Copyright© Larry Johnson 2019
It’s been more than fifty years since the Second Vatican Council, with Roman Catholic attendance at Sunday Mass declining markedly since then. The experiment in ‘Protestanising’ the Catholic Liturgy has been nowhere near a success. This is not to denigrate the Vatican II documents; it’s just that very few in the Church followed them. The Tridentine Mass devotees didn’t agree with the new direction and the modernists got carried away and pursued another agenda; deciding unequivocally to re-interpret the content in their own way under the guise of the ‘spirit of Vatican II’. It was unwise and misguided enthusiasm at best, deception at worst. One of the objectives was that if the Catholic Liturgy was stripped of traditional practices, then it would encourage Protestants to convert.
The conclusion of the Vatican II council coincided with the rise of the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation, those post-World War II babies that grew up to revolt against anything with which they didn’t agree and had no small part to play in the upcoming apostasy. Their own ideology of a peaceful world, with free love, drug use, and generally the licence to do what you want when you want was too attractive for many to resist. The idea of a God that requested compliance with commandments and rules was too abhorrent to that generation and as a result the Sunday Mass became, to them, something to be utterly avoided. Moreover, the errors of this generation were passed on to their children, and their children’s children. Ideologies were adopted that directed that children should not be baptised when babies, as it was more appropriate that the choice to believe was made when they grew older. Unfortunately, the result was that they received such inadequate catechesis when they were young that they had insufficient or otherwise erroneous information to make any choice at all; except that of maintaining their status quo. We are now seeing children with Catholic heritage, who two or three generations removed, know little or nothing of Jesus Christ.
This new direction for the Church was consumed in an onslaught of modernistic and revolutionary cultural trends that raised secularism to the pinnacle of many individual’s aspirations. Modernism was embraced with some degree of intent by a multitude of Catholics, including numerous clergy and laity, coercing the adaptation of the Church to the world. Consequently, participation at Roman Catholic Sunday Mass plummeted and has never recovered. The reverberations following Vatican II resulted in the boorish and sometimes quite hurried discarding of many traditional pious practices. Since that period we have witnessed a general disregard for Benediction, Chant, and Eucharistic Adoration: as well the decline of pious societies like the Holy Name Society, Legion of Mary, and Sacred Heart Sodality. Regrettably the number of clergy also declined. There has been much made of a crisis in the numbers of clergy. However this shouldn’t have been surprising due the decline in laity participation. It would be interesting to conduct a study in the Western World of the historical ratios of priests to practising Roman Catholics. I am ready to stand corrected if my theory is off the mark, but I would surmise that possibly there is little variation: that is, fewer laity attending Mass and less congregation from which to draw. I believe the issue may not simply be men not answering the call to the priesthood, but laity not answering the call to attend Mass and therefore fewer men to hear the call. It is of significance that in areas of the Western World, peculiarly enough including the United States of America, where traditional Catholicism and associated devotions has made a ‘comeback’; following which, seminaries and some religious communities are attracting considerable numbers of men and women respectively.
While the virtue of piety was rapidly discarded, conversely social justice became more the focus. The feeling seemed to be that this should occupy a higher priority than pious practices. Many posited that as the Lord had commanded, their efforts were being undertaken as a response to love of neighbour, and by and large I don’t doubt this to be true. However, Psalm 126 (127) is here perhaps revelatory:
‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’[i]
I have witnessed many noble and generous acts undertaken for the Lord following genuine piety. However, I have encountered so called charitable acts under the guise of artificial compassion, where little sincere virtue existed. Without piety we can tend to act out of our own inspirations and create disorder, perhaps motivated by the seeking of self-satisfaction or the confirmation that we are ‘good’ people. Of course, we are not to wait until we reach a state of perfection to begin attempting good works; but I think it is wise to recognize our intention and make constant supplication in prayer and reflection that God will purify our them. There are not just a few Christians who believe that accepting abortion or same-sex marriage is the compassionate thing to do, where nothing could be further from the truth. Worship and prayer should always precede good works and we must be discerning regarding the causes and works we undertake. St Alphonsus Liguori, in his treatise on the ‘Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ’ quotes from St. Aloysius Gonzaga who remarked, “There will never be much perfection without much prayer”.[ii] As well as seeking to purify our intentions, we should contemplate whether the task undertaken is in harmony with Christian morality.
