Patti Armstrong is an award-winning author and was the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families and Dear God, You Can’t Be Serious. She has a B.A. in social work and an M.A. in public administration and worked in both those fields before staying home to work as a freelance writer. Patti and her husband live in North Dakota, where they are still raising the tail end of their 10 children.
“We are going to church again after being away for awhile,” a neighbor told me over a cup of tea, “but it’s not a Catholic one. ”
Guilt mixed with disappointment and settled in the pit of my stomach. Was there a way I could have stopped them from leaving the one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church? Were there conversations that would have made a difference? I had not seen them—I'll call them Dan and Barb-- at Mass in awhile, but with 4 different weekend Masses, it’s easy not to cross paths with fellow parishioners.
Dan and Barb are the mostly neighborly neighbors my husband and I have ever known. True Christians, they are. And now, they are also ex-Catholics. Harsh homilies, depressing music and a priest that failed to give emotional and spiritual comfort on a difficult family issue, were listed as reasons that drove them away. I would use completely different adjectives to describe our parish but perspective is everything. “There are other priests and parishes in town that might make you feel more comfortable,” I ventured.
Barb raised her hand to silence me. “We have a new church,” she said. “We are going to the evangelical church. It brings us comfort and happiness.” She explained that it also gives them peace, friendships, uplifting homilies, inspiring music and a warm, inclusive congregation encouraged by time allotted right during the service to stop and get to know one another.
“It’s a different type of worship,” I pointed out. “Catholic worship is vertical, we come together but our worship--the liturgy--is directed up towards God, not horizontally interacting with others.”
But my argument was like trying to mold cement—her mind was set. “Someone asked Dan to help build houses for the poor with a group of men from our church,” Barb continued. “We feel like we belong.” She and Dan had stepped into a circle of love and friendship where they will surely meet other ex-Catholics—if they haven’t already—basking in the same happy glow. Sigh. We’ve got it too--happiness that is. It’s just not so obvious. Nor, the main pursuit. Holiness is.
Worshipping Beneath the Surface
Barb and Dan are seeking the feel-good over truth. Our Catholic brand of joy is integrated with suffering and solemnness. Mass is a celebration, not a party. During the liturgy, we transcend to Heaven and God comes to us--literally when the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. Hugging, fellowship, swaying to the music, and friendship are fine things, but there was none of that at the Last Supper. It wasn’t mentioned in Church documents during the next 1,500 years either.
The core understanding that roots someone in the Church boils down to the Real Presence in the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who commanded us to “Do this in memory of me,” just as was done among First Century Christians and continues today in every Catholic Church. I cannot go where the Eucharist is not.
Yet, many do leave. Their exit is possible only through a lack of faith in the Real Presence and not understanding that the teachings of the Catholic Church are the same as those written about by the early Church Fathers. The trappings of happy Protestant worship are not found in history. Yet, the Mass, Confession, Eucharistic Adoration, the Stations of the Cross…those have a place in history and in our Church.
I acknowledge that not every priest is a dynamo, nor every homily inspired. Although, I have found the priests in my diocese to be very inspiring. Like I said, perspective is everything. I don’t begrudge non-Catholic Christians their warm, outgoing congregations. In some ways, they are examples to Catholics to remember that extending friendship and offering a warm welcome to strangers is an important responsibility for every baptized Catholic.
But to leave the seven sacraments and the Real Presence of Jesus for upbeat services is like passing up a well-balanced meal for cotton candy. The latter tastes good and is easy to digest but it cannot build up a body in the same way. So too, the excitement of worship on the surface goes down easy, but in the end, it’s spiritual malnutrition.
It’s a sadness to love the Church and see people leave, but my husband and I will continue to be friends with Dan and Barb. We will also pray harder for all fallen-away Catholics to feel the tug of truth. In the meantime, we will be watchful for ways to add love and warmth to our own congregation. Although it’s only one small part of being a Catholic, it is an important part that could prevent others from leaving.