Do you ever stop to think that, roughly speaking, nine out of ten Catholics in Australia no longer come to Mass? That's a lot of people! It means that there should be another nine people sitting exactly where you are sitting.
There are many reasons for their absence - the analysts of such things have a lot to say - materialism, individualism, secularism, relativism, and so on and so on. Then there are the scandals, terrible scandals. Confusion and anger are everywhere; people are 'fed up' say the experts.
Which leaves us with a question, a rather interesting question: Why are you still here? Why am I still here?
What is it that keeps us coming to Church every Sunday? Why are we still hopeful and faithful? Why is it that the terrible spiritual drought which is sweeping the Western world has overlooked us? Are we the silly ten percent? Are we blind to the signs of the times? Have we been left behind while the modern world journeys on to a glorious future?
Jeremiah offers us a number of images today but one stands out amongst the others - the image of a tree planted by a running stream. Actually, it's not a tree, it's a man, or if you prefer, a woman. This tree is an image of a true disciple. Although there is drought and devastation all around, it stands quietly by the waterside, its foliage green, its branches full of fruit. The secret of its vigour lies hidden from those who have no eyes for what is good.
It thrusts its roots to the stream.
'So how do we get to be like that tree?' I hear you ask. 'Where is that water? Where is that sunny river bank where I can plant myself and grow to mature holiness? I want to be a real disciple, I want to be like Jesus!'
The answer is as simple as it is challenging - the Church.
The Church is the sheepfold protected by the Shepherd, it is the Bride beloved of the Bridegroom, it is the New Israel formed on the Cross, it is People of God empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Church is the river of running water beside which we are planted. Jesus saves us in the Church.
For many and varied reasons, as well as just ignorance, it seems the ninety percent who should be present here today no longer really believe that the Church is necessary and have turned their backs on it. But like it or not, when we turn our backs on the Church we turn our backs on Christ, and on the one who sent him.
This truth would cause us all to despair if it were not for another very consoling truth: Christ never turns his back on us. There is always room for hope, but no room at all for complacency.
So here's some free advice for wannabe healthy trees:
- Believe what the Church believes and only what the Church believes. Don't add; don't subtract. When we do this we 'unplant' ourselves; we pull ourselves up by the roots and can no longer drink the cool water of Christ's truth.
- Get to know your faith. I Googled 'tree near water' and came up with a huge dead tree standing beside a beautiful river. Getting to know your faith is equivalent to 'thrusting your roots to the stream'. If you don't know your faith, if you can't explain it to others, you haven't yet 'thrust your roots' down and are at grave risk when the drought comes.
- Be scrupulously faithful to Sunday Mass. Don't let anything except the most major circumstances keep you from your Sunday Mass. To miss Mass for no good reason is not only to dig up the tree but to cut it into pieces.
- Make a habit of regular Confession to the priest. So many church-going Catholics today excuse themselves from face to face Confession of their mortal sins by saying 'it's not necessary, we just have to make an act of contrition.' There is only one problem with this - it's not Church teaching - it's just an opinion without any power to save.
- Develop a real prayer life. Prayer is a major exercise in pushing our roots down into the rich soil of God's love and drawing from him the grace to live good lives.
- Develop a sense of 'being Catholic'. Our Catholic faith is gift. It is not an insult to a Protestant or a Hindu or a Moslem if we say 'I am a Catholic and I'm proud of it'. We belong to Christ - in the Catholic Church - and we seek to draw into the sheepfold those who are searching for him.
The modern world does not make it easy today to be serious Christians. There are strong, unremitting forces at work drawing us away from faith and any sort of committed spiritual life. We are, in a sense, 'under attack'. So my final exhortation would be that parents take seriously their role as the first teachers of the faith to their children. The day will come when the parents will no longer be around. How reassuring it will be for them to know that their children will feel no alarm when the heat comes and have no worries in a year of drought!