The Superfluous Church

Recently an article about a new municipal art project in Belgium caught my eye.  It seems that hardly anyone in the village of Bossuit goes to church these days.  Their local parish of St. Amelberga was shuttered in 2009, due to both a lack of attendance and a lack of funds for its upkeep.  Instead of tearing the building down, or converting it to another use, the townsfolk turned it into a “ruin”, removing the roof, furnishings, and so on.

What struck me most about the story was not so much the repurposing of a deconsecrated building, but rather the way in which it was described: St. Amelberga’s was a “superfluous church”.  By “superfluous”, the author meant that this was simply an extra, unnecessary building.  However in a broader sense, that description pretty accurately describes how many self-identified Catholics view the Church.

The hard fact is that Catholicism seems to be going nowhere but down in Europe, and in some parts of the U.S., as well.  Even in supposedly ultra-Catholic Poland, a recent survey showed that Mass attendance has now dropped to under 40%.  After all the Polish people went through under Communism, and given the example of Pope St. John Paul II, this is a particularly tragic development.  So we need to ask ourselves, why is this happening?

Unlike many in the commentariat, I’m not particularly interested in armchair quarterbacking the job of a bishop.  His is a very difficult vocation, which I have a limited understanding of.  I do, however, have a great deal of experience in being a sinful, lay Catholic.  So instead, it seems to me that the solution to this problem is really quite simple.  GET YOUR ASS TO MASS.

To begin with, attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is not optional: in fact, it’s one of the Precepts of the Church.  Remember those? They haven’t been abrogated.

Moreover, you do not get off the hook for Mass attendance by taking an inside baseball approach.  Some do not like going to Mass because their church is an unattractive building, or they don’t personally like the pastor, or because the music is bad, or because the congregation does something resembling jazz hands during the “Our Father”, or there is too much Latin, or there is not enough Latin, or the priest is a lifetime subscriber to Commonweal, or the parishioners think that women wearing trousers is a venial sin, and so on, and so forth.  None of these things, by the way, are valid excuses for failing to attend Mass on Sunday.

Too many non-Catholics in Western society today have concluded that the Catholic Church is irrelevant, even malevolent, seeing it as an obstacle rather than a solution to the problems we all face.  They walk past Catholic churches every day without pausing to step inside and ask questions.  And they swallow, hook, line, and sinker, what the mainstream media tells them about Catholicism, without considering either the veracity of the information they’re being given, or the viewpoint of the person doing the reporting.

Yet one big reason, if not the exclusive one, as to why the world takes an increasingly dim view of Catholicism is the fact that non-Catholics do not see many Catholics actively practicing their faith in what is generally considered to be the most basic form of religious worship for Christians: going to church on Sunday.  What’s more, even for those of us who are attending regularly, how often are we inviting others to come along with us, and see what it’s like?  Our inactions, like actions, have consequences.  If we don’t take our faith seriously, we can’t expect other people to do so.

As time goes on and society continues to circle ever-faster down the moral drain, it’s reasonable to assume that there will be more art projects like this one in Bossuit.  Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.  Those of you who should be going to Mass, and are not, can make a big difference simply by showing up.  And those of you who have been faithfully showing up, can do more by taking advantage of the opportunity to bring others with you, even if they have no interest in exploring conversion, but just so that they understand better what we as Catholics believe.  Our goal, then, should be to find ourselves in a world where the term “superfluous” should never be found applicable to the Catholic Church.

Former Church of St. Amelberga Bossuit, Belgium

Former Church of St. Amelberga
Bossuit, Belgium

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The “Golden Summer” of Patrick Madrid

In his brand-new book Why Be Catholic? Ten Answers to a Very Important Question, well-known Catholic author Patrick Madrid gives a comprehensive overview of what he does best: teaching, explaining, and defending the Catholic faith.  Ahead of his visit here to Washington this Saturday, June 21st, where he will be signing copies of his new book at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, I had a chance to read his latest release.  A combination of solid, readable apologetics, and personal examples of how faith and real-life events often interact, this superb overview of the Catholic faith and the challenges it has faced and will continue to face is a genuine pleasure to read.

