Atheist Field Hospital

By Fr. Christopher Roberts - Union City, Indiana, USA - 1 March 2017



It is an exceedingly rare thing for me, a pastor of two parishes, to be present at Sunday worship where I am not presiding.  Happily, family business recently took me away from my two parishes in rural Indiana to Oxford University.  While there, I had an opportunity to learn from seeing others ply my trade.  After celebrating Mass in the convent chapel where I was staying, I sampled Sunday worship in two different churches in Oxford and visited another.  What I observed gave me a powerful illustration of two different approaches to proclaiming the Christian message and of which of the two corresponds more closely to effective pastoral practice as I have known it in my own experience.

My first stop was for choral Matins at Christ Church Cathedral, where Blessed John Henry Newman received his Anglican ordination.  The choristers sang the appointed psalms, canticles, and hymns beautifully.  The sermon was thoughtful and well-crafted.  The preacher skillfully weaved in references to Queen (not the Queen, but the music group), Bono, the Syrian Civil War, his personal experience, Hayek’s economic theories, Trump, Brexit and even a few references to the Bible.  His words presented a model of erudition and subtlety.  For a moment, I felt a tinge of envy.  I thought to myself, if only I could preach like that!


Yet, as I walked out of the cathedral to stop at a nearby café, a question lingered, “What did he actually say?”  This Anglican clergyman, whom I had learned from his sermon was a Cambridge man, clearly had entered into dialogue with the contemporary world.  He knew popular culture, politics, and economics quite well.  But as I nursed my cappuccino, I mulled over what his unique contribution to this dialogue was as a believer in Christ.  He mentioned the theological meaning of Advent and something about Jesus as an event in God that lies beyond the limits of human language.  He referenced a miraculous birth.   I got the impression that we who listened to him were somehow to make sense of the cacophony of his contemporary references by contemplating the Christmas mystery -- whatever that is.


Without a doubt, the service spoke to my aesthetic sensibility.  The music was flawless, the church edifice hauntingly ancient, and the sermon sonorous.  Despite all that, I could not help but walk away with a sense of hollowness.  Almost all the sparse crowd of worshippers looked to be of retirement age or older.  A searching inventory of those present taken from my seat uncovered only one family with children.  For all of the fading beauty of holiness, what I had just seen was the portrait of a dying church.


Having finished my coffee, I decided to walk past the Eagle and Child Pub to Saint Aloysius, the Oxford Oratory Parish.  I arrived thirty minutes late, just as the offertory had begun.  The Mass was a Sung Mass in Latin, with a priest and two deacons.  I thought it was the older rite at first, but in a few minutes it was clear that it was the newer rite in Latin, seasoned heavily with Tridentine affectations.  The choir sang well, but not nearly as well as the choristers in Christ Church Cathedral.  A decade ago, I had heard the Oratorian priest who was celebrating the Mass preach.  My recollection was the he lacked the rhetorical polish that I had heard just an hour earlier. 


Despite lasting nearly ninety minutes, the Mass at Saint Aloysius was standing room only.   A spirit of worship saturated the church.  Billowing clouds of incense filled the sanctuary with aromatic smoke.  The priest stood in the breach facing the apse offering the Holy Sacrifice.  The faithful knelt in adoration with their faces in their folded hands as the thrice-holy God descended.  A wide range of age groups filled the church, from the elderly who needed canes to make it up to kneel at the communion rail to young children, cradled in their mothers’ arms.  As I knelt in a cramped corner near a pillar, it dawned on me that those who had come to this church had not come to hear interesting and edifying religious ideas expounded from the pulpit or even beautiful music.  They had gathered together to render worship to God because it is fitting so to do. 


In the din that followed the dismissal, I heard several people speaking Spanish and Italian.  Economic circumstances in southern European nations have brought many economic migrants to fill the service jobs in the Oxford area.   Here, I thought to myself, was an inclusive congregation that welcomed across the entire socio-economic spectrum.  Neither an appreciation for erudition from the pulpit nor musical taste brought them together.  Worship did.


