The Pharisee of the Gospel stands tall in the Temple of God, full of his own importance. He speaks to himself about himself full of himself. The word ‘I’ is used five times. We look on uncomfortably and listen to his disconcerting bragging and we get a sense of the extent to which this man has lost not only the sense of who God is but also the sense of who he is.
The publican at the back, not daring to raise his eyes, somehow reassures us. He acknowledges himself to be a sinner and he recognises God as merciful. All in all we can say, ‘He’s got it right.'
Contemporary culture, like the Pharisee, has mostly lost its sense of God. This loss is of critical importance because man is made in God’s image and likeness, and we can only know ourselves and how we should act when we know God. The more we lose the sense of God the more we lose a sense of who we ourselves are.
As Pope John Paul II used to remind us, the vacuum left by the loss of the presence or awareness of God is then filled by man who tries to replace the loss of God with himself, and soon every man becomes his own God, choosing for himself what is right or wrong. Man can now create his own reality, but whose reality will prevail? The strongest, of course, and the strongest will tell the rest of us what is right or wrong.
Inevitably we end up with the ‘tyranny of force’ or the ‘tyranny of Man’. Instead of obeying God’s plan we are forced to obey another man’s plan. And so instead of life being defined in terms of love it becomes defined in terms of a huge power struggle. Might is right!
We lose at the same time the sense of our identity as human beings and our sense of moral truth. The Pharisee in the Gospel had entirely lost the sense of his own sinfulness. How can this have happened to him, right there in the Temple? The answer is - bit by bit, step by step.
The loss of the sense of God can happen in the Church too, and many think it has already happened in the Western Church. Man has stepped into the vacuum.
For instance, today we think Mass is all about us, me, my needs and my feelings. We forget that Mass is, in the first place, all about God; our service, our worship of God. And so we stop going because ‘I don’t get anything out of it; I don’t like the singing; I don't like the priest.’
So we priests change the Mass to suit ourselves and our parishioners; we try to put smiles on everyone's faces. I was attending a Mass with a friend, a Sister, and we were both amazed at how, during the homily, the priest managed to induce a sort of coma in the congregation. Sister leaned over to me and whispered 'Palliative care.'
Fortunately the 'puppet Gospels' have gone, and so have the 'rock Masses'. But there is still so much joke telling, secular music, entertaining Powerpoint presentations, and 'applause' on any pretext. The rationale is: 'If they won’t come for God they might come if we make them feel good.'
We go from silliness to silliness and end in sacrilege. Many will applaud the novelties but not everyone. The thoughtful members of the congregation will shake their heads and lower their eyes with embarrassment or chagrin.
As the people lose the sense of what they are about at Mass they, too, try to fill the vacuum. Mainly they begin by talking a lot - before Mass, after Mass - even during Mass. Have you noticed how noisy our churches have become? The churches are now 'our' house, not God's house.
I had a housekeeper who, when I met her, had stopped going to church. She was an extremely intelligent and sensitive woman. She said, ‘Father, I constantly had the sense we were worshipping ourselves’.
And noise is not the only symptom of our loss of the sense of God. It was Pope Benedict XVI who coined the phrase ‘ecclesiastical occupational therapy’. He was trying to define the attitude that many were beginning to develop which saw the Church as a place to 'exercise their gifts’ rather than as a place to worship God. And so our churches have become not only places of noisiness but also places of busyness and constant movement.
There’s a fine line between a community worshipping God and a community celebrating itself. Perhaps the Pharisee standing before God celebrating himself is a helpful image for us to contemplate. And perhaps the publican, humbly asking forgiveness from God, is a good image upon which each Catholic community could base its renewal.