If you ever wished that you could have Madrid, one of the most competent, well-spoken, and clear voices speaking on behalf of the Church, available to you 24-7, or you’ve always wanted to get an overview from a well-informed source about why we practitioners of popery believe what we do, you will find much to learn from and savor here.  Yet as rich as the book is in explaining the underpinnings of Catholic teaching, from the Sacraments to the Papacy to the Communion of Saints, what I personally enjoyed most was the thread that ties the combination of narrative and apologetics together, a time the author refers to as his “golden summer”.  By this, Madrid doesn’t mean an idyllic, hedonistic moment in the sun.  Rather, he’s referring to a period that one can look back on and say, “Here’s where it all started coming together.”

Chances are, you’ve had one of these “golden summers” as well, perhaps not even in the summertime.  It’s a stretch when some interest strongly asserts itself, or an endeavour comes to fruition, when everything seems to be clicking.  Sometimes it can even be a period of personal growth through the intervention of a crisis or challenge, when you realize that you are capable of doing a great deal more than you would have believed at the start.

In Patrick Madrid’s case, the “golden summer” in question was the summer of 1977, when he spent a considerable amount of time over at the home of his then-girlfriend.  The 17-year-old Madrid had grown up in a devoutly Catholic home, but was still in that nebulous period between childhood and adulthood in the faith, where the cradle Catholic can go either way.  Through his interactions with people of other faiths, or indeed no faith at all, he was beginning to realize that he did not have answers to those who challenged the basis for his belief in Catholicism.

Enter his girlfriend’s father, armed with notoriously anti-Catholic comic books known as “Chick Tracts”.  He liked to take Madrid aside into his study, when the young man came over to hang out at their swimming pool, and challenge his beliefs about Catholicism.  At first, Madrid was overwhelmed, because although he sensed that his girlfriend’s father was wrong, he didn’t know how to respond to the man’s claims.

At the same time however, Madrid realized that he had a wealth of research and reading material available to him at home, thanks to his parents’ library of Catholic books.  Over the course of that golden summer, Madrid would grow into a better understanding of his faith through research, interactions, and debates with his girlfriend’s father.  In the process, without even realizing it, he was laying the foundations for what would become a career as a prominent Catholic apologist, writer, speaker, and broadcaster.

There are many other areas of the book I could point to as being worthy of your attention, but two other aspects of it particularly struck me.  The first is how it begins: whether you’re a Catholic or not, you’re going to be blown away by the first chapter.  Madrid takes no prisoners in pointing out that the Catholic Church has done a lot of very, very sinful and stupid things, including the still-festering sores of the clergy sex abuse scandal, and how the clergy and bishops have failed us.  Yet he also excoriates a society which has fallen so far into celebrating, rather than shunning, the seven deadly sins, that we are reverting to the kind of selfish, me-first pit of paganism which it took centuries for Western civilization to crawl out of.

Second, Madrid peppers his chapters with fascinating stories of truly remarkable experiences from his own life, which for him illustrate how God moves in mysterious ways.  From narrowly missing being a passenger on a jet destroyed in a mid-air collision, to how he unexpectedly brought a fallen-away Catholic back into the fold after he thought he blew it, Madrid is constantly reminded of the fact that God has something for him to do, and he needs to move as he is directed.  More of us, myself included, need to remember to keep that in mind when we’re not entirely sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.

Whether you are interested in Catholic apologetics and spirituality, or simply enjoy clear, authoritative writing, Madrid’s book is an excellent addition to your summer reading list, and one I suspect readers will return to again and again, as a resource for explaining Catholicism to others.

Why Be Catholic Patrick Madrid

Kindred Spirits: St. Catherine of Siena and Sigrid Undset

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena: mystic, stigmatic and Doctor of the Church. The writings of St. Catherine (1347-1380) have inspired many people down the centuries, but among the most interesting examples from comparatively recent times is the Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). I will spare the reader any vain and pitiful attempt on my part to analyze the sometimes above-my-head ideas related by St. Catherine. Instead, I draw attention to the work of Undset, whose admiration of this remarkable 14th century saint led to a wonderful, accessible reflection on St. Catherine and her writings.

