Expect Nothing

Fr Richard Rohr OFM, whom I regard as a modern prophet, says these stark words about Catholics attending Mass:

I’ve been a priest for over forty five years now; sometimes when I look out over the crowd at Mass, I can see a passive resistance over much of the congregation’s faces. Even when I’m giving what I take to be a risky and life-giving message. They are conditioned to expect nothing. They’ve got so used to these gatherings not being meaningful that they no longer know how to allow them to touch their heart or change their mind.” The Divine Dance, pg 192

As myself an ex-priest and someone who has never given up on weekly Mass attendance, or indeed of being a Catholic, Rohr’s words strike me as entirely true and hugely concerning.

Over the last fifty or so years – my adult lifetime – the numbers attending church have massively decreased. It’s easy to categorise these folk who have either rejected the Church’s teaching and moral example, and perhaps even faith in God, or just simply ‘lapsed’ – it’s easy to categorise them as selfish and uncaring people: the ones Jesus referred to in his parable of the Sower (Matthew 13: 1 – 23) as those who never had any heart investment in their faith. And while that analysis may be true of some of those who have left the practice of their faith, I think we need to consider just how well the seed was actually sown by the Church. This brings us back to Rohr’s incisive comment because I cannot deny that the quality of much of the Church’s liturgy and celebration is desperately poor.

A typical Sunday Mass, certainly in the UK, is often a lack-lustre event with little ‘celebration’ of the Good News of the Gospel. We say ‘alleluia’ without really any feeling or meaning behind it. We may give the ‘sign of peace’ but it often seems to be a ‘going through the motions’ before receiving communion. The standard of reading of God’s word, both by lay people and clergy, is awfully bad. But perhaps the biggest deficiency is the dreadful standard of preaching – the almost exclusive preserve of the ordained (male) clergy.

I belonged to an order whose entire raison d-etre was preaching. And yet, my fellow confreres – and myself – while good and decent individuals, were often as sadly deficient in the quality of their preaching as many other priests. At seminary, I think lip-service (no pun intended) was given to what was called ‘homiletics and communication’. Personally, I like to think my preaching content was prepared and reasonably good, but my style was certainly very flat indeed.

The upshot of this dire standard of preaching is I think captured powerfully by Rohr’s sentence: “They are conditioned to expect nothing.”

Wow. I can only agree. Even as someone now sitting in the pews, and perhaps because of my experience as a preacher and celebrant, I often know when the congregation – who may start by listening – effectively switch off. The preacher is ‘droning on’ and it doesn’t take long for the congregation to start shifting in their seats, looking around and generally being distracted, if not despairing of any spiritual riches. How sad. How very sad.

Perhaps the most amazing fact is that so many folk – at least here in central Scotland – still attend Mass. But maybe that’s down to a lingering fear of going to hell – which was drummed into us as children all those years ago.

Expect nothing… And, as Rohr suggests, even when someone tries to impart a deep spiritual truth, the congregation may be so conditioned to expect nothing that they are not even listening! They may well be thinking about their Sunday roast because they – expect nothing from the sermon. I know some folk who basically only attend Mass because they know that they will receive Jesus in Holy Communion, but who despair of any other grace from the event.

And yet – the Gospel of Jesus is good news, the greatest news of our eternal destiny and our unshakeable identity as beloved children of God. Perhaps the Catholic Church has to largely die out in the western world before it might possibly revive? Certainly it will never disappear entirely.

Let’s each of us make the effort to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying and asking of us today! And pray for priests!