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By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 15, 2007

Most metropolitan areas in the U.S. have a large Catholic church near the city center -- perhaps a cathedral, shrine, or basilica -- that provides Mass and confessions more or less continually throughout the day.

If you enter such a church while Mass is going on, you'll notice three distinct categories of visitors: worshipers clustered in the pews near the altar, obviously partaking of the Mass; tourists strolling around with their maps and videocams, obviously not partaking; and a third group sitting or kneeling in the gloom at the back of the church or in the side aisles. Their connection with the Eucharistic action is not clear. They don't want to be seen as participating in the Mass; in fact, they don't want to be seen at all.

This third contingent has a heterogeneous composition. Some are pious Catholics engaged in private prayer. Some are seekers: non-Catholics who find themselves attracted to the Church and her Eucharist and who want to take in as much as they can of the experience without committing themselves. Still others, I surmise, have been estranged from the Church by divorce and remarriage or by a gay entanglement and yet can't shake the spiritual conviction that it's the Church, at bottom, that has it right. They're afraid to get too close, yet they can't tear themselves away entirely. They put me in mind of St. Peter, warming his hands at the fire in the high priest's courtyard.

All the folks in the third contingent make use of the church's "neutral ground" to address a deeply personal spiritual need. Especially with regard to the last mentioned category, I hope this neutral ground is never done away with; I hope no Ministers of Greeting (out of misguided good will) are commissioned to pounce on the loners so as to bind them into "fellowship." Fellowship is an excellent thing, but if made into a kind of ticket that must be punched before entering church, it can eliminate that particular freedom -- the freedom of the publican in the parable -- to pray in God's house as an anonymous sinner, as a believer not yet capable of commitment. My hunch is that many souls are gained or regained for the Church simply by her providing this paradoxical conjunction of the holiest of mysteries along with the space to look on those mysteries from a distance: outside, yet not wholly outside.

Remember, there's a light on above the confessional.

His detractors sometimes write of Pope Benedict that he wants a "smaller and purer" Church. Rubbish. Like all popes, he wants a Church that is purer and larger. It's true that efforts to make her more virtuously orthodox are in tension with efforts to include the weaker brethren and increase her membership, but this tension has existed in the Church from her beginnings, as a reading of First Corinthians shows beyond question. And as the fifth chapter of that same epistle makes clear, the Church makes room for the weaker brethren not by softening or blurring her hard teachings, but by stating them without apology, "in sincerity and truth."

God gives no command for which he not give adequate grace to accomplish. Consoling to all of us, this is especially encouraging for those entangled in habitual sin: every man has the possibility of leaving it behind him. Subversive chaplaincies and pseudo-churches, such as the recently mentioned Most Holy Redeemer, are toxic because they preach and reinforce -- not consolation -- but in its place a kind of moral despair. By exhorting their confederates to befriend the vice that holds them captive -- adultery, perjury, sodomy -- they communicate the message that the path to true freedom is open only to others (those others whom accidents of biology or circumstance have blessed more abundantly). This is not only false, but lethal to the virtue of hope, and it's a scandal that the bogus ministers who indulge this cruelty are congratulated for their "pastoral" efforts.

The persons in question need the Church's pastoral help, and deserve to get it. But in their case this help is hard to receive and, for different reasons, hard to give. Those loudest in censure of "the institutional Church's failures" in these areas and most extravagant in praise of accommodationist alternatives might remind themselves that, where authentic pastoral help is delivered, neither the giver nor the recipient is likely to advertise the fact. They might stop to think that much spiritual assistance will be conveyed anonymously and in secret. They might consider that many of the most effective ministers and many of the most anguished sinners may have public reputations totally at variance with their unseen lives. They might remember that, at times, it's not in the front seats of the synagogues but in the back of the temple where the real action takes place.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Oct. 22, 2007 10:25 PM ET USA

    Re: the ubiquitous "greeters." The church is our home and, especially, the parish church within whose boundaries we reside. So why do we need a group of largely strangers to "welcome us" to our own house? Never have understood this one. Smacks of the customs of some large mainline Protestant churches I have seen over the years. Just curious; not angry.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2007 5:49 PM ET USA

    Again, 100% right. If any "Minister of Greeting" had approached me back in 1953, that would have been the end of it. I have to assume God kept them away because He wanted me. (Not that anybody wo9uld even have thought of such a thing in those days.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2007 1:27 PM ET USA

    Had it not been for the quiet place in the back of the church I would never have had the nerve to go to mass again after 30 years away. Or rather to return after the first attempt. It is where Jesus met me for the rest of the journey.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 16, 2007 2:12 AM ET USA

    Uncle Di. Maybe the "smaller and purer" refers to the (US) episcopate.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 15, 2007 3:42 PM ET USA

    Exactly! That's just how we returned...kneeling quietly in the back of the Church and being alone in prayer with Our Lord. Thank you for all that you write.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 15, 2007 1:02 PM ET USA

    A little off the point, there is a fourth group - the crazy people. Some of them are homeless, some of them think they are Kaiser Wilhelm. Some will stand up through mass, mirroring the gestures of the priest. Most are very harmless. I love them there, and I think they are dearly loved by God. In New York, everyone just lets them be, and I think it's great that in a non-interfering way, they are "welcomed."

  • Posted by: - Oct. 15, 2007 12:30 PM ET USA

    Very well said. Authentic love can never be separated from truth.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 15, 2007 11:56 AM ET USA

    After 43 years away from the Church, there I was sitting in the back row, not knowing if I could be (or really wanted to be) accepted back into the Faith. If I'd been "greeted" and asked to fill out a registration card, I think I'd have fled! I needed that time with Jesus in the Tabernacle before I was asked to join the Women's Club or get on the envelope list. Thank you for recognizing this.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 15, 2007 11:54 AM ET USA

    Brilliant! This should be condensed and placed on a plaque or card in the vestibule of Catholic churches everywhere.

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