The Catholic Church: Between the sublime and the ridiculous

People are tired of lousy homilies that ramble in inanities that begin and never end, and never end because they should never have begun. In the Catholic Church, we sinners and pastors bungle up many things. But I believe God is present in our Church in mysterious ways.

Fr Joel Tabora, SJ

To my blog, “The Catholic Must Choose” there was quite an amount of no-holds-barred response. Some were printed, others texted. Some were thoughtful, others emotional. Some expressed agreement, others admonition. For all, I am grateful, even if I am unable to answer each individually. Since all the comments on WordPress are “approved” (unless they are doubled), they are available to everyone.

There are two responses which moved me. One was presumably complimentary by mentioning me in the same breath as Fr Joaquin Bernas, SJ, the infamous “Guro of Destabilization.”

“It’s because of Jesuits like these,” the testimony went, “that I don’t leave the Church.” The other was more moving: “If there were more around like these, I wouldn’t have left the Church.”

Conclusion? The Catholic Church is in trouble – even in Catholic Philippines.

Especially if remaining in the Church hangs – in a fit of gallows humor – on the Guro of Destabilization! Or worse, on a Jesuit like me!

Why people are leaving the Church

Seriously though, there ought to be great concern. People have been leaving the Catholic Church. People are about to leave the Church. It is time, I think, for Mahar Mangahas to take out his social survey tools to help us understand what is happening.

What I am picking up is exasperation. People are tired of lousy homilies that ramble in inanities that begin and never end, and never end because they should never have begun. People are tired of being preached at, of being treated as if they were younger than adolescents, of being lectured, of being scolded, of being dictated upon. People are tired of obstinate claims to absolute truth, when the thinking world continues to seek truth. People are tired of being told how to think, when they can think for themselves, and how to choose, when they can choose for themselves, and how to have sex when they can have sex for themselves.

People are tired of the reproductive health (RH) discussion, debate, disaster, debacle. All right, they are willing to receive a clear statement of the teaching of the Church on this matter, and they understand that the hierarchy is serious about conveying its message, and that there are lay persons very passionate about making sure that that message gets conveyed.

But hey, was it really necessary to devote the whole of Advent to it, including all of Simbang Gabi, and for Christmas fare, was it really so necessary to talk about Reproductive Health and the Virgin Birth through Conception by the Holy Spirit? And when New Year’s came, was it really so necessary to preach on Reproductive Health and Child Circumcision?

People are tired of it. They know: the CBCP was against the RH Bill. The CBCP is against the RH Law. So too their presbyteral preachers, and their lay defenders. They have their reasons based on solid doctrine. Because of the nature and dignity of man (and woman!), each and every conjugal act must not be bereft of its unitive and procreative meanings, except when the procreative aspect can be avoided through natural family planning methods. Artificial contraception is proscribed. Abortion is proscribed. The contraceptive mentality leads to all manner of evil. This is the truth.

People love the truth. But the feeling is: people are being strangled by this truth. Their reaction: stop the world, I want to get off! Stop the holier-than-thou discourse, the theological bullying, the magisterial declarations, not because what you have said may not have been important, but because what you have said, you have said over and over and over again. Now, you are a broken record.

Give me now my chance to consider the arguments, think it over, and let me decide. Entrust me and my decision to my compassionate Father. I would rather entrust myself to him who can send me to hell, than to you with your stringent conditions for heaven!

“All this I have told you that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). This used to be a joyful Church for a joy-loving people. It has become rather somber, and people are leaving it with no regret. You think we can afford the losses? Italy was once all Catholic. Spain was once all Catholic. My gosh, the Holy Roman Empire was once all Catholic.

Sense of God

Already, clearly, the Philippines is not all Catholic. It never was. Being a responsible Catholic in the Philippines today, whether lay, religious or ordained, is no mean thing. There are confused laypersons, rogue religious and pathetic priests. From within the Church, pastors should be helping Catholics to be Catholics. Yes, also with their teaching on RH! But if this is all they’re putting out, if this is the single tune they sing and demand every person dance to, then the party has lost its joy, and people will walk out.

If people don’t leave the Church, what is the core experience that pastors in the Church want to make sure their people have?

I asked this of a young friend today. I asked him, “If you do not leave the Church today, what is it that you look for?” He said, “A sense of God. An experience of the Holy.”

He meant, the experience of the Holy that you receive upon entry into a Church or a Shrine that is sacred space. The Holy in a special place, where you must remove your shoes in silence. He meant, the words that comes from a holy man or holy woman who speaks to you about God. He meant, the sublimity of prayers and rituals that mediate the presence of God.

Why not leave the Church?

At the Ateneo de Naga, what they always celebrated in the Church through their motto was: Primum Regnum Dei – first the Kingdom of God. This was what Jesus Christ used to preach, why he was misunderstood, vilified, condemned, crucified, died, then rose. Being in the Church means being a disciple of Jesus, being received as a companion at his side, participating in his ongoing proclamation of the Kingdom, helping him deliver the message about which he said, “All this I have told you that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11).

Why not leave the Church? Because this was the Church into which you were born? And the Church where you have chosen to stay?

Why? Because there are holy people there? The presence of God is felt there? Because there are blessed people there who speak to you credibly of God? Because, “First, the Kingdom of God” is practiced there?

Because the Kingdom of God is being established in the partnership between husband and wife making home a happy place for children; it is being established in the professional competence and labors of a father bringing home the bacon for the family; it is being established in the teaching of a mother who handles 5 college classes a day then comes home to tutor her own children.

Because the Kingdom of God is being established in Catholics confronting and balancing the conflicting claims of environmental preservation, private gain, industrial productivity, the rights of Indigenous peoples, nationalism and globalization in search of a viable common good.

Also because there are people, whom I love in this Church, who with every rosary or every lit candle say, “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am a sinner” (Lk 18:13), and somehow there feel the consolation of a compassionate God – and even the caring of a compassionate community.

Sacraments

It is in the Catholic Church where faith is celebrated in awesome sacraments, so long as these are not spoiled by haughty priests or distasteful distractions. The main Sacrament is Jesus Christ expressing the Father’s Love through the Spirit at the Mass; there is the sacrament of Baptism that initiates us into the mystery of the Church; there is the sacrament of Orders that ordains a young man into the ministerial priesthood of Jesus Christ consecrated to the service of the Priesthood of the People of God.

Then there is the sublime sacrament of Matrimony whose ministers are two people in love, a man and a woman. In God’s grace, and for the edification of the Christian community, they remove their love from the strictly private sphere and hold it up to the Christian community as a shared sacrament, a grace-bestowing symbol of the love of Jesus for his one spouse, the Church, and the love of the Church for her one spouse, the Lord.

It is because of this Sacrament that there is only one spouse, as there is only one Lord and only one Church, and that the marriage, given in grace, is indissoluble. This is the Sacrament that that every conjugal act sets in grace, the meaning from which it ought never be separated, celebrating in its ecstasy and pleasure, the incredible joy of God united to his human Church and the joy of the Church united to her God. “I have come to give life,” Jesus said, “and to give it to the full” (John 10:10). Again, “All this I have told you that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11).

God’s presence

In the Catholic Church, we sinners and pastors bungle up many things. But I believe God is present in our Church in mysterious ways, as he is present mysteriously in other faiths. God is present in our people crawling down long Church aisles for an experience of the Holy, and battling the mob barefoot somehow to be able to touch divinity.

He is present in the laborer struggling to make his monthly P8,000 fit for the needs of his wife and 4 children. He is even present in the oddball who waves a placard at the preacher to say, “Hey, listen to me!” It is the Church that God gave us, the Church “for all” – for that is what “catholic” means.

I think, if God can love us, so ought we love one another. Only then, might we be a Sacrament of God’s presence in the world. Otherwise, in a rational world, we are a laughingstock.

My unsolicited advice: choose to stay in the Church. But emulate Fr. Bernas’ sense of humor. – Rappler.com


Fr Joel Tabora, a Jesuit priest, is president of the Ateneo de Davao University. The original version of this blog was slightly edited by Rappler and posted with his permission.