10/22/2015 9:00:00 AM BISHOP'S COLUMN Never hurts to ask
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER
Many people today describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" -- at least, that is how they respond in surveys that ask about their religious affiliation.
The reasons a person might move away from a church or religious organization are varied and complex. It could have to do with doctrinal matters, of course, or it might be a very personal experience with a church group or even an individual that was hurtful or off-putting.
Often, however, it is just a gradual drifting away that occurs when the busy-ness of everyday life crowds out the best of intentions.
Any human relationship of depth and sincerity requires us to make sacrifices for the sake of the friendship. Those who have experienced a long-lasting marriage know how essential listening, responding, patience, forgiveness and humility are to build a solid bond. We do not always feel "in love" with the person we love. Love is basically a decision -- not just about feelings, which can wax and wane.
Being a part of a church or religious community requires the same give and take of any solid relationship. It cannot just be based on how we feel or what we get out of it every time.
Some consider churchgoing, for example, to be an expression of their dispositions and feelings. As Catholics, however, the main reason that we go to church is to worship. We need to, in order to acknowledge that the Lord is God and we are not, and to be formed by the Word proclaimed to us and by the sacraments we receive.
Churchgoers are sometimes criticized for being hypocritical, as if attending a church service is a statement that they are holy or better than those who do not. I don't know about others, but when I go to church and pray, it is not because I have all the answers, but because I am seeking them.
When I kneel, says Anna Nussbaum Keating in "First Things," it is not because I am humble, but because I am proud. When I exchange the sign of peace, it is not because I necessarily feel warm and fuzzy about the person whose hand I shake, but because Jesus tells me to love my sisters and brothers.
We don't always come away having learned something, but that is not necessarily the fault of the preachers, musicians or liturgical settings. Just as it is possible to be "at" a conversation with another person but not actually "in" it, my mind and heart can be entirely disengaged, even in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
St. Teresa of Avila, whose feast we celebrated recently, often found herself restless and distracted when she was first learning to pray. She would use an hourglass to time herself, and sometimes could not wait till her hour ran out as she kept watching the sand trickle through.
With practice, however, she began to learn that the real key to growth in the spiritual life was simply being patient, waiting for the Lord to take over. This took many years, of course, but it is important not to become discouraged and give up too quickly just because God does not immediately respond to our pleas.
Jesus always praises those who are persistent. There is no more diabolical a temptation than that of discouragement.
It is not easy for parents, struggling as they often do, to get the family together on a Sunday morning to come to church. Yet we should not so easily dismiss the value of making that effort to attend each and every week.
It is no doubt true that there are many good and decent people who rarely enter a church. Just as surely are there persons who attend regularly whose hearts and minds and daily actions are far from the Lord. Only God knows what is in the heart. But God does not ask us to judge what others do. He calls each of us personally to answer His invitation to "follow me."
How can I call myself a Christian, however, unless I make an effort at least to do the one thing that Jesus asked of His disciples in remembrance of Him? How can I go out into the world and tell the Good News of the Gospel unless I am hearing it?
A person who says he or she is a golfer, joins a club and spends time shopping for all the right equipment but never goes golfing can hardly be considered a sportsman.
One of the great things about our Catholic faith, so easily taken for granted, is that we have a lot of practices that we can engage in even if we are not completely engaged all the time. I am thinking about the recitation of prayers such as the Rosary, or grace before meals, or even the practice of lighting a candle or blessing oneself with holy water.
It is true that such things can be dismissed as mere empty ritual, but there is something very forgiving about a religion that does not judge people's motives or the degree of their sincerity. Everyone can join in and somehow feel a part of the family -- our youngsters as well as our seniors.
It is not for us to point a finger at those who by choice or habit seem to drift away from the Church community. It is not good for us to be alone on our journey of faith -- and Jesus Himself promised His presence where two or three are gathered in His name.
As intentional disciples of Jesus, it could make a real difference in the life of another person -- and maybe even our own -- if, instead of bemoaning the empty pews in our churches, each of us made a commitment not to attend a Mass without inviting at least one new person to join us.
It will not happen unless we ask. Yes, they might say "no" -- but they might say "yes!"