The first reading in yesterday’s (28th Sunday in Ordinary Time) Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours led me to think about where we are at as a Church with regards to the number of people who practice the faith.
The reading was from Haggai 1:1-2:10. To provide the setting, it comes after God has brought the Babylonian Exile to an end. The Lord has returned his people to their homeland. They have been rebuilding their homes and their lives but they have not rebuilt the house of the Lord.
They say, “Not now has the time come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” You might remember that in the days of King David, when David made plans to build a temple for the Lord, that, in 2 Samuel 7, the Lord said it was not for David to do this. That would come later, at the time appointed by God.
Now, in the days of Haggai, the Israelites think it is not time. This has not come from the Lord. It is their choice. However, the Lord says it is time. The problem is they are not wholly following the Lord. They are more interested in earthly pursuits.
I now quote from verses 5 and 6 as found in the Liturgy of the Hours:
“Now thus says the Lord of hosts:
Consider your ways!
You have sown much, but have brought in little;
you have eaten, but have not been satisfied:
You have drunk, but have not been exhilarated;
have clothed yourselves, but not been warmed;
And he who earned wages
earned them for a bag with holes in it.
They have worked hard, “sown much, but have brought in little.” Why? Because they are pursing earthly ways instead of the Lord’s way. Earthly ways may bring us some pleasure in the short term but they are not what we are created for. They cannot fulfill us. They cannot satisfy us.
They have “drunk, but have not been exhilarated.” The New American Bible Revised Edition translation (Haggai 1:1-2:10) translates “exhilarated” as “intoxicated.” How many people get drunk to forget their problems while intoxicated? The intoxication might bring a short time of forgetting our problems, leaving us feeling exhilarated but it does not last. On the other hand, if we follow the ways of the Lord, we begin to transcend the things of this world. With the Lord’s peace in our lives, we do not need alcohol to forget our problems. The Lord’s peace endures as long as we follow Jesus.
In this passage, the Lord also speaks of how they have clothed themselves but are not warmed. How do we clothe ourselves? Do we spend a lot of money on clothing to make us look great in earthly terms? How long do we feel “great” based on the earthly clothing we wear? What we need to do is remember how the Lord has clothed us in Baptism. We clothe ourselves with God’s grace that endures forever.
How much do we focus on earning earthly wages? The reality is we need money to be able to provide food, clothing, and shelter for our families. However, we need to remember, as Paul says, “For the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6:10). We must not love money. It will not fulfill us. Only God’s love can truly fulfill us.
The Lord goes on to offer prosperity to those who follow him. The Lord’s call to build a house for him is not based on the Lord needing an earthly dwelling. He doesn’t. The call to build a house for the Lord is to give the people a place dedicated to the Lord where they can focus on the Lord.
We live in a time when fewer and fewer people are coming to church. The downward trend in church attendance has been going on for a long time.
In March of this year (2020), the Coronavirus led to the shutdown of public Masses. Where I serve, we went without public in-person Masses for three months. In June, we were able to reopen for in-person Masses. However, we gather under restrictions for capacity based on practicing good social distancing and wearing face masks. People are returning but in diminished numbers. Of course, there are those with preexisting health concerns who continue to need to remain home to protect their health. We pray for them. We offer livestreaming Masses for them.
What about the rest? I wonder how many people have chosen not to return to church. Some of those who have not returned may have already been on the verge of not coming to church. The current situation simply gives them reason not to come. How do we invite them back? We need to help them understand the treasures we receive at Mass (see my current series, Uncovering the Treasures of the Mass). We need to rebuild our Church.
When the Babylonian Exile ended, the Israelites had no temple building. The Lord called them through the prophet Haggai to build a new temple. We have the church buildings we need. At least where I serve, we do not need to build more church buildings. However, we do need to rebuild our churches as the Lord called St. Francis of Assisi to do. At first, St. Francis thought the words he received from the Lord telling him to “rebuild my church” meant to make the needed physical repairs to the local church building. Francis came to realize the Lord meant much more.
Why have people stopped coming to church? What do we need to do to lead them back to church? Some feel that what the church teaches is no longer relevant. It is. The Lord’s Word is a living word. We pray for good preachers and teachers to help us see how God’s Word is still relevant today.
Some people think we need to focus only on spirituality in the church. They have separated morality from faith. Reading God’s Word, we see that morality is an important part of how we live out our faith. It is not just a legal code. It is a way of life.
Some speak of the need for new music as the old music is old and boring. The church does call for composers to compose new music. However, think about what we need in music at church. We should not look for music that is only a matter of personal taste. Such music may help us feel good for one hour while we are in church. What we need is music that draws us into a lasting and deep relationship with the Lord. The two are not mutually exclusive. Music can both uplift us in the moment and lead us into a deeper relationship. May the Lord lead us to the music that does both.
We need to change the way we look at faith formation. For a long time, we looking at faith formation (learning about our faith) as something for children. Our children’s programs are important. They are necessary. However, good faith formation extends beyond childhood. As children we learn to memorize prayers and the commandments. This is important religious education. However, please note that I did not call our children’s religion classes just that. It needs to be more than religion class. I called it faith formation, “formation” referring not just to instruction to memorize prayers and commandments. “Formation” is about a way of life. It is only as we move into adulthood and continue to learn about our faith that we truly come to see how our faith is relevant.
To rebuild our church, we also need to find new ways to reach out to the people who used to come to church but no longer do as well as those who have never come to church. This is fundamental to the mission of the Church. As St. Pope Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection” (14).
We all are vital members of the Church. We are all called to share in the mission of the Church. Perhaps you see a way you can help rebuild our Church in what I have written here. Perhaps you see another way you can help. Listen to the Lord guiding you in your part. Consult with others. Then do it.
For more on what we need to do as a church, please see my article, “What Sort of Church Should We Be?” and my video What It Means to be a Church.