Yesterday was a beautiful morning on Vancouver Island. Nothing but warm weather and sunshine in the forecast. I had gotten up early, and I thought that the perfect thing to do would be to go for a bike ride. But daily mass for us here in Duncan is at 9 am, and I felt like going for a longer ride. I was sorely tempted. But then, I realized that I could ride the 25 km to Mill Bay, join the community there for their 9 am mass, and then ride back. And this is what I did.
Why do I bother arranging my schedule around the time of daily mass, even when I am not the presiding priest? Why not limit Church services to special occasions? Fewer and fewer people see the need to go to church at all, not even on Sundays.
I am just back from Germany and not yet fully over the jet lag, and this is why I got up so uncharacteristically early. Whenever I am in my old home country I ask myself the same question—how come that Church has become more important to me, but less important to my family and my friends from my days before I became a friar?
I like look at the list of non-fiction best sellers in Germany. This year, the leading books were about nature, good health, spirituality, transhumanism, and philosophy. Of course, a bit of an exception was Toni Schumacher’s bringing up the rear with his thoughts about soccer. Nothing less than truth about soccer and his life. So not so different from the other titles, really.
This was not an anomaly. Most years when I am there, I notice many best-selling titles on at least implicitly religious topics. Considering the interests of book-reading Germans, our churches ought to be full! Faith gives a much deeper understanding of what it means to live well, or the relationship between humanity and nature, and the way to make sense of it all.
Indeed, I do not think that the Church is at any risk of becoming irrelevant to Germany. Public interest remains high. It may be critical interest, but it is still interest, and it shows that the Church’s voice is being heard. They may not sit in the pews during mass, but they pay attention just the same.
Trouble is, the Church seems like the official bad conscience of Germany society. It does make sense: Well-off and conscientious people, or a large share of German society, think that they ought to do more for the poor and the unfortunate. People expect to hear this from the Church, and they do. At the same time, nobody wants to be reminded of their guilt all that often, and especially not when they cannot do much about it. Life in a modern society is very complicated, and improving the lot of the poor and unfortunate requires critical thinking. Naïve preaching and simplistic proposals do not help. So, what is the point of being reminded of this bad conscience? Maybe nothing can be done.
The answer is that the Church’s message is not about what we are to do in order to make this a better world. The Gospel tells us to make disciples of all nations, not social workers. The social teaching of the Church results from its mission, but it is not the mission. It is the consequence, not the purpose.
The purpose is to understand life how it really is. The purpose is understanding reality how it really is. Not reality as the working of nature or society, but reality at its most fundamental. And this is where we find God. Going to Church to celebrate mass, in the ordinariness of my life such as in the middle of an early-morning bike ride, is a reminder that the foundation of my life is found there: in Jesus Christ, and in the encounter with him in Scripture and Sacraments. It makes me aware of my bad conscience due to my many faults and failings, but it also makes me aware of the love and forgiveness of God, and only this allows me to live for another day. Even if it is just a day riding my bicycle.