By Fr. Max Oliva, SJ
A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday, I was a visiting priest at a parish in California. The Gospel reading for the Mass that day was from John’s Gospel (6:60-69). The passage relates a story in which some of Jesus’ early disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer because of some of his teachings.
This story got me thinking about the present time, about those who have left the Catholic Church (or any denomination or religion), especially those who were members for many years. First, I thought about my own family. All five of us children were raised Catholic by our parents; they also sent us to Catholic elementary and high schools. Three of us attended colleges of our faith. Yet, I am the only one practicing the faith. Not to say that my siblings aren’t spiritual, just not Catholic. So, why have some left? Here are a few reasons that came to my mind:
- Changes in the liturgy of the Mass. The Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) brought some significant changes: the language went from Latin to the vernacular, which caused some to lament that the sense of mystery they had valued was lost for them; people could stand during the Mass instead of kneel; and parishioners were encouraged to greet one another with a sign of peace following the Lord’s Prayer. Add to these, statues of saints were moved from the body of the church to alcoves.
- A particular pastor’s personality turned them off. This might be expressed in a perceived lack of compassion or a gruffness during the sacrament of reconciliation (confession). Some have felt harshly judged or misunderstood.
- Scandals. Some priests and religious have taken spectacular falls from the pedestals they were placed on. The humanness of others, some in leadership positions of the faith, has been exposed to show addictions and some very serious vices.
- People who have divorced and re-married, without an annulment.
- A too materialistic way of life that has led some to lose a sense of the spiritual. A variation on this is families whose lives so completely revolve around the sporting events of their children that these events take precedent over Sunday Mass.
To continue the story in John’s Gospel, Jesus asked the Apostles if they also wanted to leave. Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe; we are convinced that you are God’s holy one.”
With Peter’s response in mind, I started reflecting on why people stay in the church despite the changes, the scandals, and so forth. Here are some reasons that came to mind:
- A love and deep appreciation of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ – the church’s primary spiritual nourishment.
- A vibrant faith community that offers one the companionship of other believers and the inspiration that comes with sharing one’s faith with others: the witness of others’ faith encourages and strengthens each for the daily living out of one’s faith.
- A personal relationship with Christ that, like St. Peter’s, is disturbed by upheavals in the church but not to the point of leaving.
- An understanding and loving pastor and other men and women in parish ministerial situations who sincerely care about each member of the community.
- Sunday homilies (sermons) that clearly connect biblical insights to one’s personal and professional life.
- The person has an “understanding heart” – which realizes that we are all fallible, including the clergy and religious and is able to look beyond sin to the center of one’s faith: Jesus the Christ.
- Finally, it comes down to this: this is where the person finds inner peace and a sense of spiritual belonging.