Sunday, January 3, 2010
In these first few days of the New Year many of us are struggling with beginning resolutions to improve our lives. For many this involves losing weight and getting in better physical shape. For some it involves straightening out their financial lives. No matter what your particular resolution, deciding to go back to Church, or perhaps even to go to Church regularly for the first time in your life, would be the single most important and rewarding for yourself and your family.
Going to Church requires taking care of a few formalities first, such as which Church to attend. There are many 'fly-by-night' operations out there disguised as churches. There are also any number of churches run by a strong pastor wholly dependant on that one person, always a dangerous proposition.
At the risk of alienating some, I am going to make a very brief case for you to give the Roman Catholic Church a try. Most of you probably already know which Catholic parish in which you live. If you don't just visit the Archdiocese website at archphila.org or give them a phone call at 215-587-3600.
The Catholic Mass is one of the most solemn and comforting services that you will ever experience. The solemnity comes from it's respect and reverence for the experience of worship. There is rarely any jumping around or hollering or dancing here. Prayer, scripture, and sacrament are the highlights of a Catholic Mass.
When you attend a Catholic Church service you are getting virtually the same general Mass service being experienced by hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics the world over on any given Sunday. There is a structure to the Mass involving two main parts: the Liturgy of the Word involving scriptural readings from both the Old and New Testaments, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist involving the preparation for and receiving of the Body of Christ.
In the Liturgy of the Word there are three readings. The first is always going to be by a lector and will come from the Old Testament, giving a teaching or passage from the traditional books of the Bible familiar to both Christians and Jews. The second is also from a lector and is going to be from the New Testament, usually from Paul's mission and that of Jesus' disciples in the aftermath of his death. Finally there will be a reading by the Priest from one of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John relating to some incident directly involving Jesus Christ.
In the Liturgy of the Eucharist the priest will present and bless the bread and wine, and with God's help will turn it into the body and blood of Jesus Christ in a process known as Transubstantiation. During this portion of the Mass there will be traditional praying of the Lord's Prayer, the 'Our Father', a greeting among the community in offering one another a Sign of Peace, and then the actual receiving of the Lord in the Eucharist or Communion ceremony.
The entirety of the normal Catholic Mass service will take up about an hour of your time on any particular Saturday evening or Sunday morning. Depending on the size of the parish, Mass is offered 3-4 times on Sunday mornings. Also at many Catholic churches the Mass is offered in a 5pm or 6pm service on Saturday evenings for those who have to work or otherwise cannot make it to church on a Sunday morning.
As far as financial responsibilities, there are collections taken up as 'offerings' to the Church. Usually there is one main collection that will be for the support of your particular parish. There may be a 2nd collection directed towards a particular purpose, such as supporting the Church in a particularly difficult area of the world.
If you become a registered member of a parish, which you can and should do once you determine to which you belong, you will receive weekly envelopes in which to place your collection offering. There are guidelines suggested, but give as little or as much as you feel you can afford. If you cannot afford a formal offering on a regular basis, go to the Church anyway, and perhaps find some other small way to support the efforts, including through your prayers.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the world with more than a billion members made up of 1/6th of the planet's population. By joining the Church you join that support system in an institution tracing it's origins directly back to the Apostle Peter, Christ's hand-picked choice as "the Rock upon which" the Lord's Church would be built.
There are some usual criticisms that you will hear about the Catholic Church that usually come across in four usual challenges by non-believers or advocates of other churches. These challenges involve staleness or blandness of the Mass ceremony, the priest sexual abuse, praying to statues or images, and the Papacy.
First, Catholics do not ever pray to statues or paintings or any other image. We put no image above or in place of God. What we will do regularly is ask for the intercession of Jesus' mother Mary or the holy men and women from the Church's past known as 'Saints' to pray to God on our behalf. We can and do pray directly to God, and believe that the intercession by these other holy individuals can help as well.
Secondly, where one man or woman might find the Mass boring many others find it beautiful, and I am firmly in that second group. Within that one short hour you get many opportunities to participate in group prayer, personal reflection and prayer, sacramental participation, and the singing of hymns. One Priest will indeed be more dynamic or personally charismatic than another, but it is the content of the Mass that is most important, not the individuals making the presentation.
Where the Priest abuse scandals are concerned, they are a fact of Church history that would be a mistake to ever ignore or deny. That denial and cover up went on for far too long, and no one is more ashamed or angered by that fact than Church members. Here I always point out an old saying to critics: "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water." There are many, many thousands of good men around the world today serving God as Catholic Priests who have no taint of personal scandal, and who deserve our admiration and respect for giving up a worldly life in service to God and our community.
The Church is much more than the actions of rogue, degenerate men in Priestly garments. We are the community of God's people, and we will overcome this challenge and defeat Satan the same way the Lord's people have always done, by learning from mistakes and strongly addressing them, and by standing together and leaning on prayer and on the Word of the Lord in moving forward.
Finally, those outside the Church simply are wrong when they say that we the Pope is the "head of the Roman Catholic Church" and that we place the Holy Father above Jesus or put him right along side God. The fact as all Catholics know is that Jesus Christ is the head of the Catholic Church. The Pope is the spiritual leader of the Church, and has himself lived a life guided by and inspired by God.
Just as with any large and historically established institution, there will always be critics of the Church. Don't let their easily defeated challenges influence your decision to join or come back to the Catholic Church. Pray for your own personal inspiration from God, set aside one hour for a few weeks and actually come to Mass, and open up your heart and mind to the opportunity. I personally have experienced the power of returning to the Church myself and can tell you without hesitation that it will be the most rewarding resolution that you can keep this New Year.