The Church Problem is a Liturgy Problem

Pope Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil 2007

I hope that the title of this post grabbed your attention – perhaps your first thought was something like, “In the aftermath of such great scandal, the revelation of the heinous acts of priests upon innocent victims, the coverup, and so much more, some idealistic seminarian wants to convince me that arcane adjustments to Sunday Mass will fix the Church.” And if so, I am glad, because as I have been reflecting on all of the articles and headlines in the wake of the release of the PA Grand Jury Report, the McCarrick scandal, and the testimonies of Archbishop Viganò, I have wrestled with reconciling my own views on what needs attention in the life of the Church with those things which, as we now know, so obviously need attention. From Facebook to Twitter, official releases, news reports, and blog posts, the media world continues to swarm with opinions and emotions. And rightly so. The release of such damning information is enough to shake anyone’s faith, rouse anger, and increase suspicion. I have been wrestling with these same emotions and have struggled to keep my head straight with my own religious convictions, opinions on the Church, and vocational discernment. And from this, I offer you my musings of what people are rightly seeing as evil which has snuck into the Church.

Many are appropriately angry at the seeming lack of oversight from the bishops – indeed they hid a multitude of sins. Even though the world then was not the world we are living in now, I won’t defend their actions. Was it courageous? No. Are all of them to blame? No. There are good bishops and rotten ones. But these revelations have caused an outcry – a mounting offensive – on the hierarchy as a whole, especially the American hierarchy, as it exists corporately in the mind of the faithful.  What I find interesting is that this multitude, who are now rightly pointing fingers at the failures of the hierarchy, are essentially joining ranks with the those conservative and traditionally-minded Catholics who have been doing so for years. For them, the outcry wasn’t about protecting sex offenders or endangering youth (although I am sure they are just as sickened, and unsurprised, by the recent news as well). No, for years it was cries for liturgical reform, lamentations on the bishops’ softness on Catholic doctrine and the moral teachings of the Church, sadness at the disappearance of Catholic identity, devotions, and so on. The sensus fidelium has been shaking its fist at the hierarchy since at least the Council for cozying up to the world rather than being genuine reformers, and now it has attracted a bigger crowd. What does this have to do with scandal and sex abuse? Well, I firmly believe that true reform in the Church would have headed off many of these evils and more quickly exposed offenders and corrupt churchmen when said evil happened in the first place. Yes, I’m talking spiritual reform and renewal, and yes, that means liturgical.

Is this a naïve position? No, because any good Catholic who believes remotely in the words of Christ knows that what matters is being close to Him and staying close to Him, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This means a vigorous spiritual life formed by deep prayer and a genuine knowledge of Christ that proceeds from an attentive heart. What does this have to do with liturgy? Well, we as Catholics must honestly reflect on whether we believe in the power of the rites and rituals of the Church. Do we believe that these are the ways that Christ ordained to be true windows between heaven and earth, true sources of grace? For too long Roman Catholic liturgy in the West has been distorted by the fancies of man rather than oriented toward the worship of God. This saps the liturgy of its power and majesty, not in a real way, but in the same way in which a house, old and rundown, sitting at the corner, would attract no visitors – even if it were magnificent inside. Instead, all people see are broken shutters and chipping paint and don’t even bother knocking on the door. For too long Catholics have cared more about themselves than God – at least that’s the subliminal message we’ve been sending and receiving in our churches, and how could a beautiful, authentic spiritual life flow from that? It can’t, not without some real effort. Now fortunately, all things are possible with God and, in fact, there are good members of the laity with robust spiritual lives as well as good priests and bishops. But my point is this: the evils that we are now hearing so much about are merely the symptoms of a Church whose hierarchy and, therefore, whose people (as the shepherd, so the sheep) have lost touch with the Mystery who is none other than God Himself. If so many of our shepherds had been interested in true reform – spiritual, evangelical, and liturgical – then I bet we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now and so many innocent people would not have been hurt at the hands of abusers and so many people’s faith would not have been shaken.

All of the abuses, coverups, and lies – all of this sin – could not have survived and thrived in a Church that was spiritually healthy. And to get healthy, it’s time for us as Catholics to get back to what we do best – prayer. Fortunately for us, Christ left us a great blueprint when He said, “Do this in memory of me,” thereby giving us the greatest prayer in all the world: the Holy Mass. No, I’m not talking about magic pills. I’m not saying nice vestments will stop sinners from sinning. Nor am I blaming bad church music for the atrocities committed at the hands of some priests. But the wolves stand out more clearly when the sheep are glowing so brightly (and when the wolves aren’t running the chanceries). Once this mess is cleaned up, once the right people resign, once the healing begins, once the victims are rightfully and properly helped, I hope we can begin a period of true reform in every corner of the Church. But I hope we realize that this true reform needs to be focused on and nourished by one thing – that one thing which gives life to the Church and casts out evil from it – the Holy Eucharist.