So Roman Catholic Mass attendance has suffered due to a modernistic offensive. Yet can we say that similar circumstances have emerged with traditional Protestant churches? I haven’t the data at hand to confirm or deny, except that anecdotally I don’t see their car parks as full as they once were. Certainly there are those ‘new’ Protestant services that are attended in numbers and deliver high powered music and preaching, but I’m told that they appeal mainly to the young. I am also informed that they have a high turnover.
The question must be asked: are all Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant obliged to attend Sunday worship? It has always been the doctrine of the Catholic Church that to not attend Mass each Sunday, unless for good reason, is a grave sin and endangers the eternal salvation of the person (good reason not including going to the football or camping etc). However I would posit that even non-Catholic Christians i.e. Protestants, should consider whether attending Sunday service is also for them a necessity. The day of resurrection is for all Christians and it is a matter of uncertainty as to whether one can expect to be granted mercy and eternal salvation where even the minimal effort of attending once a week to praise and thank our Lord can’t be pledged.
The tendency in many Christian denominations seems to be that all we must do is recline into a comfortable lifestyle and enjoy life to full and assume that our ticket home is assured. I am afraid I cannot assent to that view; there has to be some effort required. Some will respond that they are good people and don’t do anything of a sinister nature. That may be so, but without regular grounding in the faith it is very easy to regress to lower aspirations and even sin. In other words, become complacent, forgetting about God and His expectations and hopes for us. As Christians we rely on God’s grace in making the journey towards Him. If we can’t even commit to one to two hours a week, we’re not showing much enthusiasm towards sharing this hope of eternal life in Heaven. Moreover, we are less likely to seek regular dialogue with God in daily prayer if we are not motivated to attend weekly worship, furthering the distance between us and Our Lord. St Paul petitioned us to pray always. Again, this is unlikely to eventuate if we are not to pledge some relatively short time once a week. The failure in commitment leads to disconnection with Christian values and their application in our normal daily activities, and the subsequent disengagement with God. Indeed, we may maintain that we are good people, but even the reasons we perform good acts may be for the wrong reason. As stated previously, perhaps ego, self-fulfilment or notoriety becomes the motivation. Relationship with God will be an aid in the realisation of these skewed motivations and furthermore, without this relationship with Him we may not even be cognisant of these frailties.
This commitment is no less important for anyone but is certainly most imperative for those in public office and other leadership positions. Nothing grieves more that to hear a politician or journalist for example, vaunt their Christianity and yet openly state their support for same sex marriage or abortion. More than a few will proudly assert that they are careful not to allow their Christian beliefs to influence their decisions or commentary. The point is that their Christianity should be the primary guide for their actions and views. Eternal life is longer than a very long time: we are Christians first and we place God as principal in our lives – all else is secondary. One wonders what led them to stray from the path. Perhaps a lack of commitment in the renewal of their relationship with God each Sunday and daily prayer?
The Lutheran Minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote of the cost of discipleship and the problem of being content with ‘cheap grace’ in lieu of a life of faithfulness to Christ; ‘costly grace’ as he named it. We can’t expect to live this life of faithfulness without the grace obtained by, as a foundation, pledging this weekly time to affirm we want to be with Him. It would be true to state I think that even this minimalist commitment of attendance at church once a week would be described as cheap grace. Nonetheless it is the aspiration that this modest effort will lead one to daily prayer, and even unceasing prayer as urged by St Paul and others: progressing from ‘cheap grace’ to full discipleship in Christ and growth in faith, hope and charity.
Christ has told us that we must take up our cross and follow him. Our cross will include the sacrifice of some pleasures to bring our focus to what Our Lord requires of us; what He wants for us so that we may be able to draw closer to Him. If towards the end of life here on earth one contemplated his or her destiny, it would be regrettable if the opportunity to become close to the one who will be our judge had been rejected for the sake of the Sunday football or cricket. Sunday football and cricket don’t really care for us: God does, but He wants to see our effort forthcoming.
There is a prevailing attitude at
the beginning of the 21st Millennium that salvation is universal. I
find this difficult to believe; this idea that one could saunter through life
in a comfortable and mediocre fashion, with little or no response to the Gospel
and yet be presuming of their place in Heaven.
[i] Psalm 127 v1 NRSV Bible, Harper Bibles
[ii] The Practised of the Love of Jesus Christ, St Alphonsus Liguori: from the Holy Eucharist, edited and abridged by Msgr Charles Dollen © 1994 by the Society of St Paul.