Since moving to Colorado Springs, I have been blessed in an unexpected way – I have been able to attend several Masses celebrated by priests from Africa. For the first couple of years I was here, Fr. Sylvain from the Congo was attached to this diocese. On Sunday, Fr. Crispin Okoth, from Kenya, by way of Rome, was visiting our parish.
In his native language (to be honest I’m not sure what it is) okoth means “rain.” Fr. Crispin introduced himself at the beginning of the homily and informed us of this and that he would be pleased if we called him Fr. “Rain.” Fr. Crispin is a big man, a joyful priest, full of the Holy Spirit, whose holiness is almost palpable. He told us that he was so happy to be with us he felt like dancing, he said that in Kenya, masses lasted two or three hours, with dancing, but he promised us that he would not dance on the altar. He said that when he first arrived in Rome a few years ago “they” were horrified at his dancing, and they told him “thou shalt not dance on the altar.” What an awful commandment.
Mass is an entirely different experience when a priest from Africa presides, you feel like dancing yourself, you enter into the Mass in a way I find it hard to describe. As I said, Fr. Rain’s joy was almost tangible; by the time we were ready to recite the “Our Father” I was nearly in tears, both for joy and sorrow for my previous hardness of heart.
Coming from a Protestant background, one of the most notable differences in the worship experience at Mass is the lack of personal involvement on the part of those in the pews. I often feel that, were it not for the responses expected of “the people” on many Sundays there would be no signs of life in the church whatsoever. I sometimes wonder if most of the folks present are even aware of what is going on, or if they are not just going through the motions. This feeling is reinforced when I see the number of folks making a bee line for the door immediately upon receiving communion. Its not that I expect every Mass to be a deeply moving experience, that wasn’t true even of many Presbyterian worship services – I neither want nor expect that. But surely the Mass should be a joyful experience, surely on at least a few Sundays people should be willing and able to express their joy, maybe even dance, at the altar. Surely not everyone has heard the commandment, “thou shalt not dance.”
I wonder if this lack of personal involvement is not part of the reason for many of the problems in the Church today. The problems, to quote a football coach referring to his star running back, “are many and they are great.” It’s not just the sex abuse scandal, although that is part of it, but it is a crisis of leadership on the part of the bishops, it is a crisis of catechesis, and it is a crisis of evangelization.
Russell Shaw has an article in the most recent issue of Crisis magazine, “An Open Letter to America’s Bishop’s” that I hope you will have the opportunity to read. He states the problem facing the Church in the following terms: “The problem is best described, I think, as an acute and far-reaching spiritual crisis bordering on spiritual collapse. In the United States, it’s closely linked to cultural assimilation.” I think he’s right. The fact that a man like John Kerry can publicly proclaim himself a faithful Catholic, while at the same time taking positions absolutely contrary to the centuries old teaching of the Church on the value and sanctity of life, in a way presents a greater challenge to the bishops today that the sex abuse crisis does. If the bishops do nothing, if they assume that “this too shall pass”, they will be demonstrating that, in fact, the teaching of the Church is meaningless. Unless those Catholic politicians who promote the culture of death are strongly censured by the Church, unless they are, in fact, excommunicated, the message that will go out to society today is that the culture is stronger than the Church. The message will be that anyone, no matter what their belief and no matter what their agenda, is welcome, not only to attend Mass but to share in Communion. If John Kerry and those like him are allowed to go on like this, why shouldn’t my Protestant friends and relatives also be allowed to partake in Communion? What’s the difference?
If the bishops continue on a “hear no evil, speak no evil” path it will be no wonder if the faithful lose whatever love for the Eucharist they have remaining. They will see by the example of our pastors that the sacrifice of the altar is a meaningless ritual unworthy of being defended. Not only will there be no joy at Mass, there’ll be no one at Mass.
NOTE: As I have stated before, I do not advocate excommunication as a punishment or as some sort of revenge, but as a wake up call. The objective, after all is to make clear to the person in mortal sin the danger of his position and to call him or her to repentance. I also advocate it as a message to all the faithful that the Church is serious when she states that the Eucharist is “the source and summit” of our lives in the Church. Finally, this is not a political position; I would apply the same treatment to Catholics who are Democrats, Republicans, Greens or whatever else is out there, as long as they actively promote positions that are anathema to Church teaching.