Some time ago, a married couple with young children reached out and asked if they could come and meet with me. Although I didn’t recognize their names, and they weren’t in our parish database system, I was happy to make some time to sit down and talk with them.
The conversation started quickly, as the husband and wife wanted to tell me their story and what brought them to my office. Long story short, they were relatively new to the area, had moved here because of work, and had been visiting the local parishes. After the background information, the couple asked me about parish social events, children’s programs, family outreach, and other services and resources of the parish. Initially, I was encouraged by their questions and was pleased to describe the opportunities within my parish.
As the conversation continued, however, I began to realize that the young couple and I weren’t on the same footing. My description of the parish was an elaboration of a community of disciples of Jesus Christ and the ways in which we seek to follow the gospel way of life. Our programs and services are born from a shared faith and sense of mission. As I spoke with this young couple, the questions and points of interest on their part were indicating a different emphasis.
It became clear to me that this husband and wife weren’t searching for a community of faith and conviction in the gospel. They were shopping, and they had a set shopping list. Whereas I was describing a community of faith, they were approaching the parish as if it were only one of many department stores. Rather than seeing the parish’s life as an extension of the life lived by the Lord Jesus and the early Church and a call to holy fellowship, they saw the parish in terms of a commodity—a retail approach.
It was a shock when I came to the awareness that these two were actually interviewing me, assessing whether my parish was up to their commercial demands. If we didn’t have the programs and resources the couple were looking for, then they were going to move on to another parish (or even to a community outside the Catholic Church). It was all about what they could get from the parish.
This is the tragic state of religion when it becomes a cold commodity. The focus becomes what we can receive rather than what we can give. We approach God and the Church as if they were merely benefactors responsible for giving us the things we want or prefer. We diminish the all-powerful and ever-living God, and the community of disciples that surround him, into cheap Pez dispensers. In this action, the virtue of religion becomes a mere utility, a means for our use, enjoyment, and pleasure. Worship becomes adulterated and unable to fulfill the call to self-oblation.
This story can be surprising, and even disturbing, especially if we ask ourselves some hard questions. Do we approach God as if he were only some divine handyman who is to serve us and fulfill our wants and demands? Do we expect the Church to be stripped of her richness and become a meager opportunity for recreation and social interaction?
Do we attempt to deplete true worship of its power and grace and turn it into a soulless community gathering, a sad concert of self-focused songs, or a collection of cheap theatrics for personal amusement? Will we name this false spirit of commodity and labor for the true virtue of religion in our lives?
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