Today's Gospel from Luke 18:9-14 set off all kinds of thoughts in my head:
"Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.’"
The parable is terribly familiar to us all and I cannot say as I have ever met anyone who did not despise the Pharisee's pride and profoundly admire the Publican's humility, his utter self effacement. As I say, it's a no-brainer: a hymn to God's mercy and clear teaching about how we should stand, or better, kneel before the God Who loves us.
One of the random thoughts which popped into my head after Mass on this topic regarded a series of comments on Facebook over a retweet of an article calling for silence and decorum in church (with the Blessed Sacrament as the focal point of an oasis of recollection, if you will, in our too hectic world). What I thought uncontroversial, provoked from someone I don't know (a troll?) a bitter quip about God not needing silence. We'll give it a by!
In the light of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican at prayer in the Temple, I can almost see myself as justified in fixating on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about Sunday Eucharist, about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the "source and summit of Christian existence", our Christian existence as Catholics, whose lives, in the fullest sense of the term, flow from the sacraments and find there their ultimate expression.
"This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not." Who went home again at rights? Not bombast but the bowed head and beaten breast!
Falling numbers at Sunday Mass have many explanations. Many would tell you they are fleeing that bombast, that hassle, which at best is an abuse of the Ordinary Form of the Liturgy, but which more often has something in common with sacrilege. Others' pride keeps them from bowing to a binding precept of the Church, binding under mortal sin, if you don't have a good excuse. Much of the problem is an ignorance which is far from invincible.
Let me repeat an exchange which I shared in an earlier blog posting on the topic of our obligation to assist at Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation! Some years back, a highly respected priest friend of mine told me about counselling his brother, a very hard-working surgeon, that when he could get away for a weekend to the lake, he shouldn't feel obliged to drive into town for Mass on the Sunday. I told him my mother would never agree to his advice. I told him of her worries and prayers for her children on a journey, that with the excuse of vacation they might dispense themselves from seeking an opportunity for Sunday Mass. Impossible, certainly, is impossible, but here we are talking about what identifies us as baptized, as washed clean by the saving Sacrifice of His Cross.
I used to tell people that we Catholics are not obliged to get up on our soapbox or stand up on a street corner and preach in witness to our faith, but simply to get up out of bed on Sunday morning and move across that threshold to our place in God's House. Our Christian life lived finds its most eloquent expression, as to why our charity, why our mutual respect, why our justice, why our obedience, in simply (and without words) moving to our place before His Throne, His Footstool.
Many of us have lost a half century of not living the Council, because we've stripped away everything: daily prayer, reflection, catechesis and a once rich devotional life; we've stripped our altars and visual field in church of enlivening focal points, exchanging a brief period (less than an hour once a week) of its silence and wealth, giving free rein to theater and bombast. The reset is overdue, as is a return to teaching small children prayers at home, of a Christ focused catechesis which inspires us to seek the Lord, head bowed, in the clear awareness of Who He is for us.
My priest friend reacted with a measure of shock to my explanation about my mother's teaching on the importance, nay rather the essential character of Sunday Mass for our Catholic identity and our Eternal Salvation. He did not correct me, nor did he inform me as to whether he corrected his advice to his brother. Be that as it may, there was nothing the least bit Pharisaical about our exchange. I'm not labeling anybody a Pharisee (see here and here) but I am holding to Jesus' teaching about who went home from the Temple that day right with God.
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI