I am 61 years old. For 47 years, I went to church in large part because our first-grade teacher at St. Andrew grade school, Sister Josephita, told us that if we didn’t go to Sunday Mass every week, we would end up going to “H-E-double toothpicks.” Years later, I went on a White House Jesuit Retreat and met Jesus. Now, I attend Sunday Mass because I love spending time with Him. I love Him.
I think many people attend Sunday Mass out of obligation versus out of love. Attending Sunday Mass out of obligation is a good start, but you really don’t get to experience the full love, joy and peace of our Catholic faith. Compare doing anything out of obligation versus out of love. Obligation is more of a legal requirement. Love is something I really want to do. When obligated, my needs are usually the center of my attention. When in love, the other person (or God in this case) is the center of my attention.
Obligation implies that we do the minimum required. We do just enough to pass. It’s like taking a class and shooting for a “C” grade instead of trying for an “A.” Obligation suggests that we count the minutes until it’s over because our heart really isn’t in it. We really don’t want to be there. Obligation suggests that we don’t like talking about it, unless it is to complain, and we may even feel embarrassed being part of it.
Love, on the other hand is different. With love, there are no limits. You want to spend as much time as you can with the other person. You try to stay in constant communication. You can’t wait to see the other person again. You plan for the next time you will be together. When you are in love, you are willing to give everything you have for the other person. When you are in love, you want to tell the whole world about it!
Now, I am not blaming Sister Josephita for my immature faith life, that’s on me. God was always there talking to me, I was just too self-centered to listen. When I think of her now, I am grateful that she cared enough for the welfare of my soul, talking in a way that I could understand as a first-grader.
Just like our human relationships, our relationship with God will take time to grow and deepen. And, just like our human relationships, if we want to become friends with someone, we have to take time to talk with them to get to know them. To grow in love and friendship requires patience and humility on our part. (And, more than one hour a week at Sunday Mass).
The question in many parishes is how do we encourage people to return to Sunday Mass? Let’s focus on helping people mature in their love and friendship with God. Let’s encourage people to attend Sunday Mass because they want to be there and not out of obligation. How? Let’s build a path of discipleship for everyone — from the person in our parish community that is barely hanging on to their belief to the person that is one breath from sainthood.
Pick a couple of family members, friends or neighbors who may have stalled in the obligation phase of their faith life and share your God story with them. You’ll help each grow in friendship with God and with each other. In our parish communities, maybe it’s time to reorganize our structures, processes and ministries to help people take those small, incremental steps on their path to holiness.
Let’s help everyone take one step closer to God. Let’s make disciples. Let make disciples into disciple-makers. Let’s help people move from obligation to love for God.
Baranowski is the director of stewardship education in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He and his wife are parishioners at Mary, Mother of the Church in south St. Louis County. He can be reached at (314) 792-7215 or [email protected]