What I am going to say here is really nothing new for regular readers, but my recent trip to Spain brought it to mind again.
The question of Church attendance and engagement is of great interest these days – it always has, of course, but in this post-shutdown, post-modern, secularized world, it takes on a new urgency as Catholics (we’ll focus on them/us) ponder the continual decline of everything – Mass attendance, baptisms, weddings, and simply belief.
Everyone has a solution, many of them obviously tied to various agendas and specific concerns, including, yes, financial ones.
But hardly anyone seems to be operating from what seems to me to be the obvious starting point, something very simple and foundational:
Jesus came to redeem the world, people still are yearning for what we know he offers. There are signs everywhere. How can we let people know that what they yearn for is here?
Of course, if you don’t believe any of that – even as an Official Church Person – if you really believe that everyone is basically fine, and that your institution exists to offer not much more than one friendly meeting space and source of inspiration among many others – as well as to give you a paycheck – well, I guess you wouldn’t see it that way and might be frustrated by the current situation as you sit in one more meeting that’s says it’s about evangelization, but is really about marketing, and no, they are not the same thing.
So yes, I was in Barcelona. And yes, everywhere I went people were touring churches, as they do, even though in Barcelona most historic churches charge for entry unless there’s a service going on. That didn’t seem to deter people.
And the two most visited sites in the area?
Well, Sagrada Familia and the monastery at Montserrat, of course.
A Catholic church and an active Benedictine monastery.
Both were insanely busy, and probably would have been even more so if there was no charge for entry. My point there is not to criticize the cost, of course, but to point out that ticketing functions as crowd control. If they were free to enter and explore, the crowds would be even greater.
At Montserrat, also, there’s a choir school whose brief daily performances in the Basilica – featuring, when I attended, the Pater Noster, Salve Regina and a hymn – were packed. The performance was at 1pm and the Basilica was full by 12:45.
On Sundays, the square in front of the Cathedral is bustling, not just because it’s Sunday and there are tourists and residents enjoying the day but because there are musicians and protests and people dancing – all in the shadow of this place that stands as a witness to the presence of Christ in it all.
On Saturday night, the streets around Sagrada Familia were jammed with people who’d come to watch the blessing and lighting of towers dedicated to the writers of the Gospels.
Of course not all of these visitors come out of conscious spiritual motivations – and that’s the point.
Sure, they want to tick a tourism box, they are attracted by the spectacle of these huge, striking church and the striking position and history of Montserrat. They’re drawn by design and beauty and nature and curiosity.
What’s the root of it all? Is it explicitly identified as “spiritual” or “religious?”
Most of the time, no. But again:
That’s the point.
Do you believe this stuff? Do you believe that human beings are created by God and called by Him to live with him forever? And do you believe that divine invitation is experienced in great and small ways in every moment of our lives, whether we recognize that call or not? That every person, no matter what their background or professed beliefs, is being invited by her Creator on this journey of love and life – whether they know it or not?
And that what the Body of Christ, through its rich, deep, crazy, complicated history has produced in word, sound, symbol, ideas, the works of mercy in this world and the sanctity of its members – can be and in fact is experienced by the seeker as an opening, an answer, a response? Whether they know it or not?
And do you understand that corruption, abuse, criminality, politicization and indifference stand as vivid counter-witnesses to what people are clearly interested in and open to?
People don’t go to Church.
People don’t go to Church
People don’t go to the Church
No, but they arrange their lives, expend energy and even endure great suffering and trials (talking about you Brazilian Swifties) to experience community as self-identified members of tribes, sharing values and celebrating with others in near-liturgical moments – by the hundreds of thousands.
Ask that question and learn, then, from Garth and the Larpers – not with an end of slavish, lame imitation, because that never works – but to listen to the human heart beating there, to discern what that heart is seeking – and finding – and understand that this seeking human heart is the same one that’s been beating from the beginning of time, and to start with trusting the ways that the Spirit has responded to that heart through time, yes, through this Church. Trust it.
To consider that perhaps the collapsing of religious experience and observance into a moment to gaze at each other in beige spaces in a flattened visual and auditory landscape misses something. That possibly the “vain repetitions,” adornments and elaborate, upward-pointing elements of religious observance of the past offered, not a wall, but a doorway: to a vision and experience that all were invited to enter and enjoy, hearts beating, reaching and yearning for community, challenge, beauty, excitement and most of all – the comforting presence of that understanding, challenging, comforting creator.