It’s nice to see so many people at church, although “Big Mass” days—Easter, Palm Sunday, Christmas—are always bittersweet, simultaneously a reminder of how many Catholics there are but also of how many of them are missing the rest of the year. Some of them hang in there for a couple of weeks, but eventually once we’re deep into ordinary time it’s just the usual old crew once more, scrambling to get enough readers, ushers, and Eucharistic ministers for a simple ceremony in front of half-empty pews.
So it’s always a thoughtful moment for that old crew to see the oceans, the vast oceans of people who are at least nominally Catholic. What brings them in on the Big Mass days? Some sort of secular enthusiasm for Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? What makes them leave? Lack of time, I’m sure many would say. Who has time to go to mass once a week. That’s just a cop out, of course. There’s plenty things most people have time for once a week, like hitting the mall or catching a movie, that take more time. It’s not that. What is it, then?
I think I’ve already given my best theory: people are much more willing to identify as Catholic (or Episcopalian, or Baptist, or whatever—this is not solely a Catholic issue) when they have the secular enthusiasm of a holiday to validate that identification. Of course, that secular validation has an expiration date, and so once the shelves clear of tinsel and non-flammable multicolored Easter grass, they stop coming. It’s one thing to come to mass when Payless has a sale on Easter shoes to let you know everyone’s going to be doing it, and a whole ‘nother to do so some nameless Sunday in August when everybody else is back-to-school shopping.
I realize this is no revelation, but I felt compelled to comment on it sitting there in church (my mother and I were the last two to get seats, a row of folding chairs set up in front of the first pew) surrounded by what seemed like all of Siesta Key. It felt so good to see so many people participating in what is usually such an exclusive affair that I sometimes wonder whether me and the other fifty or so stray cats that show up to regular mass back home at St. Dominic’s are the last Catholics on earth. Now that I work at an actual Catholic school (St. Thomas is technically Catholic, but in such an optional way that you could spend your four years there and never really notice it), I get more of a feeling of community, but by and large to be Catholic, to be religious at all, usually feels like being a minority. In the movies we are always child molesters, on TV we are nonexistent, and pretty much everywhere else we are freaks and extremists, people who hate gays and fear sex. Yet there we were on a fine Sunday morning in paradise, by the thousands, as normal as they come: babies, elders in wheelchairs, families of two or of ten, some dressed up, some not so much, but all of us present and accounted for.
How would the popular conception of Catholics change if more of us who identify as Catholic did so full-time? Would we be able to correct the media image that so readily associates religion with extremism? If the whole world could see what I saw today, would we be so afraid to embrace our religion more than simply on holidays? Because it is fear that keeps us away, fear that ties us to the pack mentality of going to church only when everybody else is doing it. I see that fear today on Facebook, so many posts saying “Happy Easter, to those of you who celebrate” or words to that effect. We are afraid to offend. As if accidentally wishing a Happy Easter to someone who might be Jewish or atheist is grounds for war. We are suspicious of one another—we assume an agenda behind a holiday greeting, feelings of superiority or privilege. We assume hostility.
Here’s something this cubanita has learned about freedom of religion: it doesn’t mean freedom from religion. Doesn’t mean we all keep our religion to ourselves, as if we were doing something wrong. It should mean everybody gets to do whatever they want, religious or otherwise, without judgment or interference. That’s what it felt like today, amid that sea of people. It felt like freedom, and it felt good. Happy Easter!