In Defense of Paul Elie: Why Worshiping God Elsewhere One Sunday Can Do Your Soul Good

lent2006_index-1My Facebook feed was filled Friday with frustrated status updates: theologians, priests, and concerned Catholics are uproarious over Paul Elie’s New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent.”  Elie, the reputable author of the excellent The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage and, most recently, Reinventing Bach, provocatively suggests that Catholics consider temporarily vacating their parishes today to visit another tradition’s house of worship.  In so doing, Elie hopes Catholics take the opportunity to reassess their relationships to their faith tradition as a way of forcing themselves out of the resignation so many North American Catholics feel in an age marked by the sex abuse crisis, financial corruption, the mismanagement of the Curia, a host of condemnatory statements on the status of homosexuality and female priesthood in the Church, and so on.  As an added bonus, the cardinals preparing for the conclave in Rome might take notice were American Catholics to leave church en masse in search of the Spirit elsewhere and elect a pope who is ready, willing and able to respond to the desolation felt by the faithful.

The overwhelming response (according to my FB feed and shared blog posts) has been largely understanding yet ultimately slamming: most see Elie as well-intentioned but misguided while some see his proposal as worse than Garry Will’s recent thesis, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition and Frank Bruni’s sweeping condemnation of the celibate priesthood (see here for Jim Martin’s piercing response).  Dan Horan at datinggod.org cautions that Elie misunderstands the sacramentality of church and Eucharist and encourages not just individualism but a “self-excommunication”:

He is absolutely correct about the need to ask “what is true in our faith,” but the beginning and end of the search does not take place in spiritual lone rangers exploring on their own. The source and goal is the community, is relationship, is Body of Christ. What is most true about our faith is the radicality of relationship: with God, with others, with all of creation.

Kevin Ahern also takes issue with Elie’s proposal, calling it a boycott of the Eucharist, and while that is, de facto, what it amounts to, a boycott of the sacrament is not Elie’s intention.  He is simply asking American Catholics who feel resigned about the direction of their church to act on it, to shake themselves and their faith lives up, by worshiping God elsewhere for one Sunday.  Elie’s spiritual sensitivity is clear when he writes that “I hope and expect to return to the Oratory church the following Sunday. But I can’t be sure. To some degree, it’s out of my hands, a response to a calling.”  A calling of the spirit–that is what he’s asking each Catholic to look for, not because we should be spiritual lone rangers, but because everyone’s faith journey must walk the line between self and community and it’s okay and sometimes necessary to retreat every once in a while from what is still beloved and comfortable no matter how resigned one may feel towards the beloved.  Elie reminds Catholics that they have a choice and a say in their church, but the call of the spirit does not occur by magic.  We as Catholics need to seek the spirit out, to pray on it,  intend to be guided by it and trust in it–and that total trust in the spirit means that we can’t know for sure where it will lead us and that that place towards which we are led may be outside of the familiar trappings of one’s own parish or tradition altogether and we ought to be open to that.  Essentially, while not explicitly stated, Elie is asking each Catholic to engage in a benign form of self-care that is open to God’s self-communication and to not to be too attached to the ways in which that self-communication makes its way to us, not to “put God in a box” as it were, even if that box were the holy sacrament of Eucharist.  An openness to the spirit and attention to one’s own relationship to self, God and church is absolutely necessary because if we are to be truly radically engaged with God, others and creation we must first know who we are and that sort of knowledge is never static but always changing and needing attention, reflection, and love.

Ultimately, I disagree with Ahern’s statement that Elie “seems to make the Eucharist more about himself than Christ” and I rather think that Elie’s understanding of Eucharist is more relation- than act-centered: we are the body of Christ no matter where we are because Christ is not only in the Eucharist nor will Christ be wholly absent from our lives should we give up one Sunday Mass to become students of the way God’s light shines in other faiths.  Having said that, did I seriously consider not going to Mass today?  No, not in the least.  In fact, I had an almost childish inner reaction in that I really did not want to give it up because I love it so much and that alone made me consider how wise and fruitful Elie’s proposal might be: that our resignation can also take the form of attachment.  Paul and I are fortunate to attend the same wonderful parish, Oratory of Saint Boniface, and it is a place that makes my little Catholic heart swell with joy and consolation at the beauty of the service, the nourishment of the homilies, and the realization of an honest-to-goodness faith community the kind of which I never had growing up.  Truth be told, the state of my childhood parish life was so depressing, with homilies consisting purely of jokes and personal anecdotes that were in no way connected to a life of faith and only meant to make the congregation feel entertained but not enriched or connected to one another or God, that I know I would not have remained a practicing Catholic if I had not gone to Boston College as undergraduate.  Which is why I know that so many Catholics really are resigned about the state of their church: despite the fact that as a doctoral candidate in theology at a Jesuit university and my commitment to a lay community puts me in circles where I know so many Catholics who could not be further from being resigned, I am well aware that there are many Catholics who have given up on a church that meets them where they are because, differences on church teachings aside, not all parishes are created equal and some show their dissatisfaction by voting with their feet.  The exodus from the church sometimes comes after much frustrated soul-searching but also at other times because parishioners can simply no longer identify with it or do not feel heard, needed or wanted, as is the case with so much of today’s youth, particularly young women.  So, thank you, Paul Elie, for inviting Catholics who may or may not have been considering to skip Mass and worship elsewhere to do so.  Maybe in this Lent and in this interregnum period between popes, it will be a well-needed push for some to seek the holy spirit and become pilgrims again, knowing that the journey ahead needs attention to ourselves and our own personal relationships to God and to our church as much as being in communion as the pilgrim church on earth.  It reminds us that we get to be, and do not merely have to be, Catholic.

Disclaimer: I am personally (albeit barely) acquainted with Paul Elie through shared membership in parish life and as members of the Community of Sant’Egidio.  Elie has no prior knowledge of or input in this post.

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