Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Strike At The Sacrament Factory

Mary DeTurris Poust has had it up to here with lukewarm priests. She says she nearly walked out of mass this weekend: It wasn’t that the priest was preaching heresy, which also isn’t unheard of in my church-going experience, unfortunately, or that any one thing outraged me to the point where I felt I just […]

Mary DeTurris Poust has had it up to here with lukewarm priests. She says she nearly walked out of mass this weekend:

It wasn’t that the priest was preaching heresy, which also isn’t unheard of in my church-going experience, unfortunately, or that any one thing outraged me to the point where I felt I just couldn’t remain. It was the overwhelming, long-building, near-constant feeling that my Church really doesn’t care enough to try to feed me spiritually, that the Church is daring Catholics to leave. As in, let’s see if they’ll sit through THIS. Quite frankly, these parishes don’t deserve any of us.

One of the reasons I cried while reading Pope Francis’ stunning and inspiring interview with Americamagazine last week was because I have been starving for what he’s calling the Church to be. I have been desperate for a shepherd, for someone who wants to meet me in my darkness and walk with me spiritually, for someone who gets up there and tries to meet people where they are – in the real world, struggling with real problems, in a way that actually has some meaning in their lives. That maybe the music lifts us up instead of leaving us shaking our heads. That something, anything, give off even the faintest whiff of meaningful spirituality.

You get a Gospel like we had this Sunday – “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and money.” – and you choose to drone on for 20 minutes about temperance and prudence and fortitude and justice in a disjointed, monotone, utterly incomprehensible way? I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to do better than that. I look around and see the blank stares, the fidgeting, the eye-rolling (at least in my pew), and it depresses me. It’s not that people are unwilling to listen or that they don’t want to be there. They’re in the church on a beautiful fall Saturday afternoon or early on a Sunday morning. Obviously they want SOMETHING, but it’s not this. I can assure you.

I walked out of Mass last night and looked at Dennis and said, “I can’t do this anymore.” Meaning, I cannot put up with parishes that do not even attempt to lead spiritually, that do not care what their people need, only, it seems, what might take the least amount of effort, like using an old canned homily (and, yes, we can tell). The path of least resistance. Well, I say it’s about time we start putting up some resistance.

What startled me about this first was the name of the author. Mary DeTurris Poust is a prolific Catholic writer, and the wife of Dennis Poust, the communications director of the New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops. The Pousts are deeply engaged in the life of the Catholic Church. On her Facebook page, MDT continues:

My great concern is that if someone like me who has been a lifelong Catholic and has worked for the Church for almost 30 years is getting disheartened, what does it mean for the people who wander in hoping to return, what about the people with no catechesis who are just hoping for something to keep them grounded? What is there for them? I know my faith. I know my God. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about my Church.

Notice, by the way, that she doesn’t complain that the homily she heard was too liberal, or too conservative. It was that it said absolutely nothing. She is begging for bread, and Father is giving her nothing but stones.

This is exactly my own experience as a Catholic — and I know it is the experience of many Orthodox and Protestants, because I’ve heard them say it. I was just thinking this afternoon, writing a piece about Pope Francis’s interview, how my own spiritual starvation in parish life left me with little strength to resist the onslaught of anger and despair from the scandal. It wasn’t that the priests were too liberal and heterodox (though there was some of that; I had grown tired of having to tell my oldest child on the way home from mass that what Father or Deacon preached today wasn’t what the Church teaches, and here’s what the truth is). Far more often than not, it was that they said absolutely nothing. It was as if they were trying their best not to offend anybody. Consequently, they inspired nobody.

Because I write opinion pieces for a living, I used to wonder how the pastor at whichever church I attended could take the Scripture readings of the day and take all the dynamism out of them in his sermon. It must take work, I thought, to make something as vivid as the Gospel, or the letters of St. Paul, or the Old Testament, so bland and so gray in the explication. And then I would go hear a preacher like Fr. Paul Weinberger of the Dallas diocese, and man, he was just great. He preached like he really believed this stuff.

I don’t know how it is among most Catholics, but among the orthodox Catholics, we would remind ourselves that the Eucharist is the Eucharist, no matter how bad the sermon, and how indifferent the atmosphere in the parish. Had there been no sex scandal at all, I wonder where my family would be spiritually. We were so spiritually hungry. But bad homilies are rarely things unto themselves. A priest who does not connect with his people from the pulpit is often disconnected from spiritual leadership and fatherhood in other ways.

An American Coptic friend of mine takes his family to an Evangelical church, though he still keeps a foot in the Coptic church. He said he wants them to learn about Jesus; at their Coptic parish, it’s all about being Egyptian. An Orthodox friend of mine left his church for Evangelicalism for the same reason. A Protestant friend of mine is hanging on by her fingernails in her church, because she said she’s starving to death spiritually, but can’t bring herself to upset her family by finding another church. This kind of thing happens all over, in every church.

He’s going to be mad at me for saying so, but I can’t praise enough the preaching of our pastor, Fr. Matthew Harrington, at St. John the Theologian Orthodox mission.  I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a parish in which every single Sunday, without fail, I sat there and listened to the sermon intently, and was both uplifted by it and challenged by it. Today we observed the feast of SS. Joachim and Anna, the mother and father of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Father preached about parenthood, and talked about the importance of love and forgiveness. He admonished all of us to stay away from the communion cup if we show up in church having argued with a family member, and failed to ask forgiveness. He told us parents that, if we argue with each other, we should ask forgiveness in front of our children, so we can show them what true Christian marriage is like. Father said that we also have to work to love our kids enough that we give them not what they want, but what they need. If you give them what they want, he said, that makes it easy for you, but it’s bad for the child.

There was more, but you get the gist of it. Just straightforward preaching, grounded deeply in Scripture and the lives of the saints, all of it relevant to everyday life. He preaches repentance, and he preaches the joy of the Lord, in equal measure. I don’t know why this isn’t more common, but it’s not. We are so, so blessed in our tiny little country mission. Too many of our churches are Sacrament Factories.

What do things look like from your point of view? As a pastor? As a congregant?