About five years ago, my dad began working for a company that repairs railroad tracks. His job requires him to be away from home a lot. The first year, those of us who were left at home and were not in college made occasional trips to Nebraska or Texas to visit him for a week or two. These trips were limited in their length and their frequency by my mom’s job as a school bus driver.
The second year, my dad was in constant motion. He drove from coast to coast three times in the course of a few months. There was no way that we could keep up with his travels even long enough for a short visit. I think we saw him about four times between February and November. This put a huge strain on our family. So for the third year, we packed up our belongings in boxes and loaded all of the things we needed into our new house: a thirty-five foot long motor home we call Tallulah.
In the past three years we have put seventy-something thousand miles on our motor home. Some configuration of our family has been to every state except for Hawaii, Alaska, and, oddly enough, Vermont. In all those miles we have seen many sights—the Grand Canyon, the continental divide, Dodge City, the Liberty Bell, white bison, the Canadian border. We have met a lot of people. We’ve been to dozens of farmers markets, a couple different state fairs, some bull riding competitions, and a pumpkin festival. And we have been to Mass in a lot of churches. We have been on the road for about 120 weeks and most of the time we do not attend the same church two weeks in a row.
Since Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, there has been a lot of talk and writing about the amount of disunity in the Church. Being to so many churches in so many dioceses has given my family a particularly intense look at the manifestations of this disunity. We have been to Mass celebrated in a sober and beautiful manner. We have also been to Mass where in place of a homily the priest opted to call all of the children present forward to the alter and proceeded to teach them a delightful little ditty called “What Color is God’s Skin” while accompanying his singing on the banjo. We have been to Mass in Latin, English, Spanish, and Spanglish. We have visited parishes where the New Translation was happily embraced, and parishes where it has been barely or very badly implemented.
There was one church, a mission in Mississippi, where we stayed for three weeks. Each week we met a new congregation, based on which priest was saying Mass that week. I have no idea if the other people in the town simply drove to where their preferred priest was, or if they just skipped Mass. In the Lincoln, Nebraska diocese, the Eucharist is normally given only in one species (the body) but in most other places, somewhere between three and twenty extraordinary ministers put in an appearance, most of the time literally parading up to the altar to slather on hand sanitizer. We have heard homilies that turned ordinary things into extraordinary lessons, and we have heard homilies that turned extraordinary things into commonplace nonsense.
The differences between parishes might seem negligible, but they are symptoms of the greater disunity within the Church. In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “For in this world, marked by sin, the gravitational pull of our lives is weighted by the chains of the ‘I’ and the ‘self.’” When an individual looks at his or her own idea of what Mass should be like and rejects the instruction of the Church, you most often see it in the small variations that don’t seem to be too horrible—in the music, in the altering of a word here or there, in holding hands during the Our Father, or not kneeling after the Agnus Dei. These things don’t seem to add up to much on their own, but really, they do matter.
If I say that I love to knit, but that I prefer to knit with only one needle, then the truth is that I am not really knitting. If we desire a Church whose members are united on the big teachings, like abortion or the sanctity of marriage, then it is also necessary for them to be united on the small things, like keeping the tabernacle in the center of the church and behind the altar, rather than in a room off to the side or even in the back of the church. In this world we are chained to the “I” and the “self” but the Church is not. By imposing our own selves on her in the form of small changes made to the Mass in order to please our own whims, we only succeed in adding to the overall disunity of the Church.