Here comes everybody!

Remember, O man, that you are dust….Repent and believe in the Gospel!


Back in 1966, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Constitution entitled Paenitemini  ( “Do penance!”) on the penitential discipline of Lent and the other laws of the Church in that area. Those were the heady days of the immediate post-Vatican II era when changes seemed to come every day in almost every aspect of Catholic life. The Pope started off by extolling the practice of penance and penitential discipline, already fully in place in the Western Church: fast and abstinence on the weekdays of Lent, the Vigils of great Feasts (hence the Italian custom of the big fish meal on Christmas Eve), the quarterly Ember Days, abstinence from meat on every Friday, as well as the voluntary penances people often imposed on themselves over and above these in Lent. However, as was so often the case of Pope Paul’s documents, the very thing he started off praising and extolling was abrogated or weakened by the end. Various “modern conditions” and “new insights” and being more “mature Christians” meant we could viitiate and renew all that old discipline. The upshot was that by the end of that year we were told that “we can eat meat on Friday now” and no longer needed to fast or abstain partially from meat on the weekdays of Lent. By 1970, the ancient penitential Ember Days and Vigils of great Feasts were also gone.  In place of the mandatory fasts and self-denials from meat, we were told to substitute more “meaningful” penances.

Forty-five years later I think we might be hard pressed to say that the remnant of practicing Catholics, clergy or laity, are today any more penitentially “mature” than in the “bad old days.”

Despite the Pope’s very fine statements about penance as a virtue and what it should be; few could argue today that his expressed desired aims have been achieved.

Ironically, the one thing that has occurred is surely not what the Pope intended: that a once visible and corporate season and days of penance have become private and individual; if not invisible.  Before 1966 one could see all around you in businesses, schools, and neighborhoods, evidence of Catholics (and indeed other Christians) abstaining from meat on certain days, taking small meals only in the morning or at lunch, all through Lent. Certainly more tuna fish and egg-salad sandwiches were consumed than at any other time since! We could see in our towns that in close proximity to every Catholic church were a bakery and a fish store.  After Mass, Catholics would buy rolls and buns now that the Communion Fast was broken and on Fridays would line up to buy their flounder filet.  Now we are “obliged” in one way or another to fast and abstain only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

I vividly remember some years ago when I was at Saint James Parish in Seaford finding myself with a few free hours in the late morning and early afternoon on a Good Friday. I went down to the Jones Beach boardwalk to walk and prepare myself for the Liturgy later that day. It was a bright and sunny spring day, and I thought I’d have a little lunch. I went into the main concession stand in the Central Mall to get a cup of clam chowder. The room was packed with people eagerly wolfing down hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken. On Good Friday!  I thought to myself  “Boy, there’s a lot of Jews here today!” with a wink and an inward sardonic smile.

What had happened?

A story is told of how in the 19th century the Jesuits of the United States wished to build a new seminary. They forwarded the plans to the “headquarters” of the Society in Rome. The plans came back with circles around some areas and a Latin quip: Suntne Angeli? (Are they Angels?). The earnest planners had neglected a minor detail: toilets and baths!

I wonder if we thought we were “angels” years ago and could “go beyond” the “old” practices? Or as flesh and blood men and women do we still need the more real rather than the abstract? Talk of fasting is no substitute for the sensation of an empty stomach denied a bigger lunch.

To be honest I wonder if Lent for many is basically six weeks of purple vestments and vague talk of “sinfulness” and “our journey towards Easter” as though somehow we’re not all going to get there on April 24th willy-nilly?

Tomorrow, as we have done from ages past, we begin the Season of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday and its blessing and imposition of ashes upon our foreheads.

Oddly enough it’s the last vestige of the old, deeply Catholic, notion of corporate penance. Thousands of people all over Long Island will walk around with the black smudge of ash on their foreheads for all to see. And by no means would all, or most, be what we might call “practicing Catholics”. They are often that derided group called “A & P Catholics”: Ashes and Palms.

True, but something draws them, and us, here.

Recently a brother priest remarked at a meeting that Ash Wednesday is the one thing we have where you don’t have to do anything, say anything, belong to anything (even non-baptized people can, and do, receive ashes.) You don’t have to “sign up”, sing, shake your neighbor’s hand, or even engage in “full, active, conscious participation”.

They just show up, at often inconvenient hours and times, “to get my ashes.”

I have long since learned not to despise these A’s & P’s and have given up trying to shoe-horn them into our neat liturgical boxes of when and where ashes will be distributed and “at no other times.”

Of course, everybody should be practicing their Faith and receive ashes in a context that is meaningful and even liturgical.

But in a Church where less than 20% practice their Faith at all, I’m not sure we can afford to be too smug about making them part of an “assembly”.

So, we open the doors of Saint Matthew’s at 6:30 AM and close them at 8:30 PM and we’ll see who comes and how demanding it might be upon priestly and diaconal nerves. But one thing I think it is safe to say, as the poet James Joyce said of the Catholic Church: Here comes everybody!

Shrove Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *