Eleven guys walked in en masse and sat at a large table nearby. One of them wore a suit and was, I suppose, a pastor. It's hard to tell sometimes.
Anyway, I figured them for Protestants for a few reasons. First, the leader told them all that today's Psalm for reflection was Psalm 90, by which he meant (as was confirmed a little later) Psalm 89. But that wasn't a clincher, as most Catholics use the Protestant numbering these days. Then the Leader began with an impromptu prayer that began "Father God...", and that is usually a dead giveaway.
So, after announcing the Psalm, the leader asked all the men to go around and relate "When does your job feel most like work?" This was done. Each person spoke, and each was validated in turn. Then they read the Psalm in turns, and everyone gave their opinion about what God meant. There were a range of opinions as you can expect.
When all was done, I reflected on a bunch of things, and decided to post on it. I do so with some trepidation, as I risk offending some Protestant readers, if there are any. I don't wish to do so, because of course the desire of these men to gather to study scripture, pray, and try to exercise their religion according to the lights they have is laudable. Nor do I judge their souls, nor do I think I am in any way better than them in matters of faith or practice. I didn't create the Catholic religion, and certainly she has been in no way increased in glory or truth because I am blessed enough to belong to her. I do not want to be the pharisee who thanked God he was not like that tax collector. All of the men in that Bible study may have "gone home justified," as Our Lord said. God bless them.
In the end I was struck by a number of things.
1. Due to the source of the meditation being a Psalm, I couldn't help but to compare this little gathering to the daily gathering of the Church through the Divine Office. This gathering also takes place in small gatherings of Catholics: religious communities, families, individuals. But, like the Church Christ founded, these local communities are tied to the universal Church in a mystical gathering of prayer. The same office, the same Psalms, are prayed throughout the world. The principle of this unity is the same as the principle of unity of the Faith-- Peter. And this praying of the Psalms, this office, is of antique origin. For example, Compline as we have it today (EF) is very nearly the exact arrangement of the office as prayed by St. Benedict in the Sixth Century, and the practice of praying the Psalms in the Church is of Apostolic origin. The Church in her role as Mater and Magister gives us the form and content. There is thus a connection in every hour of the Office to the Church local and universal, to the Church in the past, present and future, and to the Church in time and eternity.
2. I reflected, too, on the fact that there are reasons why it took me a while to determine whether the group was Protestant, reasons that point out some of the problems in the Church today caused mostly by the vocations crisis.
First, there is the lack of catechesis in our parishes and schools. There is a lack of teaching, spiritual guidance, and direction from our priests and bishops. There are a few places, but not many, where priests have the time-- and more importantly the inclination-- to provide adult catechesis, public recitation of the Divine Office, frequent confession and spiritual direction. What we get instead are variants of this bible study: a bunch of people sit around, read some scripture, and give their personal takes. There is no proper direction, and so the participants shift for themselves. I have experienced these studies myself. Some participants jockey to establish their take as the right one. Some people talk about themselves, their "faith journey", their job, their toothache, their children, or anything else that applies to them. "My name is Ralph, and I'm an alcoholic." And in that hallmark of Catholic Bible studies, people get their chance to complain about the Church's teaching on X, Y or Z based on their studied misinterpretation of what their translation of the bible says.
And while we're at it, isn't this the problem with most spiritual retreats? Catholics used to have options. Now there are essentially three choices: 1) there is no priest and no retreat; 2) there is a priest to lead a retreat who will give an intentionally heterodox view of the the Faith; or 3) an ACTS or CRHP retreat where the alcoholics anonymous theme runs rampant.
3. Man hungers for God, and to practice right religion. If there are no shepherds, he will fend for himself. It's like a group of the more ambitious sheep deciding how to fend off the wolves, as the shepherd cannot be found or cannot be bothered. How many Catholics have fallen away by a lack of direction at their parishes, and have fallen into Protestant Bible studies at the invitation of well-meaning friends? Based on the offerings today, it is hard to distinguish the Protestant Bible study from the Catholic one, except for one area. In the Catholic Bible study, people wish that the teachings of Christ as manifested in Catholic dogma would change, and in a Protestant Bible study, people congratulate themselves on having left the Catholic Church and thus no longer must believe Catholic dogma.
4. Of course, the lack of priestly vocations goes back to a loss of the public proclamation and the private belief of bishops, priests and laymen in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the 50th Anniversary of which we note this year. The failures of the Church hierarchy in the (at the very least) implementation of this Council are so well-known as to need no reiteration here. But the faithful themselves are not without blame. As St. Paul noted, there
5. Speaking from a purely temporal perspective, the weakness of the Church today, in light of the vocations crisis, is that priests are absolutely necessary for the Church to grow. Christ's Church is sacramental, and priests are required to effect five of the seven sacraments. Any person with a Bible and an opinion can go to the wilds of the Amazon and start a religion. Any member of his sect can disagree with him, get their own Bible, and start a new one. We need priests to teach authoritatively, to effect the sacrifice of Calvary on the altar, to give Holy Communion to starving souls, to forgive sins with the authority of God, to confirm in the faith, and to assist the dying on the way to salvation.
6. However, this temporal weakness is our spiritual strength. Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. No amount of incompetence or cupidity or impurity or other sinfulness of any of the Church's shepherds or sheep can change this. We must have absolute and humble reliance on the promises, goodness and power of Christ. He will not leave us without Shepherds, and we must pray for Him to send them to us and protect them from, and for, us. We read, study, meditate and benefit from scripture not only in our private reading but in every liturgy of the Church. In addition to the teaching component of the Sacraments, we also, and much more importantly, receive Christ Himself in Sacramental forms. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Instead of being a family that is content to read letters from or about a long-departed loved one, we are the family that lives in the presence of that loved one right now. We are with Him, receive Him, and can bask in His love for us.
So what's the point of all this? I guess I don't know why I went on this tangent today, except to say that despite the good inherent in any Bible study, our faith provides so many more and better chances to foster our relationship with God, to know and to love His will, and to guide us on the road to Heaven. We need to embrace these, and to pray for the vocations to make them possible.