Getting Used To Sundays Without Going To Church

Another Sunday, another mortal sin.

It feels odd, but also oddly peaceful. No rushing around. No chasing everyone into the car. No slinking in through the back of the church when the chasing fails to promote a timely departure. No poking an openly bored and yawning teenager. No ugly looks shot at a squirming youngster.

No standing, no sitting, no kneeling, the timeless pattern that survived Latin to English, sacred hymns to folk music, remote islands of individual prayer to outstretched handshakes of peace.

Without Sunday Mass, there is definitely something missing. But there is also something gained : time, for one thing. And in the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandal there is freedom : freedom from that burn-in-hell-if-you-don't-go sense of obligation. Or is there?

The Boston archdiocese is trying to rekindle the fear. In a recent editorial, The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Boston archdiocese, rebuked Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, the chairperson of a national panel on the church's handling of clergy sexual abuse (of children), saying Keating urged Catholics "to commit a mortal sin: by suggesting they boycott Sunday Mass.

But the thinking Catholic cannot help but wonder what is the bigger sin: failing to attend Mass or failing to protect our children?

This is what the church hierarchy, still exemplified most diligently by Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, still doesn't understand. Catholics are ranking their sins against those of their leaders and deciding that when it comes to sins, they are at least equals. This sin-to-sinner assessment may even lead some Catholic lay people to conclude that they are more virtuous than their priests. So why should they listen to them?

Lack of moral authority continues to be Law's problem. If he didn't understand it before, he should after reading the August 11 New York Times. There on page 1, Jack Connors, CEO of Boston's Hill Holiday advertising firm, a devoted Catholic and daily Mass-goer, said he sent money to Voice of the Faithful right after Law refused to accept contributions from that group. "I think he has a classic tin ear. I think he doesn't particularly care what people think...Everybody has lost faith in this cardinal," Connors said about Law.

This is the establishment speaking. The words show that beyond a doubt the Boston establishment is now lost forever to Law. In losing it he loses his only true constituency. The cardinal's elitism turned off average Catholics long before the facts of the (pedophile) scandal provided a concrete reason to reject his leadership. "Out of step as usual," a churchgoing friend quipped about the newspaper photograph of a dancing Law during the recent Catholic youth rally in Toronto.

But does rejecting Law's leadership necessarily lead to boycotting Mass and committing a mortal sin? Obviously that is not the universal reaction to date; and I am not advocating that it should be. Individual by individual, each makes his or her choice. Will it be rebellion or compliance?

The people behind the Voice of the Faithful walked a fine line : a line the more rebellious watched with interest. How would the church deal with polite challenge? How would it deal with people who wanted the church they loved to be a more responsive church? As it turned out, the hierarchy dealt with polite challenge the same way it deals with impolite challenge. It wanted no part of it. And it showed it by rejecting the one thing the Catholic Church does not usually walk away from: money.

Polite challenge is not going to change the Catholic church any more than impolite challenge will. Sustained challenge from the masses, coupled with outspokenness from wealthy established Catholics like Jack Connors will eventually lead to Law's removal. But the church is going to resist real substantive change as long as it can; and it can and will resist as long as people fill the pews for Sunday Mass.

I do miss it, you know. It is soothing in its routine and timelessness. Its rhythm is comforting as is its offering of eternal peace. Eternal damnation is no pleasure to contemplate; but I can't go back : not yet, mortal sinner that I am.

Maybe next Sunday.

Commentary

Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

The notion of missing Sunday Mass being a mortal sin has gone the route of the dinosaurs! The church-announced penalty of eternal damnation for dying the Monday after deliberately missing Sunday's Mass lacks all scriptural and theological sense : as did the same penalty of damnation for eating an ounce or two of meat on a Lenten day of abstinence! These church rules lack common sense and any moral sense of proportionality; that's why so many people (guided by the Spirit) have made their own determinations on these matters.

Of course we are still bound to praise, honor and worship this gracious, Life-Giving God of love. But this can be done in many ways. And it ought to be done in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving, not out of some vague sense of "obligation" under penalty of eternal damnation.

Now to the point of Joan Vennochi's conclusion: neither polite nor impolite challenges of the relatively few to the hierarchical church will lead to systematic structural changes in church governance. Our church leaders do not listen to anyone lower than themselves on the chain of ecclesiastical command. They have not in the past; they will not in the future.

My own choice of options would be somewhat different than this author's choice of missing Sunday Mass. My own choice would be to continue to participate in weekly Eucharist liturgies without contributing a single dime to the church treasury until certain reasonable substantive changes are on the table for serious discussion with lay people. We are the church! In a certain sense, we are responsible for not protecting our children, for letting the status quo continue. Every dime we put in the collection box these Sundays is our "yes" to the status quo of running the church: secretive decision making, no accountability, continued arrogance of the ecclesial power-brokers.

So why not continue to pray, sing, worship, and listen to homilies that explain the scriptures well and apply these Gospel values to our lives? Why not continue to receive Communion to satisfy our spiritual hunger for Jesus and build up our faith communities? Why not do all this and more, but not contribute a single dime to church coffers until the powers that be (individual bishops, chancery officials and the pope himself) are left with little operating money and no choice but to listen intently and respond positively to our needs?

Dare we? Dare we not?

Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

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