Perhaps you’ve noticed that we live in a “me first!” culture. We want what we want when we want it exactly the way we want it. The fast-food chain Burger King has trained a generation of Americans to “Have it your way!” That’s all well and good when ordering a Whopper, but it is a poor attitude to have in other areas of life.
In the Church the “have it your way” attitude shows up in many areas of parish life. Here are a sampling that I’ve pulled from common questions we receive at Catholic Answers.
Weddings: Almost from the moment couples hit the intake interview with the priest or deacon, planning a wedding often becomes a trial in patience for many parish staff. (Some priests and deacons have frankly said that working on weddings is their least favorite part of ministry.) The couples already have selected a date without consulting with the parish to find out if that date is available. They want to throw in social customs that the Church more or less tolerates but which aren’t really compatible with the Catholic nuptial liturgy—common examples include “giving away the bride,” the “unity candle,” inserting non-scriptural readings, and tinkering with the wording of the wedding vows. Attire is chosen without thought to its appropriateness for a church. Churches are chosen for their value as sets for photography and videography rather than because the couple happens to worship there.
When told that some demands either cannot be accommodated (such as tinkering with vows, which can affect the validity of the sacrament of matrimony) or will cost more money to be accommodated (such as holding the wedding in a parish in which the couple are not registered members), couples get upset and accuse parish staff of meanness and even of engaging in simony. Rarely is consideration given to the needs and convenience of the parish and its ministers.
Liturgy: While there is legitimate cause for concern when liturgical abuses are deliberately introduced into the Mass, it is rare for those who witness these abuses to give those who commit them the benefit of the doubt before becoming upset.
Take just one act that could be a liturgical abuse but also might not be: Has the priest returned to his seat during the distribution of Communion rather than distribute Communion himself? Immediately the assumption often is leapt to that the priest is illegitimately refusing congregants the opportunity to receive from the priest. Rarely is it assumed that the priest might be ill or frail and unable to stand for long periods of time. Or even that he might have a reason he cannot in conscience distribute Communion at a particular liturgy. It was recently revealed that, during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis had a personal policy for distributing Communion when public figures at odds with the Church were present:
I do not give Communion myself; I stay back and I let the ministers give it because I do not want those people to come to me for the photo op.
Conversion: In some Protestant denominations it is not difficult at all to join up. You show up for services, heed the altar call, and are escorted from the rail to a room where you will be assigned a mentor to shepherd your insertion into the community. You’re presented with options for the variety of ministries (young families, music, hospitality, Bible study) just waiting to welcome you. No muss, no fuss.
In the Catholic Church, it’s different. Depending on your personal circumstances, it can take a year or more to complete the conversion process. Perhaps because of their backgrounds in Protestant communities that smooth the way for them, many potential converts are perplexed at why it takes time, effort, and patience to enter the Church. Some want to know why they can’t be received into the Church in time for a wedding, or why they must go through a year or two of RCIA, or why the pastor is making a big deal about their marriage status. Rather than try to understand Catholic customs and work with them, these potential converts want ways by which to circumvent protocol they find annoying.
Communion: There seems to be nothing that puzzles the minds of Catholics and non-Catholics alike more than the Church’s rules concerning the reception of Communion. Non-Catholic Christians feel slighted to be “excluded” based on their status as non-Catholics. Catholics who are either non-practicing or are living in irregular relationships feel “judged” as “unworthy” to receive Communion. The most common response seems to be to set Jesus at odds with his Church by saying, “Jesus wouldn’t treat me this way!” It is odd then that these same people who are angry at the Church for declining to distribute Communion under certain conditions have no problem respecting the protocols of non-Christian communities. A non-Catholic Christian or non-practicing Catholic who feels no compunction about taking Communion in a Catholic church when he knows he should not would not dream of demanding to wear shoes in a Muslim mosque or to read from the Torah in a Jewish synagogue.
What is the solution? I’m afraid there is no one answer. It depends on the circumstances. There are times in which the individual’s request for accommodation is not unreasonable. A couple getting married may have serious need to marry as quickly as can be arranged (military deployment, older couples wanting to start a family) even if it means asking the parish to work them into its calendar. Expecting a lifelong Christian to take a two-year RCIA course alongside non-Christians just beginning to learn about Christianity may not be appropriate. Someone dealing with serious illness or other extenuating circumstances may have an immediate need for the sacraments, even if that person might not be eligible under ordinary conditions. And the Church has built into canon law exceptions to the norms that accommodate such circumstances.
But just because there are exceptions to the law for just reasons does not mean there is no law or that there should be no law. Under ordinary circumstances, the default solution may well be a gentle reminder that being a Catholic means a willingness to forget self, to take up one’s cross, and to follow Christ through his Church.