Several years ago, just before Lent, I received a phone call from a friend. “My mom’s disappointed that I’m not practicing my faith,” he said. “So I ate some pancakes.” Knowing him well, I knew that was all he was going to do for Lent. He wasn’t going to fast, give alms or pray, much less go to confession or frequent communion. Did he really think that by indulging in some pancakes that he was returning to the practice of “his faith” and that somehow God would be pleased? It’s hard to believe that an otherwise educated, responsible, sane adult who attended a Catholic school and went to church most Sundays as a child could be so casual and ignorant about the faith. Unfortunately, I fear that the great majority of “Catholics,” at least in the affluent nations, are a lot like him.
Part of the problem is human nature. My two and a half year old son never says no to chocolate, french fries, pudding, or donuts. Getting him to eat “real food,” however, can be a battle. And he always wants to play. If he had his way, first thing in the morning he would go straight to his toys, without having his diaper changed and without breakfast. Older children will happily spend all day playing, but refuse to do 15 minutes of chores. And working adults generally wish they could have less working hours, more pay and more vacation time. Given human nature, most people also seem to want pleasurable, easy religion, one which makes no hard demands, and assures us that we will all go to heaven regardless of how we live our lives.
Then there’s the problem with the prevailing culture. From a physical perspective, life has gotten a lot easier. Women used to work their hands raw, scrubbing clothes on a washing board. It would take them hours to prepare meals “from scratch.” Housewives would scrub floors on their knees. A man’s life was no easier. He usually worked on farms, from sun up to sun down. Most of the work had to be done by hand, without machines and power tools. We now have more leisure time and are used to being entertained. We can afford luxuries and sensual indulgences that in the past could only be enjoyed by the upper classes. Many of us therefore expect our religion to entertain and indulge us. Today’s Church has to compete with Hockey Night in Canada, Silvercity and McDonald’s.
Finally, and most disappointingly, there’s the problem with today’s Church. When we, the creators of this website, showed it to members of the clergy, we were told to “avoid controversy and keep it positive.” Apparently, most of them have bought into the idea that a good Shrove Tuesday pancake breakfast with lots of syrup will do more to “bring the people in” than a “fire and brimstone” sermon. I don’t want to be unfair. I often hear sermons which begin Lent by stressing the need for conversion. But, always, it seems, the message is toned down. On any given Sunday, we are much less likely to hear “turn or burn” than “God loves you, no matter what.” Actually, both these statements are true; however, when we emphasize the latter, rather than the former, the message to the masses is, “It’s good if you give alms, fast, pray, attend Mass, go to confession, etc. However, even if you don’t, God loves you. He won’t strictly judge you and you don’t need to worry about hell.” That’s not exactly what most clergy are saying, but that is what the people are hearing. Should we then, as “serious” Catholics, be surprised by the person who has “pancakes for Lent” but does nothing else to improve his relationship with God?
However, human nature has an ironic twist: When religion is candy-coated and feel-good, people are less dedicated to it then when it calls them to self-sacrifice and mortification. Just compare the number of people attending Mass and entering religious life today to the number 50 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christianity’s fun, add-on indulgences such as pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, mistletoe and painting Easter eggs. These treats are certainly not bad. However, practising them does us no good if we don’t also do the “hard stuff” which our Lord calls us to. Have a holy Lent!