Note from the Editors: In his new book Real Religion, Rev. Jeffrey F. Kirby, STD draws on his years of experience in priestly ministry to call out the modern age’s greatest threats to true worship. We asked Fr. Kirby a few questions on how to apply his themes to concrete moral issues and situations our readers and listeners often ask us about. You’ll find Fr. Kirby’s answers below.
Fr. Kirby is also featured on Catholic Answers Focus today, where he shoots down the pernicious distortion of religion as social activism. You can listen here.
Catholic Answers: You have a lot to say in Real Religion about the distinctions between true and false worship. Can the liturgy “cross the line” into false worship, and if so, at what point does that happen?
Rev. Jeffrey F. Kirby, STD: Yes, we have to be careful of self-worship in our lives. This is the antithesis of real religion and true worship. Self-worship can easily become community-worship. In its escape from the living God, we should never underestimate the capacity of the fallen human heart to worship anything. Again, this can include a community assembled for worship. The line is most broadly crossed when the focus is placed in the community itself, such as “this will make worship more engaging” or “if we do this, we’ll get more out of Mass” or “if we make these changes, more people will come,” etc.
The focus of worship is God. Our attention should be on how we can give more at worship and more devoutly adore the living God.
CA: The modern world says we have to promote and lavish praise on ourselves constantly to succeed—on social media, on our résumés, and all the rest. How can a Christian stay true to his religion and also succeed in the modern cutthroat professional world?
JFK: The best way for Christians to remain immune to the spirits of our age is real religion. Our fallen world tells us many lies. It seeks to deceive us and convince us of its supposed wisdom. Regrettably, many believers seek to merge the truths of faith with the foolishness of our passing world. To avoid this trap, and to preserve our peace and humility, we must turn to the altar of God.
Real religion is a strong dose of reality. It reminds us of our place before God. It calls us to recognize our sins, to give thanks, and to basically acknowledge that the world doesn’t revolve around us. “Success” can be its own deity, with its own demands and pseudo-liturgies. We avoid such idolatry by observing real religion. By keeping our minds clear and our hearts properly ordered, there will be a different type of success. It will be a success based on worship and virtue.
CA: You write in Real Religion that “our feelings and emotions have no moral status,” that they are “neither good nor bad.” But certain quantities generally considered “feelings,” like lust and covetousness, are always sinful. What is it that makes “feelings” like lust have a moral status?
JFK: Yes, this distinction is important. Our tradition does not consider lust or covetousness a feeling. Those are fallen inclinations of our spiritual souls, or bad spirits that are harassing our souls. In this context, we can emphasize the moral neutrality of our emotions and feelings, since feelings can be used to propel lust and covetousness or to dispel them. Our emotions or feelings can be used to empower our fight against temptations, just as they can be used to submit to them.
CA: What differences do you see in the challenges for men and for women in finding true religion? Are there hurdles each discrete sex should look out for, or is the journey the same regardless?
As Christians, our theological anthropology is helpful in seeing the genius of masculinity and femininity. In this context, “genius” is used to describe the particular traits, gifts, and natural inclinations of each sex. While such a genius may vary to some degree, we can observe a general pattern within a sex. With that said, women are gifted with nurturing and building relationships. Men tend to be gifted with being hierarchical and focused on tasks.
In terms of worship, therefore, women have to be attentive not to want to make worship a merely horizontal—or relationally human—experience. Men, by contrast, have to be cautious about dismissing worship altogether as insignificant and unhelpful.
There have been some liturgical writers who have observed a certain “feminization” of the liturgy. By this term they mean an overly (and oftentimes distracting) emphasis on the community itself, rather than God. Now, in a different way, women have contributed immensely to our liturgical and spiritual tradition when they have focused their genius and our attention on a right relationship with God. And, if we speak of a feminization of the liturgy, then we must also speak of the masculine flight and widespread absenteeism in worship.
Both sexes are needed. They balance and auto-correct each other in their complementarity and their respective genius. Such gifts are needed and can preserve and protect real religion.
CA: How have the challenges for the average Catholic seeking out true religion changed over the years of your priestly ministry?
JFK: In many respects, I’ve seen parallel movements. On one side, the majority of people in the pews have become further removed from biblical worship as secularism has spread and people have accepted its claims on culture. The idea of an objective order of reality outside a person’s own interior life is being lost. The truth of God as “infinitely perfect and blessed in himself” is being eclipsed by aspects of self-worship.
Interestingly, however, there is a minority movement in the other direction. I’ve witnessed a small but robust return to biblical worship among some believers. I suspect in large part this is due to personal conversion and the realization of what is true and good. As people understand reality, and spiritually touch the face of God, their hearts pine for more, and their spiritual lives skyrocket.
CA: Is true religion possible outside the Catholic Church? If so, where can it be found?
JFK: Broadly applied, true religion can be found wherever a heart is truly open and seeking God, however he is known, rather than itself. If the spell of self-absorption is broken, real religion can be found, however incomplete it might be.
Of course, in coming to know the living God, true worship is matured and becomes more refined. As such, while true religion can be found anywhere, it is directed and ultimately pointed to the Triune God. And so, there is no higher or more perfect worship of God than in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. All true worship, however fragmented or incomplete, points to this sacrifice as its fulfillment and completion.
CA: Real Religion features a number of captivating anecdotes from your priestly ministry as you’ve interacted with the laity, both within and beyond your parish. Can you provide our readers with another one?
JFK: I’m grateful for the pastoral stories. In many respects, they led to the writing of Real Religion, since many times I was caught off guard in particular circumstances and couldn’t give the full answer I would want to. And so, here’s another story that can help.
In many of our popular recovery programs, people are asked to turn to a higher power. There is little direction given in this area, other than that it can be whatever they want. Admittedly, the idea is to encourage some type of transcendence and movement outside of themselves. Such an idea might have some initial place in the beginnings of a recovery, but if sustained for a duration of time and outside a religious tradition, it can actually hurt sustained recovery, since a person is literally worshipping his own invention.
On one occasion some time away, at a parish where I am not currently assigned, a person recovering from alcoholism asked to see me. He was a few years sober and was struggling to understand what his next steps should be. He identified himself as a Christian. As we spoke, he referenced “God” in his recovery, but it became clear to me that the god he was referencing was not the God of revelation. The personal deity of this man justified lies, detraction, calumny, and even fornication. Everything was about his recovery. Everything was about him.
Eventually, as he concluded his narrative, I asked how certain behaviors could be reconciled with the moral teachings of the Christian faith. He was sincerely confused. I waited, rephrased my question, and asked him again: “How is some of your behavior consistent with the teachings of Lord Jesus?”
He didn’t know what to say, and he fell back into, “Well, in talking with my God . . .”
I paused and then spoke: “But, sir, your god is an idol.” The man just stared at me, and I continued: “You asked to meet and discuss your next steps. It seems there’s some restlessness and anxiety in your heart. You feel called somewhere, but you don’t know where. I think we’ve found your answer! It might be time to allow your higher power to meet and surrender itself before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It might be time for us to let the true God fully take your heart. The Lord Jesus shows us the way of love. He teaches us how we are called to live. I think this is where we need to move our conversation.”
The man stammered, said a few things, and then indicated that he needed to go.
I regret that our conversation ended. I think God wanted to do an even greater work in his soul.