Photo credit: Mulier Fortis
Many years ago when I was a newly-ordained priest, an evangelical Christian stopped me in the street to ask me why I was looking so miserable. He said that I should be happy because Christ had risen from the dead. I explained to him that I had just come from the hospital where I had visited a young woman who had taken an overdose of paracetamol. During the course of the next day, she had realised that it was a foolish thing to do and that she did not want to die. Then her liver and everything else packed up and I had just administered the sacraments to her before her now inevitable death.
When we celebrate Mass, we do so for a variety of people. Most of them will be happy to be there, glad to know that they have done something good by offering God due worship, glowing with the joy of their families or with seeing the young children of others playing happily outside after Mass. As a priest I am usually able to rejoice in greeting people and laughing with families and their children. (And who knows? Maybe they liked the sermon.)
Some of the people who go to Mass might not be so happy because their husband has just walked off with another women, because their child has died, because they have lost their job, because their business is struggling and they can’t see how they can keep up with the mortgage, or because they are in the midst of a bruising feud with a family member. Unfortunately, this might be on their minds on Easter Sunday or the day of Pentecost.
Still they may be anointed with the oil of gladness and deep in their soul know that Christ triumphs over everything: but it may not be so easy to see that at the moment. Externally, they may not look as though they have heard “Good News.” If the priest lives with the smell of his sheep, his experience might teach him that the more comforting thought for one person is that we are also at the foot of the cross with Our Lady of Sorrows, the consoler of the afflicted. Within seconds he may need to rejoice with someone else because they have had a new baby, or they have a free day to spend enjoying the company of their family, or they have recently got engaged. The suddenly he may himself be challenged by someone who thinks he is a heartless collector of antiquities who has a taste for fine fabrics (for the vestments in which he offers worship to God for the people.)
Fr Cantalamessa proposed on Good Friday that our problem is the residue of past ceremonials and other debris, and that our pressing need is to return to simplicity and linearity by knocking down partitions, staircases, rooms and closets so that we can reach out existentially. I don’t want to be unfair: it is true that sometimes habits need to be changed and there are non-essentials that can be dispensed with if necessary. What I object to is the idea that this is our main problem today. To keep at an existential level, I would put it like this: the parish Church is a room in everybody’s house. If we go knocking things down and clearing them out to create a brutal, minimalist space, we take away something from the poor – both the materially poor and the spiritually poor. At a deeper level, that statue of the Sacred Heart or that image of the Divine Mercy or the Infant of Prague may be a great comfort to the sheep among whom we live. The sacramentals which so much enrich the daily life of the faithful, the blessings, the processions, the waving of hankies to say goodbye to Our Lady Immaculate, the scapulars, medals and holy pictures, relics and indulgences, give skin and breath to the faith of the people.
Let us not brush them away in yet another era of plain concrete machines for assembling in. We priests can discuss among ourselves some of the more enthusiastic practices but we should never be so proud as to deprive the people of the love and devotion which they wish to show for the Lord though the five senses. We might think that we are ushering in a brave new world of simplicity through ever-so-tastefully understated polyester, that the people will hear the “Good News” when we drone an endless Liturgy of the Word through a microphone with enthusiastic references to the sitz im leben of modern man, and that somehow this will solve the problems of the woefully inadequate catechesis we have presided over.
Let’s keep the staircases, rooms and closets, and find in every nook and cranny the different sheep with different smells and different needs, and serve them in this glorious edifice which is the Catholic Church with all its beautiful accretions sanctified by the work of the saints through the ages. This great, fascinating, and inspiring building, the Catholic Church, is our home. Sometimes we need to clear out some junk. But whenever we do so, we are sure to find something that was loved of old, something we have forgotten, something that will bring a sparkle to the eyes of the young who do not yet know that it is presently unfashionable. Who knows? It may be the way that they come to be anointed with the oil of gladness and hear the “Good News.”