It was Sunday in Bergen, a day after a friend’s daughter’s wedding. My iPhone map said St. Paul’s Cathedral is just 9 minutes’ walk from our apartment. So, I took my time knowing fully well that churches in Europe rarely ever get filled even for Holy Mass. The walk on a sunny and crisp day was enjoyable and the scenery along the way had a lot of “photo ops.”
When I got to church, however, I was shocked to find the place full. My family had difficulty finding seats even if we arrived a good 10 minutes before the mass. There were locals, young and old, as well as foreigners mostly Vietnamese and Indians. The mass was a sung mass in Norwegian and everyone participated piously and passionately.
“Empty chairs and empty tables” is a line that comes from a song in Les Miserables. It’s a phrase that I used to describe the churches and the masses held in Europe. In many masses held in the places I have been to, only the elderly attend, and only a few of them do. A Holy Banquet is attended by only a few; empty chairs and empty tables. This is in contrast to the grandeur of these churches.
There are exceptions, of course. And these exceptions are in countries where culture has continued to embrace the Christian faith unabashedly. Fr. Pastor Iueventus in his article in Catholic Herald last April 2015 entitled “Why Poland’s Culture is Healthier Than Britain’s” pointed out that while magnificent churches may be found in both countries, there are profound differences.
In places like Norwich or Rouen, most churches are used for art exhibits or organ recitals. Whenever there are churches open for tourist visits, more often than not, these churches are piped in with Gregorian chant muzak to give visitors that “authentic” religious experience.
In Krakow, on the other hand, Iueventus remarks that church bells ring to actually invite believers to Holy Mass and where Easter celebrations are actually more than just another event in merchandising. Masses are attended by both young and old and their voices fill every nook of the cavernous cathedrals when they sing the hymns.
There are many reasons certain cultures have veered away from the faith and have entrusted their moral standards to a secular power — the government or the state. The often touted reason is the “separation of the church and state”. In the zealousness of the state to make sure that this is the case, it has gone one more step and made sure that faith, as expressed in established religions, are stamped out of the country’s culture.
And this was the proverbial Pandora’s box.
Once the state started to legislate morality purely in human terms that opened the door for almost any standard that a majority of the population would define as acceptable moral behavior. In trying to defend this as a democratic principle, our society has moved closer to one where morality is a pluralistic standard. And I think there is where the flaw lies.
Someone observed that regardless of culture, killing another human being is universally deemed “immoral,” or “bad.” However, we have, through the years, redefined “killing” to suit our current realities. There is, of course, capital punishment in many countries. In some countries, killing another person for medical reasons has also become legal. Euthanasia is now practiced and accepted as a basic human right in these countries. Abortion, too, is legal in even more countries. There is just a debate on what constitutes “human” life, but killing of the unborn is generally accepted as legal and a basic right for women.
Given these developments, there is no telling that many more activities which we abhor today will become acceptable and “moral” and definitely legal in the future. I will not make predictions here, but let your imagination run free and almost anything will be possible. When politics — through the state — start influencing the way society shapes our culture, then we are going to be in trouble. One must remember that in a democracy, the powers of the state are often controlled by an elite, an elite whose morality may not necessarily agree with ours.
It boils down to this: who should I entrust to define society’s morality?
Pastor Iueventus makes a very strong point when he concluded this about Poland:
“So strong was the link between religion and culture in Poland that, unlike in our own country, they were able to resist a state that claimed rights over people’s consciences. The same right is being claimed by an aggressive secularism which not only seeks the removal of religion from the public sphere, but also the reshaping of the public realm to something entirely at the mercy of power, money, and vested interest in which the flourishing of man is a secondary interest.”
Let’s fill those empty chairs and empty tables. This is a more fulfilling banquet, a banquet where man is the primary interest. And where humanity has a better chance of survival.