Dear Father Joe: I am spiritual, but I have a problem with organized religion. Why can’t I just pray out in my back yard or when I’m sitting by the lake, rather than sitting in church and listening to a boring sermon?
As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I can assure you, it is not very organized. OK, that’s a joke, let’s get right to your question.
I want to start off by defending religion as a concept. Look at the word “religion.” The origin of the word itself is the word religare, which means to bind or tie together.
Organized religion binds us together, reminds us that we are not on a journey toward salvation as individuals, but as a whole – collectively, we are the body of Christ, we are the Church. Each week, all around the world, hundreds of millions of Catholics gather together and worship God, feed the poor, encourage and pray with each other and reach out their hands to the world around them in order to make it a better place. This happens so often and seemingly so effortlessly that we simply take it out of our equation when we look at what religion does.
Beyond that, however, religion meets a deeper need: our need for community. Each year, as a Church, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity. The Trinity is identified by our Catechism as “the central mystery of our faith.” So, what is the Trinity? Among other things, the Trinity is defined as a community of persons or a community of love. This Trinity is the source of our existence. In other words, you and I were made by a community of persons for the community of persons. In living and worshipping in community, you and I imitate God.
Beyond this, there are many ways that the communal element of faith changes us. I’d like to look at just a couple:
First, community helps refine our love. Recently, I came across a few blogs where moms were talking about the dirty looks they get at church when their children are crying or being fussy during Mass. I’m not married, I don’t have kids. As a result, I’m not “hardened” to the reality of kid noises. Because of that, I find it, at times, very hard to focus on Mass and “stay on task” when a child is being loud. Does that mean the mom or the baby has a problem? Generally no – it means I have a problem. Look at the reality: We have a person in church who chose life and not only chose to give life, but chose to bring her children to church so that they’ll live their lives well and in accord with God’s will for us. That, my friend, is a beautiful choice and is one that makes us all better. In this example, part of being in a community is me learning to love God by loving the child, honoring the mother and praying through the whole process. Inconvenient? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely.
Community can keep us from hypocrisy and self-delusion. Most of us, left to our own devices, will find the time and energy to justify just about any action we need justified. If we have no person or persons in our lives to refine our ideas and challenge us, we will quickly fall into self-deception and stop growing as spiritual beings. We’ll become content in our thoughts and love, never letting change creep in the door. Community keeps us from this. It reminds us that there is much more to life, the world and eternity than one human person can arrive at alone.
What about boring sermons? Please know that I type this as someone who has been both a victim of boring sermons and, no doubt, a perpetrator of them, OK? Good.
My friend Father Geoff always points out that no one goes to their grandpa’s birthday party asking, “What am I going to get out of this?” They go to the birthday party because they love Grandpa.
In the same way, our primary reason for going to Mass cannot be, “What am I going to get out of this?” Instead, it should be, “What can I give in the midst of this?” The radical gift of the whole experience is this: When we surrender our need to make this about what we get from it, we’ll receive more than we could ever ask or imagine.
Finally, I invite you to think of this the next time you are trying to deal with a “boring Mass.” Ever work outside on a hot, sunny summer day? You slog along, get the tasks done and, later in the evening, you realize that your skin turned red; the turning red didn’t happen all at once, but your realization of it did. Sometimes, our spiritual life is the same way. We commit ourselves to going to Mass to worship God and nothing seems to happen. Later, we realize that we have changed. We realize that all that time in the Son (intentional spelling there) has changed our souls for the better.
So, there it is. I invite you to bless the community near you with your presence – join a community of believers who are bound together by their knowledge of and hunger for God, a community of broken, sinful, loved and loving people that work together to grow in holiness. We are called to worship the Community of Persons that is the Trinity in a community of persons that is our religion.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!
If you’d like to submit a question for Father Joe Krupp to consider in a future column, please send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Father Joe is unable to personally answer questions.