Catholic Herald, 14 June 1991
Strange how, after more than 20 years, the exchange of a sign of peace towards the end of mass should still cause unease. Of all the changes in the liturgy one would have thought this the easiest to assimilate, if not welcome.
Yet I have seen people stand rigid with embarrassment, and know others who find the sign of peace an affront and invasion of personal space. As if some disgraceful gesture had been mooted. Once someone put their tongue out at me when I extended my paw, with a smile at the ready.
The kiss of peace used to be restricted to the clergy (remember?) but the custom that dates from the early church was restored to us all by Vatican II. Cardinal Lustiger suggests that we become “artisans of peace”, sharing not a personal peace, but the peace of Christ.
Fr Ian Petit believes that the church is reminding us that we who share the Christian life are too often divided, and that the sign is of unity and forgiveness.
Is it our cold British character that objects to pressing the flesh of strangers? In America, apparently, the exchange of the sign can hold up the mass for 15 minutes while absolutely everybody greets everyone else.
Some might recoil at such an outburst of exuberant chumminess, or doubt its sincerity. Personally, I find that the modern liturgy has several distractions that interrupt the natural flow of the mass – the acclamation after the consecration for example.
But the sign of peace occurs at a natural pause, and has always seemed to me a good moment to recognise that we gather as a community, not just “me and my God.” If we take home with us even a shred of the peace that passes all understanding the angels will rejoice. And a smile, don’t forget, uses less facial muscles than a frown.
I don’t know if God smiles at the knowledge that opinion polls show that the majority of people believe in his existence. The polls also show a marked decline in attendance at church services.
There would seem to be a contradiction here. Professor Dobbelaere of the Catholic University in Leuven believes one reason for the decline in church attendance is because God has become, for many people, an abstract notion, a general principle rather than a personal loving father. As our relationships in the world become more and more impersonal, as faceless people working for the state take care of our physical and psychological needs, so does our relationship with God become more impersonal.
And as man takes more and more control over his own earthly progress, God becomes less and less necessary to him. Man as an individual can plan and control large areas of his life, and if he can’t there is some professional who can.
So who needs God except now and then – for baptisms, weddings, funerals?
As for sin, perish the thought – is it not simply a technical failure by part of a person that has little to do with the whole?
The sociologist’s findings offer an interesting pointer as to why some people no longer practice their faith. There must be as many reasons as there are lapsed.
The Decade of Evangelisation was launched six months ago partly to staunch that flow, but there is much more to it than that. It is a daunting concept to grasp (the very words are rather clumsy, something snappier would help), but though it’s early days yet, parishes are beginning to get to grips with what the decade means to them.
I would like to use this column, every half year or so, as a forum where ideas and initiatives could be aired. To kick off, I asked four parishes (two in the north, two in the south) to share their plans with you. I am very grateful for their kind help, and apologise for having to condense their imaginative schemes into so small a space, but the flavour is there.
The parish in Fareham, Hampshire, has chosen a totally ecumenical platform (popular with the other parishes too) and began its planning two years ago. The local council of churches delivered a good news programme to every household in the area, and an invitation to a Call-In Centre, open during Lent, where people could go to find out more, or just have a chat.
Work-packs and videos of the Christian life were circulated among the schools, and a massive poster campaign organised. By pooling the skills of members from all the different churches, unnecessary duplication was avoided: “do ecumenically everything that can be done together.”
A very positive result was the forming of a lively and proficient ecumenical music group.
Talks on a theme
In Thatcham, Berkshire, the parish organised different speakers to talk on the theme of evangelisation, which sounds like an excellent introduction to the decade. Two members of this parish will attend the evangelisation summer school, arranged by the diocese at La Sainte Union College of Higher Education in Southampton.
There are plans for a parish mission later in the year, and a lending library for spiritual books is proposed. The importance of information gathering is stressed; you can’t reach people if you don’t know who or where they are, what they need, and if they would like to join in.
A strong ecumenical tide flows in Kirkbymoorside, Yorkshjre, with four traditions making up the Ryedale Christian Council. Bible and theology study groups are proposed, a youth day and social events to involve the young, and a special emphasis is placed on bringing in new members to existing groups, and new leaders.
I like their idea of a travelling team to visit outlying areas. Dr Donald English, president of the Methodist conference, gave impetus to these initiatives when he spoke in Kirkbymoorside on the themes of worship, fellowship, spirituality, lifestyle, neighbourhood service and influence.
I need hardly say that prayer is the vital heart and core of all these parish activities. I think you’ll agree that an exchange of ideas could be helpful to us all during this decade.
If your parish has any interesting plans afoot, do please let me know at the usual address. I would specially like to hear from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, but all the hopes (and disappointments) will encourage and stimulate others.
Salt of earth
From Hyde, in Cheshire, I received a copy of a sermon on the meaning of evangelisation by Fr Rod Strange. These splendid words go directly to the heart of the matter, ourselves: “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the wotld.”
Like salt and light we are not the whole, but part of the whole. We can never evangelise by imposition but must let the gift of faith so possess us, the mystery so overwhelm us, that what we have received is not only a blessing to us, but a service to others.
It’s almost an insult to allow you only a glimpse of this excellent sermon. If it is published I will let you know.
It encourages one to believe that however ill-equipped we may feel to cope with this decade, whatever our age or condition, we can be a point of light in the darkness and give zest to the living of the gospel.