For many years, I have made it a point to exercise every day. It wasn’t always so.
When I was younger and imagined myself to be invincible, I neglected to do any kind of physical exercise beyond walking to my car. I wasn’t opposed to exercise in principle; I just thought I didn’t need it. But as I got older, it became clear that I was wrong.
The hardest part was going to the gym for the first time in years. My priest-secretary introduced me to a wide variety of exercise machines, which I labeled “instruments of torture.”
I decided to try the elliptical. Self-consciously, I mounted the machine. All around me were avid fitness buffs — some bench pressing, others running on treadmills.
Me? I was just trying not to fall off. Before long, I was out of breath. But with encouragement, I kept at it, and soon exercise became a part of my daily routine.
This is not to say that I’m healthier than a horse — I’m not. Rather, my purpose in telling you all this is to draw a comparison between going back to the gym and going back to church, particularly Sunday Mass.
In my experience, most unchurched or barely churched Catholics are not opposed to Mass. Some tell me, “The Mass is good for some people, but right now I don’t see the need for it.”
That’s what I used to say about exercise: “Fine for those who like that sort of thing, but I don’t need it.” But the fact is that I needed exercise all along, and those who think they don’t need the Eucharist may discover that they have needed our Eucharistic Lord all along, too.
Others tell me that they are interested in coming back to Mass on Sunday but are afraid they would feel awkward.
A friend put it this way: “I just got out of the habit of going, and now I’m not sure I’d know what to do. I’m afraid my neighbors who go to church regularly would stare at me, and the priest would ask me where I’ve been all these years.”
Not unlike how I felt when I started exercising again; that first trip back to the gym was a doozy.
Yet another non-practicing Catholic told me this: “I’d go back to church, but would I have to sign up at the parish office? Would I have to go through a lot of meetings?”
And here’s the kicker: “Would I have to go to confession?”
Even this is not unlike going back to the gym. Many gyms insist on meeting with new and returning members for an evaluation (confession). They may then explain how the various fitness machines work (catechesis) and ask you to focus on the bottom line (parish registration, collection envelopes). Formidable obstacles!
I often think that those who are considering going back to Sunday Mass need a “soul friend” — someone to help and encourage them … and make them feel at home until the practice of the faith becomes a regular part of their lives.
That is why I am grateful to my former priest-secretary who encouraged me to go to the gym again and again. As my friend and co-worker, he knew I would be a fish out of water, but he kept reassuring me until exercise became a regular part of my life.
Similarly, I often think that those who are considering going back to Sunday Mass need a “soul friend” — someone to help and encourage them through the process of re-entry — or, in the vocabulary of Pope Francis, someone to “accompany” them and make them feel at home until the practice of the faith becomes a regular part of their lives.
One of the greatest acts of charity we can do is to accompany a person or family who is thinking of coming back to church. Some have hardened their hearts, but many others are searching and pondering.
By example and gentle encouragement, we might just get them back into the habit of “exercise” that counts the most.