Sigrid Undset was one of Norway’s most important modern writers. In recognition of her talents, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 – back when one actually had to be able to write, bring about peace, etc. to merit the award. Her trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter”, set in 12th century Norway, ought to be required reading for all Catholics. Herself a convert to Catholicism, the 20th century Norwegian writer, Undset, found much in common with the 14th century Italian writer, St. Catherine.

Both women were Third-Order Dominicans, and lived in times when the Church appeared to be in danger of disintegrating. Indeed, Undset’s conversion from secular atheist to fervent Catholic was considered a tremendous scandal both among the Low-Church Lutherans and the no-Church intellectuals of her countrymen. Yet like St. Catherine fighting against a tide of materialism in her own day, Undset encouraged the faithful to fight back again the secularization of Western society.

Undset’s magnificent spiritual biography of the saint, “Catherine of Siena”, was published posthumously in 1951. It is a fitting introduction or companion for those interested in learning more about St. Catherine, written in a thoughtful and sensitive style that is typical of the author’s other works. The fact that Undset was so interested in the Middle Ages, not just in her own country but in the idea of Christian Europe, allowed her to build a bridge for us between our own day and a world which may at times seem very foreign to our experience.

Like many of us, Undset recognized the fact that the writings of this great Italian mystic are not always easily accessible for the modern reader. Apart from most likely not having had any mystical experiences, the modern reader most certainly did not have the benefit of growing up in the more deeply spiritual world of Medieval Europe. Yet she saw that, as in St. Catherine’s day, man’s perennial tendency to either ignore God completely or remake Him in our own image leads to evil results.

In “Catherine of Siena” Undset opined that the problems of the modern age grew out of a denial of man’s being made in the image and likeness of God, and all that entails. In order to justify his own bad behavior in violation of the natural law and the teachings of Christ and His Church, man can convince himself that sin is, in effect, virtue. If we have “ceaselessly stained and crippled the image of God in ourselves,” she writes, “we have succumbed to our desire for power and flattery, to our passions, hate and revenge, lust and ambition.”

In Undset’s view this paradoxical mindset leads to impotence, or destruction, or both. She notes that modern men are always planning utopian visions of the future, only to tear them down: man accomplishes something good, and almost immediately sets about destroying it. There is no sense of planning or preservation, all is caprice, shallowness, and pique. “We are afraid of change,” she writes, and yet simultaneously are “afraid of stagnation. We love old things and institutions, and will have something which is new and different.”

St. Catherine’s dogged perseverance, such as in trying to get the Papacy to return to Rome from Avignon, impressed Undsett tremendously: particularly because the saint seemed so often to be fighting a losing battle against the materialism of her times. Undset points out that the efforts made by St. Catherine to persuade others to take the right path were pursued with the full understanding of the saint herself that she might very well never see their fruits. In this, Undset says, St. Catherine drew closer to Christ:

She gave of herself until her physical life was used up; in a fight whose final results she was as sure of, as she was sure that she would not see many victories on the battlefield of this world. But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth – on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith upon the earth?” He did not tell us the answer.

Undset points out that even in the Middle Ages, when Christianity was in full flower all over Europe, there were still plenty of people who refused to follow Christ. She counseled that those who speak of “the bankruptcy of Christianity in our times” ought to keep this in mind, as well as Jesus’ own aforementioned speculation from St. Luke. God gives us no promises about the safety of the Church – other than that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Living as do we, in an age of horrors which St. Catherine could not have imagined in her most intense mystical experiences, Undset championed the idea put forward by St. Catherine’s example that the single soul must stand up to be counted. Undset reminds us that, whatever the world may say, “every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.” This last point is an important one, for it gives us cause to not only hope but to continue to act in accordance with God’s Will for us, even if we feel we are all alone or there is seemingly little or no possibility of stemming the tide.

One of St. Catherine of Siena’s most famous counsels is: “Be what you are meant to be, and you will set the entire world alight!” Undset must have taken that counsel very seriously, for she “put herself out there”, as the saying goes. She may have lost the respect of some of her peers by rejecting secular materialism, but she gained the far greater blessing of Christianity in return. Let us hope that God, in His Mercy, has not only gathered her to Himself, but also that she and St. Catherine have become friends in heaven, given what extraordinary women each of them in her way was upon earth.

St. Catherine of Siena by Sano de Pietro (c. 1442)

Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht