Let me tell you what happened in the parish where I supplied some years ago. It was my fifth Sunday there and I had two more Sundays to go. They had no parish priest and it was gratifying for me to be there as people generally appreciated my preaching over the previous weeks and made me really welcome.
The gospel was most challenging that Sunday.
- Sir, will there be only a few saved?
- Once the master of the house has got up and locked the door, you may find yourself knocking on the door, saying, "Lord, open to us" but he will answer, 'I do not know where you come from’.
- Away from me, all you wicked men!
- Then there will be weeping and grinding of teeth, ..
All was going fine as I read:
- And men from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.
I said to the congregation: And that is what you have done this morning, from your farms and houses, from east and west, north and south, you have come to take your place at this feast on the altar of our Mass. You are rehearsing for eternity, when you will take your place around the banquet feast in the Kingdom. Well done!
And these seats here, these empty seats, they belong for the most part to people who have decided not to take their place. People who are hurt, who have lost hope, who are discouraged .. and it is our task, to go out and find these people, to give them hope, to encourage them.
So far, so good - approving looks, nods of the head, smiles, but then:
It is so important for us to meet each Sunday for the Eucharist, to take our place, to turn up for practice, that the Church teaches that anyone who deliberately and knowingly, for no good reason, fails in their obligation to attend Mass, commits a grave sin, a mortal sin.
There is a movie called The Day After Tomorrow which begins with a scene depicting a crack, a huge split suddenly forming in the arctic ice sheet right under the feet of the main characters. That is what happened in that church the moment I mentioned Sunday Mass obligation.
I noticed the community ‘leader’, and her husband exchange disapproving looks. One of the parishioners mouthed the words ‘Bullsh-t!'. Two friends who were visiting me and who had come to Mass said: Father, the moment you mentioned the Sunday Mass obligation, and mortal sin, the lady behind us just groaned!
I was terribly upset after Mass. A parishioner came over to me and said, Father, you should learn to use more carrot and less stick, and walked away.
Less stick! That man felt I had hit him! Others might call it bullying or harassing.
After Mass I unvested and on my way to the car noticed that man standing nearby. I went over and said: N., you may not want to talk to me but maybe we should chat a bit about what I said in the homily.’ He said: Father, you made all of us who had missed Mass feel that we were in mortal sin. Anticipating my response he added: Yes, yes, I know you did say deliberately and knowingly.
He then went on to say: Look, I miss Sunday Mass. Sometimes I have things to do .. and I sometimes go to the Anglicans and celebrate with them. And now I read in that new document that I shouldn’t do that either! Some people want to take us back to a point in time that has long passed.
He was very angry. His face was flushed and his mouth trembling. He told me we were turning people away and excluding them. He gave me an example of a lady who was divorced and remarried outside the Church - ‘she would dearly love to come to Mass and Communion but we are excluding her.’ Finally his wife came and they left, very angry.
I got into the car with my friends and we talked. I was so distressed. I imagined the bishop of the diocese saying ‘Well, he’s managed to upset the parish in only five weeks! Ineffective ministry!’
My friends knew immediately how I was feeling. One of them said: Do you know why they were so angry, Father? They suddenly discovered they might be on the wrong side of that door Jesus was speaking about. They thought they were inside and your homily caused them to fear it might not be so. Isn’t that what a good homily should do? I would say that was a very effective homily because you brought them the true teaching of the Church.
I asked them if I had said it too callously, accusingly, strongly? They assured me that I had nothing to worry about there. It was not the way you said it, Father, it was what you said. They have been going in and out of the wide door for so long they didn’t like you narrowing it.
A priest friend of mine once said to me: You are a John the Baptist, he didn’t know how to tell the message either! And neither did Jesus, apparently!
It makes me wonder, if only John the Baptist and Jesus, and St Stephen the first martyr had attended a personal relationship course, or a tactful preaching course, perhaps they wouldn’t have made so many enemies.
Well, I am content. Preaching unpopular truths will always provoke opposition, that is what happens when you try to evangelise a culture, and I believe that to be a sign of its effectiveness.
My sister said to me the same morning: So many priests think their job is to get people to come to Church so they can have full churches, and then forget that they have souls to be saved.
This thought echoed a recurring suspicion of mine. Perhaps the popular, easy going, crisis-free, uncontroversial ministry of so many priests in the contemporary 'liberal' Catholic Church is less a sign of effectiveness than of an unacknowledged scandal.