As I reported in my book, Catholic churches are emptying at an astonishing rate. What’s the reason? The answer can be found in an excellent article by Chimamanda Adichie that appeared a couple of months ago in the Atlantic. “Raised Catholic” should be required reading for any priest, nun, monk, or Church official who wants to find out why so many people have stopped going to mass in the Western World. Growing up in Nigeria, she loved the church service as a child. The sensory stimulation, the smells of incense, the sounds of bells and music, the majestic robes of the priests, the poetry of the liturgy, and the mystery it all conjured up made her feel part of a group, a tribe, as she took part in the rituals. She longed to be a priest.
And then as a teenager, skepticism crept in, as it does for so many of us. She began to see the mean side of the Church, the disdain for non-Catholics, the ban on intermarriage, the petty humiliations, the punishments, the swagger of the priests, the insistence on the letter of canon law, while ignoring the spirit.
This could be the story of many of the world’s religions. There is a fascination with the rituals, a powerful sense of belonging to the group, a satisfaction in knowing that your people have an answer to that most troubling question on earth: why are we here?
But then we, or at least some, begin to see the problem with the other side of the coin. If my tribe is right, then yours must be wrong, and that means you are a threat to us. I must either convert you, shun you, or kill you. If my leader has a monopoly on truth, then anyone who raises questions must be expelled or the foundations of the system will crumble.
The most important part of Adichie’s article is when she tells us that she never thought of compassion as a tenet of the Church… and then Francis came along. Pope Francis inspires her not through his humility, but through his humanity. Her article says so beautifully what many lapsed Catholics around the world must find stirring in their hearts: Let’s stop judging each other and start helping those who need it.
But this is not just for Catholics. There is a universalist message here. It doesn’t matter so much whether you kneel and take a wafer of wheat in your mouth Sunday morning or if you stand on your head chanting the 35 names of the Creator. Do that, by all means, if it anchors you with a sense of belonging to a tribe. We all need to belong to something. But don’t stop there. What really matters is how we treat each other, even those outside our group and that’s called Humanism. Francis seems to be inching his way in that direction, dragging the Holy See with him in spite of itself. We’ll see how far he gets….more power to him.