeking at all. Elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus expressed regret over the rich, young man who just walked away from the challenge of perfection. My guess is that if that one had been truly seeking entrance into God's Kingdom, well, he would have been up to the Lord's challenge to give up all and come follow. Don't get me wrong, I guess I am fine with the media campaign thing in so far as it could be just the nudge that a seeker needs. My point being that saying Brooklyn has 250,000 church goers amongst a million four hundred thousand Catholics out there and would like more to practice the faith simply for their sake does not cut the mustard. What if all 1.4 million came on Christmas? What if even half came just for Christmas and half of them stayed? Who is going to preach to them; who is going to look after them once they come home? The ad campaign cannot really further the Kingdom in the way we would hope to save souls.

When you get to my age, you have lots of friends and acquaintances who are practicing Catholics whose children or grandchildren walked away or fell away from going to church. The folks are sad and generally of a stubbornly hopeful mind that, at least in the case of their children, the phase will pass and they will come home to the Church of their Baptism. They are heartsick and guilt ridden over the lost grandchildren. They pray and I am convinced, also from experience, that the Lord in His mercy hears and answers their prayers. Sometimes that third generation child falls in love with a practicing Catholic and through wedding preparations and subsequent contact the ice is broken and the second generation is freed to return as well. Sometimes the loving Lord bestows other graces. Important is our own prayerful supplication.

Living here in Ukraine now for more than three years has broadened my perspective on what draws people to Church and what either leaves them cold or repels them. I take my first point as always given: the Church must tend the flock entrusted to its care. We lose so many because we don't care for those whom we have; as in the case of the hireling we let the devil carry them off. Beyond that it is a question of identifying those, generally faint of heart and perhaps burdened by sin, who are seeking and reach out to them, as the Gospel says, offering healing. Perhaps the biggest challenge is making God in Jesus Christ within His Church accessible. Many would say that what sets Ukrainians who are far from Church apart is the fact that they are genuine seekers. It could be that there are here per capita more seekers of God than you find in the blase` materialized West, but I think we need to look elsewhere if we would be constructive. Seeking out the lost or pressing people to come into the wedding feast become daunting challenges. What doesn't or shouldn't impede return to the bosom of Mother Church is making the Church more accessible to people by opening things up. Byzantine life here in Kyiv illustrates well what I mean.

The closest example here to my home is the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Volodymyr, open all day and frequented by people who come in to pray, to light a candle, to ask prayers for their intentions, to pick up at the religious goods shop some sacred object big or small for home or for a gift. At liturgy times the bells ring out, people come and insert themselves in an action focused on God. No demands are placed upon them but those of respect for the decorum proper to the Temple of the Lord. I think that Roman Catholic Churches in big cities all over the western world were once that way too. Apart from the locked doors we too often encounter, the focus on the Divine Presence (front and center) has too often been removed along with the sacred images which once helped us center our prayer. Liturgy in the West for decades has been an attempt to engage me, to draw me into a discursive action which seeks from me song, verbal responses and all too often eye-contact, while drawing me away from the Lamb upon the Throne.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound to some, Catholic worship would be more inviting if it were less confrontational, more linear, more of a contemplative space. Cozy or folksy is not adequate to the human condition, except maybe for a diner with super-sized portions, catering to middle-aged men in plaid flannel shirts wearing ball caps indoors. The Byzantine world teaches eloquently: we need a restoration of the Roman Rite. We need a sacred space where people can enter in without being challenged and can focus together with others on the Dawn from on High Who comes to visit us. It is not a panacea, but it is a sine qua non. If we fail to accompany our people, well, the devil will continue to carry them off, but if our churches once again become still points in this hectic world, spaces filled with truly oriented worship, humbly directed to our Redeemer and Savior, then we stand a chance.

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