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By Benedict Augustine
John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance
to all the people of Israel;
and as John was completing his course, he would say,
‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he.
Behold, one is coming after me;
I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.’’
In parishes all over the world, Catholics treat Jesus with appalling contempt—some with full knowledge but most through ignorance. The vast majority of them distribute the Eucharist, Jesus’ Own Body and Blood, as though it were a snack on an airplane. Very few even see the Mass as a solemn event. It is more an occasion for the priest to put on a show, privileged laymen to display their pious choreography, and musicians to rock and sway to Broadway tunes with religious lyrics. The congregation completes the scene by dressing in casual, sometimes scandalous, clothing. For the average Catholic, nothing about the Mass is all that serious.
Between Masses, the Host—again, this is the Body and Blood of Jesus—is usually stored in some oddly designed box (the tabernacle) placed to the side or in some unseen nook away from the center of the church. A few parishes will have adoration where people can sit quietly with Jesus during the week, but most parishes have dispensed with this practice. In these places, Jesus sits in His box while parishioners gossip and shoot the breeze a few steps away, oblivious to His Presence.
While all Catholics receiving Jesus in Holy Communion are supposed to receive Him with a clear conscience and without the stain of mortal sin, many hardly bother with this mandate. After all, this would require them to know that Holy Communion is a serious matter, and most churches have done away with such seriousness. Consequently, few parishioners even think of examining their conscience and attending Confession regularly. Although these same people will dress professionally and observe basic hygiene in order to have a pleasant appearance at their job or in public, they will blithely present a cluttered and dirty soul to God when they meet Him at the altar.
Outside the sacraments, which still remain under the purview of priests and deacons, committees of laypeople organize events and organizations to increase involvement in the parish. They discuss logistics, finances, schedules, and marketing; at the very bottom of the list is increasing actual holiness among the parish. Oftentimes, religion acts more like a decorative motif than a guiding principal for these well-intentioned endeavors. Rarely do they produce any conversions or increased fervor.
So many older Catholics express wonder at the drop in religious vocations and in the exodus of young people from the Church. Is it really a mystery in light of the way the church now operates in so many places? There is no reverence to be found anywhere. While John felt unworthy to tie Jesus’ sandals, many Catholics today feel comfortable wearing sandals and football jerseys to Mass. While John announced the coming of Jesus and gave the people a good cleaning, both physically and morally, before He arrived, most people handle Jesus carelessly with their grubby hands before consuming Him in the same way they consume a potato chip – and no, squirting disinfectant in one’s hands and smiling politely does not quite equal John’s baptism of repentance. People, both priests and laypeople, have made the Church silly, and it is truly a miracle that anyone feels drawn to serve Her anymore. I would say there is no better proof of the Holy Spirit than this.
In most cases, the only way to feel anything from this is to be part of the show. I know this from experience. I played music for the Mass, taught Catechism to kids receiving their sacraments, helped with RCIA, joined in different Scripture studies, and even blogged (for over a year now) about the faith. I did these things with the hope of feeling God’s presence, of becoming holy; but more often, I felt unchallenged and self-satisfied.
So, I left my parish to find a place that took the faith more seriously, that would help a person like myself. That led to me attending a Latin Mass Parish, the only one in the metroplex. Here, I discovered the beauty of the Mass, the joy of true repentance a regular confession, and the real challenge of living as a Christian. Not surprisingly, I also discovered young people, big families, and three—three!—priests who acted more like fathers than like managers. Apparently, many more such Latin Mass priests of the FSSP order are being trained at their seminaries, proving that the Latin Mass succeeds in producing vocations to the religious life.
Even though I was not the darling that I was in my last parish—being a relatively young guy involved in church activities, a rarity in parishes dominated by women and the elderly—I felt uplifted here. They took the Mass seriously! They took the sacraments seriously! They took prayer seriously! Jesus was not my indifferent friend who overlooked my many faults, but my Lord and Master, the Man of whom John the Baptist, Isaiah, and Paul speak, Who wanted perfect obedience from me.
I believed there is hope for restless Catholics and it lies in recovering this reverence for the Holy Trinity. All churches, not just traditional ones, can do this. Reverence should permeate our prayers, our actions, and most importantly our liturgy for the Mass. Only after this can we show reverence to the earth and the poor as Pope Francis enjoins the faithful to do, or show reverence to our families and communities. Sincere reverence will restore dignity to life, and instill a true humility and respect for God’s many blessings. St. John the Baptist repeated this lesson endlessly and modeled it in the wilderness. On this feast day, all members of the Church should listen to John once more and prepare their souls for Christ.