A Monkey on the Tabernacle

Saving the Sacred from the Absurd in Church

“Why is there a monkey on the tabernacle?” my friend asked herself as she walked into church one Sunday morning.

Apparently, a religious education teacher was planning a discussion on Noah’s Ark for the second grade and had placed inflatable animals all around—even on the small chamber which holds what we as Catholics believe to be the Body of Christ.

Aside from its Bizarro nature, that story struck me as being indicative of a larger problem in the modern Catholic Church.

Celebration time
Since the Catholic Church went through the changes
of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, there has been a greater emphasis on Mass as a communal celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection rather than as a solemn individual meditation on it.

As a priest once explained to me, “That doesn’t mean you should be a grinning idiot during Mass. But it is a joyful occasion, so you shouldn’t be a sourpuss either.”

The tricky part is when the ‘celebration’ aspect overshadows the ‘sacred’ aspect.

A little too outside the box?
With declining church attendance, pastors are trying
new methods to attract parishioners. Occasionally, some of these ideas risk turning weekly worship into a theater of the absurd.

There’s a program called New Beginnings some parishes

are exploring in which parishioners enhance their participation in the church and community, deepen their spirituality, and develop an awareness of their unique gifts. Having taken part in the program, I can attest to its effectiveness.

However, two suggestions (which my parish thankfully didn’t take) caught my attention:

  • Have each parishioner write their name in chalk on the sidewalk outside the church to make them feel like they have an ownership in the church.

  • Type up prayers and spiritual quotes on pieces of paper, then have children fold them into paper airplanes and throw them into the congregation during Mass. This symbolizes how God unexpectedly sails into our lives.

Rudy Giuliani would have us arrested
Maybe it’s because I’m a no-nonsense New Yorker, but I fail to see how “tagging” our houses of worship will encourage greater devotion in people. (Honey, let’s be sure to go to church this week in case they let us play with the chalk again!)

And paper airplanes at Mass? I suppose if the
idea catches on, there might be an increase in churches named “Our Lady of the Scratched Cornea.”

Fluff vs. substance
All kidding aside, people stop attending Mass for a multitude of reasons. I believe that loss of reverence is a contributing factor. We forget. This is powerful stuff we are doing. The writer Annie Dillard says that if we believers really thought about the powerful things happening when we come together for Mass, we’d all come wearing crash helmets instead of nice Sunday clothes.

After all, Catholics believe that we are receiving the actual Body and Blood of Christ during Communion. That’s a holy and mystical concept.

Gimmicks and God
Do inflatable monkeys and paper airplanes contribute to our understanding of just how special and unique that is? In my opinion, they’re gimmicks that devalue, not enhance, that gift. When the gimmicks outshine the meaning and message, something is going wrong.

I agree that presentation is vital. So make the Mass
a celebration, make it relevant, throw some homily-humor into the mix. But also, respect the sacred—the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That’s the one thing people can’t get anywhere else.

In the meantime, you might want to think about wearing goggles to church. You never know when those paper airplanes will come sailing your way.