From Saint Aloysius, I walked to Saint Mary the Virgin, the Anglican Church where Newman preached many of his Parochial and Plain Sermons before his conversion.  As I prayed in the church, I thought of his epitaph, ex imaginibus et umbris in veritatem (out from appearances and shadows into the truth).  As I waited in the gift shop for my turn to go up to the bell tower and take in a panoramic view of Oxford, a book caught my eye, The Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing.  Intrigued by what seemed to me an oxymoron, I paused to thumb through the slender tome as the queue crawled forward.  The incumbent vicar at Saint Mary the Virgin had written the book, which urged the church to accompany and integrate into its life those who are unable to believe in God but still desire to belong.


It is fashionable these days in the Catholic Church to talk about accompanying and integrating all different categories of persons whom the Church has allowed to linger on the margins in the past.  Those who advocate such approaches do so largely because they see it as pastorally effective.  The logic goes something like, “lower the bar far enough, and those who had felt excluded by this or that discipline of the Church will come in.”  The doors should be open to all who are seeking God in good conscience.  This theory holds an embedded assumption that clearly articulated doctrine and rigorous discipline drive people away from religious belief and practice.    


As someone who has actually been a pastor of souls, I have reservations about such an approach.  In my experience, it is hopelessly subjective and confusing for both the shepherd and the sheep.  Seeking God with a good conscience necessarily includes the willingness to obey an authority higher than oneself.  The process of embracing such obedience may be messy and complicated, but it remains indispensible.  It is indispensible because worshipping God in spirit and truth is impossible without obedience.


I am a priest in the diocese where I was baptized, made my first communion, and was confirmed.  In 1999, we had two seminarians.  Parish closures and consolidations loomed on the horizon on account of a forecasted dire priest shortage.  At the same time, some priests and lay faithful in my diocese made a concerted effort to revive what many saw as two antiquated, archaic practices, frequent confession and Eucharistic adoration.  The plan was simple.  If we improved both the quantity and quality of our worship, priestly vocations would surely follow.  In recent years, my diocese has averaged more ordinations annually than the total number of seminarians that we had in 1999.   This turnaround came from beginning to rediscover the meaning of worship, not from lowering the bar in an attempt to dialogue with and accommodate the world on the world’s terms.


My experience as a priest is that successful pastoral outreach is impossible without authentic worship that arises from obedience.  Since my ordination nearly ten years ago, I have easily visited five hundred homes of families in parishes to which I have been assigned.  Most of these visits took place during the first six years of my ministry.   A prime motivation for making so many pastoral calls was to get beyond ideological presuppositions that I had acquired in seminary and see what actually works in a pastoral setting.  One of the iron-clad truths that emerged from these experiences was that encouraging regular confession, commitment to spending at least twenty minutes daily in contemplative prayer, and regular Sunday worship was far more effective than playing the role of amateur therapist, conversing about hobbies, or discussing popular culture with the people I hoped to serve. 


The most important dialogue that the Church can have in the modern world is with God Himself through worship rooted in obedience.   For the past three and half years, I have been a pastor of two small parishes in one of the poorer parts of Indiana where the population declines annually about one percent.  My pastoral focus during this period of time has been confession of sin, meaningful daily prayer, and the importance of Sunday worship.  Some of my parishioners would probably call it an obsessive focus.  By God’s grace, Mass attendance has increased by almost twenty-five percent in the past three years.  Outreach to the poor has expanded dramatically in the same period of time.  Conversation with God captivates and energizes the Church.  The obedience necessary for authentic worship is demanding, but it points the only way toward growth in a secularizing culture.  Conversely, worldly dialogue signposts a sure road to empty churches.             

My experience in Oxford made clear the pitfall arising from pastoral approaches that place a high premium on dialogue with the world on the world’s terms.  Not only does it risk compromising the integrity of the faith, it is also ineffective.  That is, it is ineffective unless one sees living in a sparsely-populated church of “Christian Atheists” as an acceptable outcome.