Not solely as a result of issues that have been brought to my attention over the last couple of days, it seems apt to me that someone should offer some thoughts on the nature of good church-going from a priest’s point of view. Hopefully the following remarks may prove of benefit to at least some of you who read them, and make your experience of parish life more fruitful.
1. Support the Liturgy. Little in terms of parish life is more central than the Liturgy. The purpose of the community coming together is to glorify God by seeking Him out in the Holy Mysteries, NOT the other way around. The more we realise this and appropriate it to ourselves, the more we will gain from the Church on a personal, spiritual, communal, and mystical level. In this respect, if the Liturgy is being celebrated in accordance with the Church’s instructions, and if it is being celebrated in a spirit of prayer and devotion, then one becomes entirely able to abandon oneself to the sacred action; if, on the other hand, the Liturgy is too subjective; too much the product of the priest’s personal sensibilities; too much the result of pressure from one special interest within the parish community, then it ceases to be for the benefit of all and a genuine source of nourishment derived from the Church. Indeed, this point cannot be overstated. Allowing the ancient liturgies of the Church to be hijacked by any one person’s, or group’s, interest, is to tear it from its origins and to alienate not only many of those visibly present and participating, but also our spiritual and literal ancestors, whose voices need to be heard if ours is to be a genuine ‘communion of saints’. So, ask yourself not to what degree the Liturgy is familiar to you, or to what degree it reflects what you want it to; ask yourself, rather, how faithful it is to tradition, and if it is being celebrated in sincerity and truth. Then ask what you can do to make that happen.
2. Go to confession. There is not one of us who can claim innocence before the Lord and before one another. This is no less true of the priest than of any other single parishioner, and so it is vital to the health of a parish that people seek to reconcile with God always, and with neighbour as much as possible. There is no need, of course, to use your own parish priest as a confessor; any priest will do. But it is a good thing to use the same confessor often, so that he can get to know you well enough to recognise areas of your spiritual life that are particularly vulnerable and in need of support. Above all, though, the devil likes nothing less than having a light cast on his shadowy work, so the act of confessing personal sins will almost certainly bolster parish life against spiritual attack.
3. Give. As we read in the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest church lived in more communal fashion than do our contemporary communities, yet the needs of your local parish will be no less than ever they were. Look around you. Is there anything about your parish church that looks old and in need of replacing? Is there something missing that the Liturgy directs should be there? What about an iconostasis? Are the vestments of the sacred ministers in good order? Is the parish always having to scramble to get things in order for a funeral, or does it have everything it needs? Is your priest struggling financially? If he is monastic or celibate, he may appreciate someone helping him with certain tasks. If he is married, he may be worried about how he is going to put fuel in the tank next time he needs it. Are there people in the parish who are sick and in need? Be prepared to give of your time and/or resources to see that they are cared for in whatever way necessary. And whatever you do, be sure to do it for love and not begrudgingly. Your reward shall be great in heaven.
4. Ask questions. A final thing you should do for the sake of improving your parish experience, is know that it is always okay to question things. The virtue of asking questions is often overlooked, yet undertaken in the right spirit, can be an important ingredient in good teaching and the transparent administration of the parish community. to this end, it is good to question the clergy; it is good to question details in the Divine Liturgy (or Mass); it is good to question the way the parish operates; it is good to question finances. Of supreme importance for maintaining the right spirit, however, is the question we must ask ourselves first: that is, what are our motivations for asking? If a question is born of a genuine desire to engage, to satisfy a healthy curiosity, or to lovingly challenge, then it must be asked. If it is not, or if anger plays any part in our question, then we should refrain from asking until we are sure that our motives are pure. Of equal importance, though, is another question: Do we really want an answer? Pontius Pilate once asked ‘what is truth?’ to the very Incarnation of Truth – that is, a captive Jesus Christ – but he proceeded to miss the answer as he pushed ahead with his own agenda. A question, then, is always asked humbly, lovingly, and out of a genuine desire to know.
Of course, nothing I am saying is meant to be either exhaustive or absolute. It is meant solely to encourage thought, prayer, and discussion. If you should think of anything more that could be added, want to ask about what I have written above, or even argue validity of my points, feel free to do so in the comments below. I only ask that you keep a respectful tone.