CathBlog - Empty spaces in the pews

Some people are multi skilled. I don’t mean everyday multi-skilling, like simultaneously holding a crying baby on your hip, madly tossing the stir-fry ingredients around the pan and having a deep and meaningful conversation with an 8 year old, but skills like knitting, playing the piano, riding a horse, navigating obscure (to me) computer programs and making a sponge, to name a few. I’ve tried them and given up because I found them hard going and lacked the necessary stick-at-it to master the processes involved.  

I’m sure most of us can remember clubs, organisations or groups that we have joined, been part of for a time, then, through boredom or changing circumstances, we drifted away. Our churches are a bit the same. We look at them, large buildings often with seating for several hundred, and we assume that because we don’t fill it three times over every Sunday, then something is very wrong. The reasons our churches were so large and easily filled lies partly in geography and the way society was back when these same churches were built. In our grandparent’s time and earlier, young people were socialised into the faith. The church was the centre of faith life. Generally speaking babies were baptised, went to a catholic school, then married someone from a similar community. Today, because we are such a mobile society, the way we live, work, recreate, communicate and worship has changed enormously.

When we look at the empty spaces in the pews we’re inclined to believe that it’s the fault of the people who we think should be there. Maybe they should. I don’t really know. What I do know is that Jesus fed 5000 people, then ended up soon after with just a little band headed by Peter.  What Jesus had to say, the blunt way he expressed it, was seen as intolerable by those men and women, and they walked away just as many walk away from their faith community when they come up against things that they find intolerable. In any gathering there will be one or more who no longer “go to church”, or call themselves a lapsed catholic. The reasons are legion: “I had enough religion at school to last me a lifetime”, a remarriage after a divorce, a case of sexual abuse by a familiar and trusted Church figure, a choice to use contraception, Sunday sport and shopping …. the list could go on and on.  

In the years after Jesus died it took faith, not to mention courage, determination and a strong will, to join the fringe movement that gathered around the apostles sharing their memories of him. Becoming a follower of Jesus, a Christian, was an adult thing, a deliberate choice that involved struggle and conflict. Twelve hundred years later St Thomas Aquinas said that every choice is a renunciation. That informed choice to follow Jesus through Baptism has eroded through the centuries. We baptise babies and trust that the personal choice will follow later. Often it doesn’t and baptism or christening has just been a cultural rite of passage that has lost its real meaning.

We  baptize and hope that faith will follow. What if it was the other way around, and Baptism was the sealing of a freely chosen and informed following of Jesus ? Are we brave enough to begin to face these kinds of questions as we live out our own faith journey?

Judith Lynch is a freelance writer who lives in Melbourne.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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