There must a law, deep in the cosmic base code, that if parents dress their nine children in Easter white -- especially when New England snow is melting -- at least one will fall into the mud.
"It was tough," said Simcha Fisher, describing this Easter's obstacle course, "but we survived all that and made it to Mass."
This was not an ordinary Mass, of course. The Fishers -- with children ranging from 15 months to nearly 15 years -- were trying to get into the 11:15 a.m. rites on the day when their New Hampshire parish would be jammed with those known, in commentaries on modern church life, as Christmas-and-Easter-Only Catholics (CEOs), Poinsettia and Lily Catholics or even Two-Timers.
In a kind of Easter miracle, the Fishers found adequate real estate in a pew. "The church was, of course, packed," noted Fisher in a telephone interview. "The family in front of us was dressed to the nines and they seemed to be trying to break the world record for the consumption of gum" during Mass.
Fisher knows that this narration sounds whiny. After all, this year she approached the most important day on the Christian calendar even more aware than normal of the tensions between Christmas-and-Easter-Only worshippers and the faithful who attend week after week. As Holy Week came to a close, the National Catholic Register columnist had committed herself, in print, to being more hopeful and welcoming this Easter.
That's nice, but what are churchgoing Catholics supposed to do when faced with CEOs chattering during Mass "like they're in a football stadium," Fisher asks, or turning the "Resurrection of our Lord into a photo op, turning what should be the most joyous holy days into an occasion of sin for faithful Catholics"?
It's one thing to promise to be more understanding, she noted. It's something else to struggle with the reality of legions of visitors.
"I really am glad that they're there," wrote Fisher. "It's got to be better than never going to Mass, and I do believe that the Holy Spirit could easily use that opportunity to send a powerful word, a lingering image, a stray idea into the mind or heart of a fallen-away Catholic, and a casual visit that was made just out of habit, or to please someone's grandma, might be the first step to coming back home to the faith. And yeah, they're not being reverent. Neither am I, by going through the motions while grumbling in my heart.
"But I know my limits. I know I'm not going to suddenly turn into Mother Teresa, especially if I show up 40 minutes early and STILL have to spend the whole Mass on my poor tired feet, trying to keep nine kids docile and attentive when the strangers who did get a seat are playing on their Game Boys. With the sound on."
At some point, this crush will affect whether some believers -- even the most faithful -- are willing to endure the tension in Easter pews, noted Joe Carter, senior editor at the Acton Institute. Recent numbers from LifeWay Research indicated that only 58 percent of self-identified Protestants, 57 percent of Catholics and 45 percent of nondenominational church members said they were likely to attend Easter services. It's legitimate to ask why so many believers are staying away, he argued.
Perhaps this trend can be explained with the help of a quip by baseball legend Yogi Berra, said Carter. When asked why he no longer frequented a popular restaurant, Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."
Fisher said that, before opting out of Easter rites, frustrated parents could seek less popular services in the parish schedule, make strategic plans to arrive 45 minutes early and have family pep talks with their children about what to expect. And then there is the "Hallmark trap," in which worshippers are tempted to expect a picture-perfect Easter packed with emotional goodies.
It's easy to mutter, "But I DESERVE a flood of peace and grace and joy on Easter, because it's the Resurrection, dammit! But there's no guarantee Easter will work out that way," explained Fisher. "We need Easter because we're crappy people who get mad at other people, even during Mass. ... Thank God the graces of the Risen Lord don't come to us only when it's a picture-perfect Mass."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
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