Dear Friends in Christ:
One of the great fears expressed by many ministers and pastors of all religious backgrounds concerns people returning to worship after so many months away due to the pandemic. This is not an unfounded fear, as religious practice and adherence have been declining for decades and the decline was accelerating even before the COVID crisis. The rise of secularism and relativism has been extremely detrimental to religious practice and adherence. All of the recent popes over the last half century have commented on this. The decline has been exacerbated during the current pandemic. The current crisis has also brought a number of things into greater focus when it comes to religious faith and practice. This is true for Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and those of non-Christian faiths. We live in an age of fear and anger. People have been frightened and scared. We are told we could die or our loved ones could die by living our normal lives! We are told that the world is not safe. We have all been placed under a potential death sentence and told that those around us are all potential deadly threats! This has a huge emotional impact. We are seeing as well a terrible spiritual impact. People give into despair, depression and/or anger. We allow fear to control and dictate our lives. This again is exacerbated and amplified in that one of the normal places people would turn to for relief during times of trouble is church. In some parts of the country, religious gatherings are still prohibited or extremely restricted. Through many sources, we are told to be afraid of coming to church even though there has not been any evidence of major outbreaks of the disease from worship attendance among the more than 7 million positive cases in the U.S. The point here is not on the efficacy of the health protocols or to diminish the seriousness of the virus, rather it is to take note of the high level of fear and anxiety among so many. Fear is a spiritual as well as an emotional, physical and psychological health issue. It creates havoc and destruction in individual lives and in society at large. This is being evidenced in the elevated rates of divorce, suicide, substance abuse, physical and sexual abuse, violence, and crime. Fear and anger negatively impact marriages, families, friendships, jobs and careers as well as our spiritual lives.
Another thing brought into focus during this time is the state of health and vitality of our faith. For most people, if their faith was weak before COVID-19, it is weaker today. If we did not have a strong, stable and vibrant prayer life before the crisis, chances are good that our prayer life is suffering or dead. What the crisis has shown is that for too many people, the life of faith was limited to church attendance. When church attendance was taken away, there was little left. Again, this is not because of the pandemic but the pandemic is exposing this weakness. For too many people, we have “phoned in” our faith and for too many families they have “out sourced” the faith formation and development of their children. For Catholics this has gone on for decades. Too many families believe that sending their kids to Catholic schools or Religious Education classes is sufficient to transmit and pass on the faith. It is not! Catholic schools and religious formation programs supplement and strengthen the faith that is lived out in the family home. If there is no praying together as family every day, why would one think that children would learn or embrace prayer for a 40-minute class on Sunday or from a religion class in a Catholic school? Recently, 100 teens who attend religious education classes or a Catholic School were asked if they prayed regularly on their own. Only 5 responded yes. The parents of the 95 were shocked to learn that their teen did not pray or pray regularly. None of those families prayed together as a family. They were too busy, did not think it important enough or did not know how. Amazingly (or not), the families of the 5 teens who prayed on their own also prayed together as a family! There is no substitution for living the faith in the home every day. Weekly Mass by itself cannot compensate and is insufficient for a vibrant, healthy faith. Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church teach us that “the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.” It is not the totality and neither is anything else we attempt to use to “outsource” the formation and development of faith for ourselves or our children or our marriages.
If we do not want to live in fear and dread, if we want to live lives of meaning and purpose, if we want to live in hope and not despair, if we want true and lasting happiness more than temporary pleasure, the choice is simple.