The Modern Church: The Same Old Routine?
Another Sunday, another routine. It was not much different from any other day of the week really except that the family went to Church. The children whined about having to go to Mass. It was boring, they said. They would rather go outside and play with the other neighborhood kids who were not bothered with going to church. Secretly, their parents usually agreed. They attended Mass simply out of routine. Their parents and grandparents had always gone, so they did, too, but they did not feel any real devotion. They went. They said a few prayers. They listened to the Scripture readings. They received Communion. And they came home. Often they wondered as they were listening to the lector and the priest read from the Bible whether or not what they were hearing was the truth. They had heard so often, even from priests sometimes, that the Bible was just some kind of religious fiction, that was not historical. As for Communion, well, they had a hard time believing that the bread and wine they received each week were really the Body and Blood of Christ. It just did not make sense and actually smacked of superstition to them. How could such a belief persist in the modern world, they wondered. They knew a few people who were very devout Catholics and who truly believed what the Church taught, but they did not think too much of it usually. To them the Church’s teachings, especially on morality, seemed out of date, a relic of the past. They did not understand the reasoning, if any, behind them any more than they understood the Scriptures or the Eucharist. Once they had heard someone exclaim excitedly about the great mysteries of the faith. They had merely looked at each other and smirked. What mysteries? It was just the same old routine.
This is not a pretty picture, and it is far removed from the experience of those disciplines whose hearts burned within them as they walked with the Lord on the road to Emmaus. Unfortunately, however, it is an accurate portrayal of the faith lives of many (although of course not all) Catholics, especially those in the West. The statistics are frightening. Only about one quarter of American Catholics actually attend Mass on a regular basis. (79) Only about one-third of American Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. (80) A large number of Catholics have been taught that the only parts of the Bible that are true are those that talk about religion and morals, and sometimes even those are questionable. How did today’s Catholics lose the foundations of their faith? This question is far too complex to be answered fully here, but we will take a few moments to reflect briefly on this loss and some of the trends leading up to it before we move on to suggest a few solutions to this modern crisis of Catholic faith.
As we have seen, many Catholics today have mistaken notions about the liturgy. Some see it as a set of merely external rites that have little interior meaning. (81) Others, claiming to follow the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (which they misinterpret or read in a one-sided fashion), view it as a community event that focuses almost exclusively on the unity and interests of the “faith community” and must, therefore, be totally intelligible to all present. (82) In order to attain this intelligibility, pastors (who are responsible for guarding and upholding the faith) sometimes dabble in “liturgical creativity,” ignoring the liturgical norms instituted by the Church in an attempt to make the liturgy “relevant” to modern Catholics. For instance, they allow such “innovations” as liturgical dance; they focus on “active participation” to the exclusion of indispensable silent prayer; they distort Catholic teaching on such key subjects as the Eucharist so that the people will better “understand” it; they even permit non-Catholics or Catholics in a state of serious sin to receive Holy Communion so that they will feel “welcome” in the community. (83) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, points out in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy that liturgy, which is divinely designed for proper worship of God, has become, under the circumstances discussed above, “a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation.” He continues, “Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself; eating, drinking, and making merry...It is a kind of banal self-gratification…Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources.” He concludes, “All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness. There is no experience of that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God.” (84)
The realm of Catholic Scripture studies is also suffering today. Again, we can only touch upon the major issues here, but we must note some of the most difficult problems modern Catholics face when they read the Word of God. Modern Scriptural interpretation is dominated by the philosophy of historical criticism and the so-called historical-critical methods. Originally promoted by the rationalist philosophers and liberal Protestant scholars who were influenced by Enlightenment ideas, historical criticism and its methods examine the historical, human situation in which the text of Scripture was created, examining, for example, the forms used by the human authors, the editing of the text, and the circumstances of the early Christian community. Unfortunately, historical criticism is usually accompanied by rationalistic presuppositions that are empiricist and human-centered and can go as far as repudiating the supernatural aspects of the text, thrusting aside inspiration and inerrancy, discrediting miracles, attributing events in the lives of Jesus and the apostles to the imagination of the Church, denying the historical accuracy of Jesus’ words, and rejecting traditional Catholic interpretations. Indeed, many historical-critics operate out of a hermeneutic of suspicion; they relegate faith to the realm of the irrational and treat the Sacred Scripture as a merely human document to be studied like any other text. (85) This view, which focuses solely on the literal sense of Scripture, also eliminates the typology of the Fathers and thereby fails to recognize the unity of the divine economy that unites the Old and New Testaments, the liturgy, Christian life, and the reality of Heaven. (86) The faithful are thereby left with an impoverished view of the Scriptures, of the Word of God, the Word Inspired. Relegated to the past, it has no power to speak to us in the present. (87)
We can easily see in these brief reflections on the so-called modern views of liturgy and Scripture that many of today’s Catholics have a very limited appreciation for mystery. How can they be expected to discover the mysteries of God in a liturgy that is portrayed as a community event? How can they experience the intimacy with Jesus Christ found in the Eucharist when they do not believe in the Real Presence? How can they appreciate the mystery of the Church as the Bride and Mystical Body of Christ when they refuse to accept her authority and follow her liturgical norms? How can they possibly enter into heaven at Mass when they do not recognize that it is present? How can they realize the depths and richness of the Sacred Scripture when they are told that it is just another historical document, and not really very historical at that? Indeed, where is the mystery in this modern world of rationalism, humanism, and empiricism?
