The Scandal of the Church’s Particularity

Shortly after he became pope in November 1958, John XXIII was asked: “How many people are working in the Vatican now?” With the humor that made him beloved all over the world, the Holy Father replied: “About half.”  
“About half” is a more than generous estimate of the number of baptized Catholics who will attend Mass this weekend. All of us know one (or more) of these inactive Catholics. If you know someone who feels no need to practice the Faith, don’t argue. Show that loved one a little of the patience the Lord has shown you in your own life. The decision to forego churchgoing is never final, as long as life continues. The example of our lives will always have greater power to convert than any words we can speak.

Many inactive Catholics say they continue to worship God, just not in the Catholic Church. Some are “nature worshipers.” They say they feel closer to God on the golf course, or on a drive or walk through the country, than at Mass. Others have joined the Electronic Church: They watch one of the preachers on television — almost all of them fundamentalist Protestants. Estimates of the Catholics in their large audience range up to 30 percent of the total. Finally, there are the Catholics who still go to church, but not to Mass. All of these Catholics who are no longer with us share one thing in common: dissatisfaction with Mass in their own Church. They find our Sunday worship cold, impersonal, boring, and irrelevant to their needs. What has turned them off is the scandal of the Church’s particularity.
That is a long name for something very simple. The Church’s particularity means our belief that God is present in particular ways, in particular places, at particular times. Catholics believe, for instance, that when, with a priest, we obey Jesus’ parting command to “do this in my memory,” the bread and wine on the altar are no longer ordinary bread and wine but truly the body and blood of our risen and glorified Lord. At that particular time, and in that particular place, God is present in a special way.
That is a tremendous claim. It upsets a lot of people. Especially upset are the nature worshipers. God is everywhere, they say. That’s true — God is everywhere. Since we are not angels, however, but bodily creatures of time and space, we are unlikely to experience God’s presence everywhere unless we experience Him somewhere in particular. Hence, God gives us certain times and places where He is present with a special intensity: in the Eucharist, for instance, or in a building set apart for worship. God’s presence in such particular places does not diminish His presence elsewhere, however, any more than the sun’s light is diminished when we use a magnifying glass to focus sunlight onto a leaf or piece of paper until it burns.
It is not only the Church’s particularity that turns many people off, but also its shabbiness. And let’s face it: Often the Church is shabby. The Mass may be badly celebrated and the sermon unprepared, rambling, and boring. The people round us are often strangers, some of them perhaps not “our kind.”  
No wonder that many people find the Electronic Church, or Protestant worship, more attractive. On TV, the preacher is always well-prepared; the singing is lively and on key; the congregation is squeaky clean. Moreover, much Protestant worship has a genuine warmth and fervor too often lacking in our Catholic parishes. Some years ago, an ecumenical service with Lutherans drew a congregation that filled our enormous Cathedral in St. Louis. You could tell it was Protestant because of the volume of singing. You could tell it was Catholic because there was a baby crying. That says it all: Often what goes on in Catholic churches is unattractive, cold, irrelevant — in a word, shabby.
Yet it is precisely amid this shabbiness that we encounter God. He seems to like shabby surroundings. When God came to us in human form, He chose to be born not in the glamour and sophistication of Athens or Rome, but in a backward village on the fringe of the civilized world. The stable and manger at Bethlehem were not romantic like our Christmas cribs. They were smelly and dirty. Today, Mary would shelter her son not in a stable but in a garage.  
The Catholic Church calls itself “the one true Church” — another example of that particularity that offends people. In claiming to be the one true Church, we are not saying that other churches are false. The Catechism says: “The sole Church of Christ . . . subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines” (870). The phrase “one true Church” means simply that the Catholic Church is, in the fullest sense, the representative today of the body founded by Jesus Christ.
The Catechism says that this radiance is visible, however, “only [through] faith” (812). It is not the worldly radiance of wealth, impressive church buildings, or power. Today, those outward trappings are being taken from us. The Church’s true radiance is inward and spiritual. We have the precious jewels of Holy Scripture, of the sacraments, of the heroisms large and small of innumerable Christians of all ages and both sexes. Most of these people are known only to God.
The Bible’s final book describes, in poetic language, a vision of the worship of God in heaven. The writer says at one point: “I saw no temple in the city” (Rev 21:22). Of course not! There will be no church buildings in heaven, no sacraments, no priests. None of these will be necessary, for we shall see God face to face.
Here and now, however, we do need these particular times and places where God has promised to be with us in special ways. People who claim to worship God everywhere in general but nowhere in particular are starry-eyed romantics, acting as if they were already in heaven while they are still on earth. The same is true of people who look for a “pure” Church with no shabbiness. A pure Church would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Can we be confident, however, that a really pure Church would have room for sinners as shabby as ourselves?
For those with eyes to see and ears to hear; for those humble enough to accept God’s ways instead of insisting on their own; for people willing to respond to the Lord’s invitation instead of pursuing their own romantic dreams — for all such people, here is all the power of God and all His love. Here is all the radiance of His glory. Here, as we “do this” at Jesus’ command and in His memory, is medicine for sick sinners: nourishing, strengthening food for us, God’s weary and often shabby pilgrims, as we trudge onward to that heavenly city that is our true and eternal home — the heavenly Jerusalem described in Revelation, with no darkness and “no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev 21:23). 

  • Rev. John Jay Hughes

    Born in New York City in 1928, John Jay Hughes is a retired priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and a Church historian.

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