I’ve read a lot of articles about attendance at church. There is much debate about whether attendance is growing or shrinking. In his opening address at the Second Vatican Council, Pope Saint John XXIII said we must “open the windows of the church to the fresh air of the Holy Spirit.” In the latter years of his papacy, Pope Saint John Paul II proclaimed a “new spring time in the church.” Fresh air and spring time: I love these images. They speak of something fresh, new and exciting. The big question is: are we experiencing fresh air and springtime in our churches or were these two saint popes just exaggerating? Many believe that the situation is dire and something drastic needs to happen to increase attendance. There is currently a Catholic magazine/blog site called “Crisis” magazine. The title alone, and the popularity of the magazine, suggests to me that many believe the church is spinning out of control – flat lining, in need of resuscitation – no fresh air and spring time.
In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus shocks us again with another radical statement. He says “the children of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” I believe this statement has some real relevance for our discussion about church attendance. I have attended the live theater production of “Les Miserables” four times and I will go again if the opportunity arises. The theme and the manner in which it is delivered moves me profoundly every time. It is truly a life changing experience. I am always amazed at the capacity crowds that pay handsomely to attend these performances. I would also put “Cirque du Soleil” in this category. Yet many of these same people who pack Les Mis and Cirque performances don’t have the time to attend Mass, for free, on Sunday. Why is that? Are they just bad people who stubbornly ignore the church? I recently read another article by an author who was bemoaning people who “skip church” on Sunday.
Here, in my opinion, is where the relevance of today’s gospel comes into play. The cast of Les Mis and Cirque will put in countless hours of rehearsal and preparation before they offer their first performance. It is a dream come true for many of these performers to be on stage and they give 110% every night. They exude passion, dedication and professionalism. This is in stark contrast to the music I often hear in MOST of our Catholic churches. It is painfully obvious in most cases that very little, if any, practice has occurred. The musicians often appear as though they are just getting the job done without too much concern for what impact they may, or may not have, on their listeners. I find it ironic how we offer up subpar music and then cry in our pillows about how our young people will not attend church. This is precisely where I believe the “children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” In other words, theater companies and their performers are much better at capturing the imagination of the general public than most of those who lead liturgical music. I would also argue that famous actors and rock stars are much better at capturing the imagination of our youth than the church is. Yes, their message often contradicts faith and morals but at least they know how to get young people’s attention. They seem to understand the human spirit better than us in the church and they are more adept at getting inside people’s heads and hearts. I think we “the children of light” could learn from the way these “children of the world” deal with their own generation.
In “feast of faith” Pope Benedict reports that Saint Augustine “had come to appreciate Christianity as a philosophy but was uneasy about the church herself.” In the end it was, in Augustine’s words, “the singing church which gave him a shattering experience, penetrating the whole man, and which led him forward on the way to the church.” It was obviously an experience of extreme beauty and grace that pierced him to the core. Ok now let’s ask ourselves: when was the last time that we have had “a shattering experience, penetrating the whole man” as a result of music we have heard in church? When was the last time the music really moved us and led us to deeper conviction in our faith?
I must clarify here that I am not advocating any particular style of music. It is more the manner and the conviction with which it is presented. Gregorian chant sung poorly will benefit nobody and may even scare people away. However, Gregorian chant well executed is truly a “shattering experience.” The same is true for other styles of music. Also, church attendance is a very complex matter and there are as many reasons for attending, or not attending, as there are people. There are many other dynamics involved in this discussion and when it comes to people’s motives I would like to echo Pope Francis and say “Who am I to judge?”
However, based on Jesus’ words about the children of this world dealing with their own generation, I think we could learn something about the way “they” are able to capture people’s attention, get “their” message across and shape people’s minds and hearts. Conversely, we “the children of light” seem to engage in endless heated debate about whether we should receive communion on the tongue or on the hand and various other fine points of liturgy. In social media and other arenas I hear lots of Catholics pontificating about the evils of this world and that church attendance would improve if only people would just straighten up and fly right. What if we loosened our grip on some of the hot button issues (abortion, contraception, same sex marriage) for just a moment and strived instead to demonstrate the true freedom/joy/hope/peace/beauty that the gospel offers? I believe this is part of what Pope Francis is trying to teach us during this extraordinary jubilee year of MERCY: stop judging and condemning those who don’t think and act exactly like you do; stop being so tribal and really learn how to love your neighbor regardless of who he/she is. Our newest saint, St. Teresa of Calcutta, was a shining star in this regard.
St. Augustine shows us that people are longing for a deep and meaningful experience of faith and a community of believers that are authentic and genuine. For my part, as a music minister, I will continue to play with passion, dedication and professionalism, aware of the potential the music has to penetrate the whole person and lead people forward on the way to the church. What would happen if we all played our part with deeper passion and conviction whether we are a music minister, Eucharistic minister, lector or usher (even when we’re going through the checkout line at the grocery store – don’t forget to smile)? Perhaps we would become shrewder at dealing with our own generation. Perhaps we would experience the fresh air and spring time in our church that we have been promised and that we all long for.