I present to you a situation shared with one of my classes this week:
A professor of mine was in a small town in France some years ago and visited a church with a beautiful image of Mary on the outside wall. It was apparently a great pilgrimage site for the locals, and many people stopped and prayed daily, including the town prostitutes. The fact that they were prostitutes at the church was not a problem. The problem was that these prostitutes prayed to “Mary” each day, knowing her to be a good example on earth, close to God, and believing to have some power here on earth, for the purpose of getting more customers. I kid you not. Prostitutes were praying to the virgin Mary for more customers.
This story is ironic, a bit funny, and quite sad all at the same time. Most of all, it epitomizes an interesting situation we find in many of our churches, one of severely misguided faith, but faith nonetheless. Like the person that comes to mass to pray the rosary, receives the Eucharist (holy communion) as a purely private act between “me and God,” goes to confession but refuses to stop doing what they confess, or spreads the Gospel with violent tactics or divisive rhetoric, there is a clear disconnect from what the larger Church is doing and what the individual is doing. Particularly in the Catholic Church, we find many people more concerned with rules than they are with the Gospel. In a very clear sense, these extreme examples represent a faith that is so misguided and self-perpetuated that it is hard to label it as anything but wrong.
And yet, there is an obvious sense that these individuals have at their core something guiding them, something pointing them to the transcendent. With all of the things we could fill our lives with, there is something to be said about the person that continues to come to church, continues to pray to a saint, continues to ask for forgiveness, or continues to share what they find important, even if what they are holding onto is in fact the product of their own mind or situation.
What does a pastor do in such a situation then? To be honest, I’m not sure. There are clearly at least two answers to this dilemma. The first is to realize that the “faith” on which their actions are built are nothing more than superstition, that the recognition of the transcendent is nothing more than carrying a rabbit’s foot or wishing upon a star, and it is best to squash this “faith” in an attempt to rebuild something a little more in touch with reality. There is a great danger in this, quite obviously, in that there is a great possibility that no new faith will be rebuilt. This is the problem with arguing with fundamentalist Christians: to tell them that they are wrong in believing the world is only 6,000 years old will not bring them to the light, but in fact, will cause them to question everything about their faith, and most likely drop everything as a result. “If that’s not true, what can I believe in?”
The other solution, one that I do not necessarily pose as the correct answer, is the “Good, Better, Best” model. In this way, we look at the fact that someone is at church, no matter the reason, as a good thing. Even if severely misguided, there is still a recognition that there is something outside of the individual that is greater than the individual, even if that is simply luck, superstition, or Santa Claus. From there, we can gradually call the individual to a better faith, and ultimately, to the best faith, the ideal. This solution requires much more patience in meeting people where they are, a tremendous amount of frustration because of lack of progress, and even the crippling realization that you are supporting some people that will never change. Even worse, we run the risk in the larger Church of letting these people be our ambassadors to the outside world, negatively evangelizing the world about a Church that does not actually exist.
I guess the answer I give at this moment is that we are called to love each person on an individual basis and to remember that love is not necessarily supporting and encouraging. Sometimes we are called to tough love, sometimes we are called to patience. Regardless, we are at all times to engage the people with the most authentic faith we can live, to evangelize not by what we say but how we say it and how we welcome people, leading people to “true” faith by example. While many people may be devoting themselves more to “Our Lady of Superstition” than to the actual Mary, spending more times with rules than they are with the Gospel message, I think that this ultimately makes our job a bit easier. Sure they may be running in the wrong direction, but at least they’re running; I think it’s much easier to change someone’s direction than it is to get someone moving who doesn’t want to run.