This new pope, he’s OK. He even has a little bit of an impish sparkle in his eye…
(credit: Michael Paulson)
He takes strong stands on issues and speaks up for Biblical values. I see a couple of problems though, and I think maybe they’re related: people tend to react to the Pope like he’s some kind of rock star, lining the streets just for a glimpse of him, emotions running high; and yet the church he leads is seeing a decline in attendance.
Last month our local paper published this article covering the Pope’s visit to America. In it, the article suggests the Pope is telling his American bishops to “make masses lively to keep the flock”. The Pope fields a question as to why attendance at Mass is declining. He responds by saying “Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our churches? Has our preaching lost its salt? Might it be that many people have forgotten, or never really learned, how to pray in and with the church?” and “I think we are speaking about people who have fallen by the wayside without consciously having rejected their faith in Christ, but, for whatever reason, have not drawn life from the liturgy, the sacraments, preaching.”
One hesitates to comment on or criticize a church that is not one’s own, yet in the broadest sense, the Pope belongs not to the Catholic Church but to the entire world (the small-c catholic church). And many of the issues facing the Catholic Church are issues facing all the ‘traditional’ denominations, so when I write the following the words really are relevant to all our churches.
I think Pope Benedict nailed this one right on the mark: people find it difficult to encounter God in church. In many cases it’s easier to encounter a Bishop or even a Pope! I think this Pope is intelligent enough to realize this is his problem as well as the rest of the church’s; still I’d love to hear him say to all the crowds lining the streets something along the lines of “don’t follow me, follow Jesus.”
The Pope raises all the right issues, but I’d love to hear him say: Has preaching lost its salt? Preach Jesus, and Jesus alone (not Jesus-and-popularity or Jesus-and-tradition or Jesus-and-we-need-money). Have people forgotten how to pray? Teach them! But teach them how to pray in their own words, to have a relationship with God, not praying only in the ancient words of the church.
“…without consciously having rejected their faith in Christ, but, for whatever reason, have not drawn life from the liturgy, the sacraments, preaching…” I read something earlier today on a Baptist blog that made me realize many conservative churches would answer “life isn’t found in liturgy, sacraments or preaching, it’s found in Jesus”. They’d be right, but they’d also be wrong. Scripture says “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” The Word of God is found in preaching, and when that preaching is rooted in God’s word, by the power of the Holy Spirit it places the seed of new life in its hearers. So preaching is very much intended to be something from which people draw life.
Liturgy, as it is known in the ‘liturgical’ churches, is one more way in which a person may hear the Word of God — since it was written, based on Scripture, by men who wisely knew there would come a day when priests and ministers would fall away from the true faith. Through the liturgy people hear the message of salvation every week, in God’s own words, no matter what the priest believes. Faith, and therefore life, comes by hearing. And the sacraments, often described as “visible words” are yet one more way to hear the Word of God: by baptism we are cleansed, by communion we receive God into ourselves. Even a child can grasp such concepts.
Bottom line, the Pope placed the decline in church attendance squarely at the feet of the parish priests – and I think on the whole he’s right. Yes, there are pressures in society that make people resistant to faith in general and organized religion in particular. Yes, work and school schedules compete with worship time. But those aren’t the real reason people don’t go to church. They don’t go because they’ve been disappointed and hurt in the past. They don’t go because in the past they have come looking for God and haven’t found Him. Time after time we have seen old, dying churches turned around by a pastor willing to preach God’s word and reach out to the community with God’s compassion. And on the other side of the coin, time after time we have seen pastors who refuse to do so, whose churches end up closing.
Yeah, I’d say he’s got it right. This new pope, he’s OK. Now if we could just get him to say the Orthodox and Protestant Christians are on equal footing with the Catholics in the eyes of God… [mischievous grin]