Of Vespers, incense and lapsed Catholics

By  Catholic News Service
  • April 16, 2008
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington is one imposing pile. The largest Roman Catholic Church in the United States, it blends Romanesque, Byzantine and modern styles into a church truly conducive to prayer and worship. And some thoughtful introspection, as Pope Benedict XVI offered his American fellow bishops on April 16.

The evening actually began before the Pope arrived. Several hundred faithful gathered in the main church to pray the Rosary and hear a couple reflections on the role of the successor of Peter. Suitably prepared, the crowd was very solemn when the Pope arrived in the side entrance.

But a great cheer broke out, along with a little laughter as the Pope cheerfully made his way down the side aisle, across to the centre and up to the altar where he took a few moments to pray at the tabernacle. Along the way he stopped to greet people, and wave with smiles all round.

From there it was down into the crypt church for Vespers with 350 or so American prelates. This was a full all-out Catholic liturgy, combining a fullsome choir singing in Latin and English, wonderfully chanted psalms, incense and a papal blessing. In this crypt, larger than many a parish church, the solemn beauty of the occasion made one nostalgic for medieval liturgy, if not for its customs of personal hygiene.

Following Vespers, the Pope gave his speech, which can be found here in full. While I've reported on its main themes on our home page, I found one of the more intriguing parts to be a bit of an appendix, in which the Pope responded to several previously submitted questions. One in particular was a very reflective comment on why people are dropping out of the Catholic Church. It probes the Catholic Church's responsibility to provide richer experiences at Mass, along with better preaching and more attention paid to prayer. It's worth reading in full, so here it is:

Certainly, much of this has to do with the passing away of a religious culture, sometimes disparagingly referred to as a "ghetto", which reinforced participation and identification with the Church. As I just mentioned, one of the great challenges facing the Church in this country is that of cultivating a Catholic identity which is based not so much on externals as on a way of thinking and acting grounded in the Gospel and enriched by the Church's living tradition.

The issue clearly involves factors such as religious individualism and scandal. Let us go to the heart of the matter: faith cannot survive unless it is nourished, unless it is "formed by charity" (cf. Gal 5:6). Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our Churches? Has our preaching lost its salt? Might it be that many people have forgotten, or never really learned, how to pray in and with the Church?

Here I am not speaking of people who leave the Church in search of subjective religious "experiences"; this is a pastoral issue which must be addressed on its own terms. I think we are speaking about people who have fallen by the wayside without consciously having rejected their faith in Christ, but, for whatever reason, have not drawn life from the liturgy, the sacraments, preaching. Yet Christian faith, as we know, is essentially ecclesial, and without a living bond to the community, the individual's faith will never grow to maturity. Indeed, to return to the question I just discussed, the result can be a quiet apostasy.

So let me make two brief observations on the problem of "attrition", which I hope will stimulate further reflection.

First, as you know, it is becoming more and more difficult, in our Western societies, to speak in a meaningful way of "salvation". Yet salvation - deliverance from the reality of evil, and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ - is at the heart of the Gospel. We need to discover, as I have suggested, new and engaging ways of proclaiming this message and awakening a thirst for the fulfillment which only Christ can bring. It is in the Church's liturgy, and above all in the sacrament of the Eucharist, that these realities are most powerfully expressed and lived in the life of believers; perhaps we still have much to do in realizing the Council's vision of the liturgy as the exercise of the common priesthood and the impetus for a fruitful apostolate in the world.

Second, we need to acknowledge with concern the almost complete eclipse of an eschatological sense in many of our traditionally Christian societies. As you know, I have pointed to this problem in the Encyclical Spe Salvi. Suffice it to say that faith and hope are not limited to this world: as theological virtues, they unite us with the Lord and draw us toward the fulfillment not only of our personal destiny but also that of all creation. Faith and hope are the inspiration and basis of our efforts to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God. In Christianity, there can be no room for purely private religion: Christ is the Savior of the world, and, as members of his Body and sharers in his prophetic, priestly and royal munera, we cannot separate our love for him from our commitment to the building up of the Church and the extension of his Kingdom. To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.

Let me conclude by stating the obvious. The fields are still ripe for harvesting (cf. Jn 4:35); God continues to give the growth (cf. 1 Cor 3:6). We can and must believe, with the late Pope John Paul II, that God is preparing a new springtime for Christianity (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 86). What is needed above all, at this time in the history of the Church in America, is a renewal of that apostolic zeal which inspires her shepherds actively to seek out the lost, to bind up those who have been wounded, and to bring strength to those who are languishing (cf. Ez 34:16). And this, as I have said, calls for new ways of thinking based on a sound diagnosis of today's challenges and a commitment to unity in the service of the Church's mission to the present generation.

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