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Sacramental collapse

Part 2 of Fr Martin Sirju’s 4-part pastoral reflection on how he sees the Church today.

“Even though the olive crop fail, and the fields produce no harvest” (Habakkuk 3:17)

We live amidst sacramental collapse. The sacraments mean very little to most Catholics, to some, nothing. This is a real crisis. The Catholic world view is a sacramental world view. That world view is collapsing daily with the rise of digital technology, AI, bioengineering and big data algorithm to control our epistemological superstructure.

Some experts think we have moved into an era of intelligence without consciousness and speculate on the consequences of these developments. While the sacramental superstructure was burning, we were happy fiddling.

Let me describe this parlous state of affairs a bit. Let’s take the sacrament of infant baptism. Many non-Catholic parents are baptising their children Catholic and the parish office doesn’t have a clue because it does not check to see who is and who isn’t Catholic.

Parents are doing it for educational advantage; education as certification. I wish some BA theology student would investigate the actual religious identities of those whose names are written in the parish baptismal registers as godparents. I would hazard a guess that at least 50 per cent of them are not Catholic. Most godparents are either non-practising or non-Catholic. You can discern that from the body language at infant baptism liturgies.

We see it also in Confirmation—the sacrament of exit, at which most of our children most likely scream to themselves: “Thank God it’s over!”. I saw this vividly some years ago while attending the Confirmation Mass of several boys of a Catholic secondary school.

The boys looked rather nice and pious in their black pants, shirt and tie, but that piety quickly disappeared after Mass, like mist in the morning sun. Several boys on exiting the church hastily ripped out their ties as if to say: “It is accomplished!” but meaning something entirely different from the Galilean who uttered the same words two millennia ago.

When it comes to the Mass, the main bastion of Catholic identity still standing, there is widespread ignorance and lack of faith formation. When I attend Mass while on vacation in the US—and I have visited several states—I still see many people, including teenagers and young children, genuflecting before they sit. You hardly see that here. Suddenly everybody is osteoporotic. Nobody genuflects; they just waltz in and sit in their seats. You would think they came to see a show.

At Mass people often arrive at any point, including when the priest is preaching or at the Consecration, and walk right up to the front. Some leave to answer their phone or go to the toilet as the priest says: “Behold the Lamb of God …”

There is a blankness in the face of many parishioners as if they don’t quite know why they are there. The sense of sacred space and sacred moments is rapidly declining.

One young woman expressed this dilemma best when she said while I was stationed in Princes Town: “Coming to Mass is like going to the cinema and seeing the same movie all the time”. And that was more than ten years ago.

It is not entirely just to blame parishioners, the clergy or the hierarchy for this state of affairs. The problem is epochal; it has to do with the age in which we live and the so-called “nones” are going through the painful task of negotiating the winds of secularism.

I have not read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age but I have heard and read comments about the book. I particularly like his point about living in a “disenchanted universe” where people no longer experience that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins).

Bringing back enchantment in the world is not a matter of fiat but an Advent mystery—for the most part, we have to wait for it to happen.

Some sacramental theologians speak of creating new rituals for the present sacramental rituals are no longer self-sustaining, but can one really change the sacramental rites in that way?

Such innovations may involve para-liturgies rather than tinkering with the sacramental rites themselves. Spirituality is alive and well; it is just that people, including Catholics, are not searching for it in the Church anymore or in institutional religion.

People today seem more interested in making cosmic connections and are experimenting with Eastern mysticism, New Age practices, various wisdom teachers—ancient or contemporary—nature mysticism etc. and for the most part feeling quite happy with it. They feel as if they are moving on spiritually, but not if they stay in the Church.

We who are the clerical caste have watched it happen over many years and have done very little to arrest it. On so many occasions we felt helpless. It is one thing to turn around one’s life but how do you turn around a parish, an entire archdiocese or the Church Universal? It was easier to keep the mill running.

The person who does not balk at the task ahead needs to have his head examined. We must all therefore get in rebuilding mode. It was not the risen Christ but the crucified Christ who said to the revolutionary saint: “Francis, go and rebuild my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruin.”

We are falling into ruin. Amidst our suffering and through it, let us at least plant the seeds of a tree, the fruits of which others shall reap.