Books & Culture

Leaving the Theater of the Church

A Catholic confronts a crisis of religious belief.


- August 27th, 2019
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I was raised in a devout Catholic household. My mother, as a nurse and teacher, was deadly serious about her faith. We went to the local Catholic schools and to Mass every Sunday. Deeply educated in her faith, she made sure I was taught the precise meaning behind everything that happened in that hour at church. The necessity of incense, the colors of vestments, all of these things she taught in whispers, almost like she was hiding in the Catacombs herself.

Green is for ordinary time. White is for celebratory feast days. Red is for the feast of Pentecost or the feasts of martyrs. Purple is for Advent and Lent, those 40-day periods when Catholics reflect and repent to prepare for the greatest celebrations of Christianity: Christmas and Easter. The introductory rites, the liturgy of the Word, the most important, most sacred liturgy of the Eucharist, all of these she taught with devotion and care.

Form Over Substance?

I once tried to explain the Mass to a non-Catholic friend, a performing arts major. When Mass concluded on that long-ago Sunday, he effused “I loved it! It was all so theatrical.” 

It must seem that way. To outsiders, the Consecration looks like some magic ritual performance. An outsider does not know how the story of Christ’s love and sacrifice is remembered and fulfilled on the altar. Without that crucial understanding, it is but a symbolic drama.

As ever more parishes confront past and present horrors of the sexual abuse and financial scandals, and as more victims tell their stories, the holy sacrifice of the Mass must appear staged. The sexual abuse crisis is beyond tragic. As this salacious story plays out in thousands of parishes, the high drama taking place on the global stage is just as much a betrayal of my faith. Hong Kong is about to be invaded by a Vatican-endorsed Communist regime. Nigeria, not even in the global spotlight, sent more martyrs to heaven in another Islamicist attack.

Considering all of these things, it appears that my college friend’s tactless observation was undeniably correct. It’s worthy of a Martin Esslin. The victims are too real, and source material is deeper than Pope Francis or the bizarre troupe he leads. This is a crisis of religious belief. I fear we have focused so much on the form Catholicism takes, rather than the deeper understanding of Christ’s love, his sacrifice and the saving of humanity from its sins.

My secular friends laugh. The Church has always been corrupt. I do not need their lectures about the Borgia and Medici popes, or any of the egregious actions of the Vatican nation-state. I know that, despite these failings and horrors, the Roman Catholic Church was the only Christian church with authenticity going back to Jesus and Peter. Peter was faulted and a sinner. Truthfully, I never had any expectation that the Church would be perfect.

Our pastors and bishops apologize for their sins. Peter was faulted, they say, therefore, we as Catholics should forgive them and our Church. But that premise only works if their own error is accepted and believed. Such acknowledgment is necessary for redemption. The recognition of hurt, the making of amends that give words, gestures, and our liturgy its meaning.

Facing the Falseness of Rome

Francis’s papacy may prove to be redemptive for us, if not for the Church. The mishandling of these issues and political miscues expose these clerics as actors, just as the Wizard of Oz was revealed to be the huckster Oscar Diggs when Toto pulled back the curtain in MGM’s version of the L. Frank Baum classic. The constant stream of reality, the length, depth, and breadth of the evil is our plucky little dog exposing the glitter and magic as shameless theater.

Cardinal Joseph Zen pleaded with Francis not to recognize Communist China’s state-sanctioned “Catholic Church,” but the pope grew only more stubborn in his approval. Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, held a press conference extolling the virtues of the regime in February 2018. Pope Francis’s decision to recognize the Chinese government’s faux church was a moral affront even to the most casual Catholic.

Now, as Chinese troops menace Hong Kong, Francis remains silent. No public words of concern, no pleading for peace. If there are any Catholics still alive in China’s camps, I wonder if their captors taunted them with Francis’s embrace of their tormentors.

Zen is not the only prominent prelate faced with the falseness of Rome. Nigeria’s Christians, mostly Catholic, suffer far away from the eyes of the world. Gruesome attacks, the latest on July 29, when 65 people were killed by Boko Haram during a Catholic funeral procession. It took five years of ongoing violence in Nigeria before Francis briefly broke his silence and addressed the most recent atrocity in his Sunday Angelus. Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan, elevated by Francis, was dutifully obsequious and grateful, as he applauded the pope’s brief aside.

What Real Sacrifice Looks Like

I think of my Facebook friend, Fada Lucas Ogbonn, pastor of a small Nigerian parish, who has tried to draw attention to the carnage inflicted by Fulani tribesmen and Boko Haram. The attacks have been going on for years, and the violence against Christians shows no sign of abating. The pope’s comments at least call for Buhari to address the slaughter.

Despite the pontiff’s posturing, Fada Lucas is all smiles in the face of the danger. He baptizes babies, marries couples, and celebrates too many funerals. His faith is deep. The vestments aren’t props. They are an outward sign of his place in Church and within his congregation. He is the sacrifice, and his whole parish shares in his offering as Christ himself did.

It’s More Than Symbol (So Act Like It)

For now, my parish is one of the few in my area untouched either by local or global drama. I dread that my New York parish might have a claim filed against it under the newly passed Child Victims Act. I pray that no priest I know will be implicated. The legislation in New York puts a spotlight on how insidious and ancient this problem is—and in spite of factional squabbling on this point, it should be noted that it has little to do with the form of the Mass, whether pre- or post-Vatican II. It has more to with the fact that the Archdiocese of New York fought this legislation, that others are doing the same while they read from teleprompters a rehearsed script describing the steps they supposedly are taking to protect minors and ensure accountability.

These news conferences are not much different than Bishop Sorondo extolling the Christianity of Communist China while the regime tore the crosses off rooftops and bulldozed churches. What they really need to talk about is their own lack of faith; not about how they might regain our shattered belief in their leadership—a belief that does not currently deserve to be restored. They need to explain their lack of belief in the teachings of the Church. Their vestments are not costuming for liturgical performance. They are signatories of a covenant with their congregations. That is the crux of the matter. They do not believe. So many stand behind the altar performing rituals and preaching a Gospel with which they personally have no connection or belief.

I cannot suspend my own disbelief. I’ve been reduced to a spectator. The constant display of faithlessness has broken my spiritual fourth wall. The tearing of the sanctuary veil, the salvation of the world from sin has been written out in favor of flamboyant posturing and political correctness has been substituted for theses lasting truths moral and reasoning. This farce is currently playing in many of our local parishes here and abroad.

I can pray for the Chinese Catholics practicing their faith in hiding. The priests and parishioners in China and Nigeria are in communion with the Universal Church of Christ, as the Church of Rome speaks in the cliched dialogue and tropes of the social justice narrative.

I watch these things and I think of Flannery O’ Connor’s much-quoted letter to a friend: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

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