An Undelivered Christmas Homily
In a J.F. Powers short story written shortly after the Second Vatican Council, a priest is asked, “Father, how can we make sanctity as attractive as sex to the common man?” It’s a provocative question and worthy of a thoughtful answer—perhaps not from the pulpit. After all, the attraction of sex in itself is holy and good, and is designed by God to ensure the continuation of the species. Shouldn’t the attraction of sanctity itself—necessary for eternal life—have a similar intensity?
Shortly after Vatican II the exuberance of reform could not be suppressed. Guitars, tambourines, and folk tunes made worship, at long last, “relevant” and “exciting”—or to put it rudely, “sexy.” But folk music came and went. Today even the remnant of the relevant “sexy” tunes cherished by silver-haired ladies in those tattered Glory and Praise hymnals are as tired as a leisure suit and a Beatles haircut. But Saint Thomas’ Tantum Ergo is still going strong.
I’m not an expert in contemporary religious music by any means, but I can’t help but notice an uptick in liturgical musical accomplishment, misapplied as usual in the service of “appealing to the young people” or at least to many of our aging silver-haired children of the 1960s. The contemporary template now seems to include a fashionable “show tunes” style, widely acclaimed, of course, as “beautiful” and “inspiring.” But I’m not sure that sanctity has anything to do with constantly updated versions of liturgical entertainment.
Of course the imperative of a “New Evangelization” brings similar temptations, even at the highest levels the Church. Frankly, the annual World Youth Day celebrations seem to be wearing thin, although maybe I’m getting too cranky as I cross into the “senior citizen” category. But even in the most orthodox of Church programs, “new and exciting” ideas become stale fairly quickly. Street corner preaching now seems more “relevant” than the most orthodox of “Theology on Tap” programs sponsored by chancery evangelization offices in big-city taverns. And “Youth ministry” programs (always quite expensive) come and go, depending upon the Pied Piper appeal of “youth ministers.”
What happens to faith when the thrill is gone?
A new survey conducted in August 2016 reinforces the same dire picture as previous studies: young people continue to leave religion in large numbers. The study also affirms that young Catholics are leaving their faith at rates higher than almost any other religious group: 79% of former Catholics leave the Church before age 23…”
If 79% of the defections come before adulthood, have we failed to provide our kids with an exciting (let’s admit it, “sexy”) enough experience of the Faith?
The appeal of sex—usually of the illicit variety—sells mostly because it cannot be extinguished by constantly feeding the impulse. According to studies, “64-68% of young adult men and about 18% of women use porn at least once every week. Another 17% of men and another 30% of women use porn 1-2 times per month.” And, “[t]wo-thirds of college-age men and half of college-age women say viewing porn is an acceptable way to express one’s sexuality.” It seems we have much work to do if we want to make sanctity as attractive as sex.
Or could it be our kids are leaving the faith because we’ve never given them a reason to stay? Do they (or adults for that matter) have any idea what the Mass is about? Have parents and priests failed to encourage them to frequent the sacraments, to experience the consolation that comes in the sacrament of Penance? Have we allowed the culture so to degrade our intelligence that an examined life has become impossible to live? What can and should we do?
Many years ago J. F. Powers placed these prescient words on the lips of his protagonist, a priest facing the changes presumed to be demanded by the Church of the Second Vatican Council:
The Church couldn’t respond to all the demands of the moment or she’d go the way of those numerous sects that owed their brief existence to such demands. People had to realize that what they wanted might not be what they needed… Religion is a weak force today, owing to the decline of human intelligence. It was now easy to see how the Church, though she’d endure to the end, as promised by Our Lord, would become a mere remnant of herself. In the meantime, though, the priest had to get on with his job, such as it was. As for feeling thwarted and useless, he [Powers’ priest protagonist] knew that feeling, but he also knew what it meant. It means he was in touch with reality, and that was something these days. Frequently reported, of course, like flying saucers, were parishes where the priests and people were doing great things together. “But I’ve never seen one myself, if it’s any consolation to you guys….” *
We find sanctity in reality, in the ordinary things of life. Family, friends, in good times and in bad—and in the routine of worship. The sacred liturgy changes with the seasons but, like Christ Himself, paradoxically remains in essence the same, always ancient, always new.
On Christmas there is excitement to be sure, but it’s the chaste joy that comes with the serenity of ritual. A ritual that brings the Child Jesus repeatedly into the world for our encounter. In Christ, there is no such thing as an irredeemable broken life in constant need of cheap thrills.
We begin anew today with the birth of a Child, placed in a manger in swaddling clothes for our worship. No frills. Reality. True sanctity. “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
* (From “Priestly Fellowship,” in The Stories of J.F. Powers; pp. 534-525.)
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