Only Shakespeare can compete with the Bible in the number of quotable, immediately recognizable, quotes used in English. Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde don’t come even close. Others – like Churchill, de Gaulle and I – have to be content with one or three at best. (My own favorite is : “I’ve always been proud of my modesty.”)
The thought behind the title’s quotation came to mind when, out of curiosity, I recently attended a Sunday Mass (a Ripley “Believe it or not ” !). I’ve visited plenty of chapels, churches and cathedrals over the years, and occasionally, as chance would have it, some religious service was being conducted, including a Mass. But this time I made a deliberate decision to join a congregation for the celebration of the Eucharist, commonly called the “Mass” – a word derived from the priest’s dismissal of the attendees at the very end of the liturgy : “Ite, missa est.” “Go, you are sent.” Go figure.
I was, of course, just an observer, not a participant let alone celebrant of the Mass. Exactly fifty years ago, 1968, I celebrated my last Mass in Paris. My first Mass, in 1961, was a concelebration with my two brothers, ordained five and ten years before me, at our home parish church of St Patrick in Kogarah, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. That somewhat spectacular Mass had, of course, a congregation which packed and in fact overflowed the church. In the early sixties, parish churches were filled several times (in large parishes sometimes up to five or six times) every Sunday. The Mass I recently attended was not a weekday Mass where congregations have always been small, even in the pious past of my youth. This was a Sunday Mass, but the church was virtually empty. I could not help thinking of a cinema, a concert hall or an auditorium where only a handful of people turn up. People vote, as we say, with their feet.
Sitting in my pew towards the back of the church, my thought was not limited to wondering what the scattered old ladies, the occasional retired gentlemen and the two young couples with children – there were no adolescents – felt about the emptiness of the vast edifice. I could not but wonder what the priest-celebrant was feeling about the paucity of participants as he came out of the sacristy, decked out in his gothic chasuble, alb and maniple (a useless bit of embroidered cloth over his left arm) and began the introductory prayers. I had done this myself every day for seven years in my twenties. Now in my eighties, I not only wonder why I did it, but especially why the poor dude up there in the sanctuary is still doing it. (What if they had a war and nobody came . . . ?)
Before he began to speak to the people (instead of to God, as he had been doing) – from the sanctuary, the pulpit having been left unused for years – I wondered what on earth he was going to say. I wondered whether he had really prepared a sermon, or was about to wing it. And, in any case, I wondered whether he could possibly say something he had not said multiple times before. Above all I wondered how long voices like his would continue to be heard in the wilderness of empty churches.
Naturally, there were no surprises. He rambled on about what the Gospel text said Jesus had said or done, and attempted to encourage the good folk to do what Jesus was said to have commanded them to do – in this case, to forgive their enemies. With all due respect to both the preacher and his passive audience, the former was not very convincing nor the latter particularly convinced. But this was the drill, and it would go on like this until there are neither priests nor congregations to go through the motions. I was sitting on the deck of the Titanic.
I did not bother to stay for the rest of the Mass. I felt pity for the priest, sadness for the blindfaithblindfolly of the tiny congregation, and . . . glad I got the hell out of the priesthood at 31 years of age, fifty years ago, and found the courage to give myself a life. God knows what I would have become had I stayed as an officer on the sinking ship that is the barque of Peter, the luxury liner “S.S. Vatican”.