We may also ask ourselves if, in this rationalistic world in which we live, mystagogy will ever have the opportunity to thrive again. Will liturgy, Scripture, and mystery ever be reintegrated through a new mystagogy? Perhaps, even amidst the darkness of these days, the seeds have already been sewn that will lead to a new flourishing. On February 19, 1987, the new Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) was promulgated by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. This document inaugurates a new catechumenate that reinstates and updates the catechumenate of the early Church. The majority of the document falls beyond the scope of this study, but we will look specifically at the section that calls for a new mystagogy. We read that during the period of mystagogy, “…the community along with the neophytes grows in perceiving more deeply the paschal mystery and in making it part of their lives by meditation on the Gospel, sharing in the Eucharist, and doing works of charity.” The document continues, explaining that the neophytes’ understanding of Scripture, liturgy, and the Christian life must be deepened and enhanced, especially through special post-Baptismal Masses. In this way, “…neophytes acquire a truly more complete and more fruitful grasp of the ‘mysteries’ by the newness of what they have heard and above all by the experience of the sacraments they have received.” (88) Has this new mystagogy taken root in our parishes? Perhaps not yet. Most articles and websites describing mystagogy refer to it in terms of the neophytes sharing stories about their baptism, participating in parish life, attending Mass as a group, wearing their baptismal robes, or filling out workbook pages as they reflect on their new experiences. (89) One article even redefined mystagogy as a “time when we share as fellow Catholics and learn to be Christ together” and exclaimed that it was a wonderful opportunity to help new Catholics find the right ministries for them in parish life. (90) These things miss the point of mystagogy entirely, of course, but perhaps over time, and with some instruction, pastors and catechists in charge of modern RCIA programs will move beyond this narrow view of mystagogy and realize the depths of its potential to integrate three important aspects of Christian life, Scripture, liturgy, and mystery, just as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus.
79. “Bishops to Analyze Mass Attendance, Recent Data on U.S. Catholic Church,” Catholic News Agency, June 12, 2008, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=12919 (accessed May 16, 2009).
80. David Pearson, No Wonder They Call It the Real Presence (Cincinnati: Servant Books, 2002), 11.
81. Corbon, 11, 132-136.
82. Joseph Ratzinger, with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1985), 119-133; Ratzinger, Spirit, 23.
83. Ratzniger, Report, 119-133; Ratzinger, Spirit, 163-168; 198-199.
84. Ratzinger, Spirit, 23.
85. Ratzinger, Report, 74-76; Hahn, Lectures.
86. Mazza, xii; Hahn, Lectures.
87. Ratzinger, Report, 74.
88. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, The Catholic Liturgical Library, http://www.catholicliturgy.com/index.cfm/FuseAction/DocumentContents/Index/14/SubIndex/0/DocumentIndex/539 (accessed March 24, 2009).
89. Miriam Malone, “Six Steps to Effective Mystagogy,” Ministry & Liturgy, http://www.rpinet.com/ml/2703mys.html (accessed March 16, 2009); Paul Turner. “Successful Mystagogy,” Paul Turner, http://www.paulturner.org/mystagogy.htm (accessed March 16, 2009).
90. Jeanie LeGendre, “Mystagogia and Discovering Our Role in the Church,” Tampa Roman Catholic Examiner, April 24, 2009, http://www.examiner.com/x-7267-Tampa-Roman-Catholic-Examiner~y2009m4d24-Mystagogia-and-Discovering-Our-Role-in-the-Church (accessed May 16, 2009).