The title of this blog refers to the prayer Catholics say before receiving Communion at Mass. A humble centurion, a Roman, a pagan, said this as he asked Jesus to cure his servant who was gravely ill. In the full Biblical text, the centurion first sends Jewish believers to make the request of Jesus. Maybe he felt unworthy as a Roman centurion and a non-believer. And perhaps he was afraid to offer some deference to a man the Romans were watching and many detesting. But something in him stirred a belief in this Jesus. Perhaps he had watched him among the crowds when Jesus taught. Surely, he knew of Jesus’s compassion and healing. Even as Jesus approached the centurion’s house, the centurion sends friends to tell him, “I am not worthy, just give the order…” Jesus says, “I have never found so much faith among the Israelites.” The servant is healed!
I share this with you because last Sunday I attended an outdoor Mass at my new parish. I arrived at an assembly of happy people gathered under a grove of trees preparing to celebrate. There was happy chatter before Mass and children ran freely among their families and friends. I have to say it was a gorgeous morning and its family atmosphere registered a 10 on a scale of 10 being the best.
So why are many believers leaving their congregations of worship now? According to PEW research, a national research think tank on many American issues, 39% of Catholics attend Mass weekly while 45% of Protestants attend their services. However, between 2000 to 2017, Catholic membership had increased from 45 million to 75 million and 10% were not practicing their faith. I suspect this is a higher number today given the consequences of covid. But I think the reasons for people choosing not to attend church regularly are mainly vested in anger for clerical child abuse, disdain for requests for money, experiences with clergy that are personal and bitter. On the other hand, there is also the secularization of our culture, worldwide. We simply can’t find time to ‘squeeze in’ the worship we owe our God and ourselves.
Still the vexing problem of decreasing parish membership is a paramount concern for leaders of all faiths. A discussion on the improvement of any congregation would take much more than this blog can offer. Some reform must begin at the center of theological change among scholars in seminaries and institutions of higher learning. and committees working with the hierarchy who hold offices in charge of the various elements of a particular religion’s life and worship. Some changes, however, are easily implemented with a pastoral and insightful person who is not afraid of the hierarchical structure of a religion but is obedient to the call of the Spirit. With such a person leading a congregation, the people will flourish.
The growth of any religious community is not completely dependent on its ordained or commissioned ministers. It is mostly dependent on the community itself. We should not think that we ‘have’ to go to church or synagogue, or mosque. Yes, it is a prescription for some of us, but it is more of a commitment to something larger than ourselves. It is a commitment that makes the act of worship fuller for everyone present with us; it makes the community which stands before God, like the Hebrews of the Scriptures who joyfully reached out to God appealing for blessings on their lives. When one of us is not present, the community and ourselves are weakened.
It is true that one can pray to God alone and still be heard and loved. That is called private prayer. But in common worship, the offering takes all our hands, all our hearts, to lift all our souls to God. We hear more in the lessons read. We take in more in the bread and wine. We are moved more in the prayers prayed and sung in common. We are about the business of making God more visible in all our lives.
We all have a little bit of the centurion in us. We are afraid to walk into our place of worship if we’ve been away for a while. We are a little nervous about appearing as if we’ve changed, seen the light, so to speak, been converted. We watch from afar hoping something or someone will engage us and lead us to the threshold. We know God or Jesus can heal us, or someone we love. If we get as far as the church door, we know we will fall into a brokenness of guilt. Shards of sin all around us. How can I go in, we say. I’m not a sterling believer.
But this thinking, my friend, is what healed the centurion’s servant. His humility welcomed Jesus inside, not his person. He realized that it is not my ‘going to my faith community;’ it is Jesus, or God, coming to my rescue, entering my house of prayer, coming under my roof. And I am unworthy because God comes to find me and cure me. In the Catholic tradition, Jesus comes in bread and wine to enter me, under my roof, and I am made whole.
For this week, meditate on the story of the centurion and if you are not worshipping in community and think you are called to do so, reflect on the ways you might initiate that part of your life’s journey.
Perhaps you know of someone who needs encouragement to become a member of a faith community. Offer to assist in a kind way.
None of us is worthy to welcome him under our roof, but wonders await us when we do. Luke 7:1-10