….On Sunday mornings no one stirs in our house except myself. My husband goes to Mass only a couple of times a year including weddings and funerals. Our younger son stopped going last year, and as far as I know our married son and his wife never go. It still upsets me when I think about it and I tried every way to persuade them. It was a constant battle, and eventually they just started making fun of it. A priest told me there was nothing I could do but keep going myself and pray for them. I'm doing that, but a year on I'm beginning to feel like an oddity in my own home. We seem to be living in a harsher world than the one I grew up in. What am I asking you? Not how to get the men in my family to go to Mass but how to keep my own faith going when people around me are turning away from it.
Our younger boy showed me how to use the internet and I enjoy reading the things you write. Maybe you can tell me something that will give me a bit of strength.
Dear Christine, I'm glad you are not asking me how to get people to go to Mass, because I don't know. Every question comes back to oneself in the end, and you have wisely seen that. Certainly the world around us has changed and society no longer provides active support for faith. But in a way, that is to be expected. Religion can't expect to fit comfortably into society, and it often thrives better under a bit of persecution – or a diminished form of it, ridicule. Jesus didn’t fit in. God doesn’t fit into the world. When believers fit comfortably something is probably wrong. A colleague of mine got a standing ovation after a homily and he was inclined to boast about it afterwards, until another colleague, teasing him, said, “Jesus preached and they crucified him; you preach and you get a standing ovation!” So don't be surprised if you have to stand alone.
The understanding we hear on all sides is that religion has become a private matter. In very visible ways it has, in the western world. It has been happening for a long time now. Everything attests to it. In 1920 D.H. Lawrence wrote Women in Love. I remember a particular passage, which I have just gone and found again for you. Let me quote part of it.
“The father drew more and more out of the light. The whole frame of the real life was broken for him. He had been right according to his lights. And his lights had been those of the great religion. Yet they seemed to have become obsolete, to be superseded in the world. He could not understand. He only withdrew with his lights into an inner room, into the silence. The beautiful candles of belief, that would not do to light the world any more, they would still burn sweetly and sufficiently in the inner room of his soul, and in the silence of his retirement.”
Superseded in the world, withdrawn into the inner room of the soul. That paragraph, like much of Lawrence, reads as if it had been written just yesterday. And yet I don't think it’s the whole picture. I got a glimpse of something else quite recently.
I performed my niece’s wedding ceremony last month. She married an Englishman, who is an Anglican. 70 of his family and friends came to Ireland for the wedding. Many of them came a week early, to ensure that there would be no strangers at this wedding. There were four generations of his family present – from his grandfather to his 10-day old niece. As the days went by I was more and more aware that the love between these two young people was anything but a purely private matter. In coming together they were drawing all the generations of both families together. More, they were drawing England and Ireland together, and they were drawing the Anglican and the Roman Catholic Churches together. We were keenly aware of this at the wedding Mass itself. Love appears to be a purely private matter, but it draws whole worlds together. We could see one another in mathematical terms, each individual just one. That's what statisticians do. I've always had a distaste for the statistics of religious practice. My niece and her husband add up to two, mathematically; but the total impact of their coming together is beyond calculation. I think love is always like that. And if religion isn’t love, what is it? It resists all statistics and talk of majorities and percentages.
In your religious practice you may be alone in your family, but there is no calculating the impact that your Christian practice has. So don't lose courage, Christine. When you are sincere in your religious belief and practice you are drawing worlds together, in ways that no one can calculate.