Empty Churches restless hearts

Hiker looking at the view of the mountains

The rickety train barreled across rocky terrain which stretched out from the northern center of Croatia down to the Adriatic coast. My friend and I had boarded the sparsely populated train in the capital city Zagreb after a more luxurious train ride south from Vienna, Austria through Slovenia. It was dingy and the lights in the hallway glowed a sickly green. We found a room in our car with only one other person and settled in for the night using our bags as pillows and tried to get some rest. We quickly found that the air conditioning in our car wasn’t working. The air was thick and warm; sweat was soaking my bag and nothing around me felt clean enough to wipe my face. We tried to open the window but learned what an old heavy chain of tin cans sounded like as it bumped and dragged across the tracks at 100 mph. As I wasn’t sleeping very soundly, I was easily awoken when the train stopped in the middle of nowhere, presumably for the conductor and staff to take an extended smoke break in the shadows outside our car. To pass the time I contemplated whether we would be kidnapped by eastern European smugglers and held for ransom, or if it was just a mechanical failure that would leave us stranded in the Croatian wilderness. Eventually we did get going again and then arrived in Split, where we de-boarded and climbed across three sets of tracks to the vine-covered station. 

After wandering the street markets and boardwalks of the scenic coastal city we met our bus which navigated crags and cliffs before reaching the border crossing with Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the checkpoint heavily armed men boarded our bus and checked everyone’s passport with a clear air of suspicion. As an American citizen visiting a recent conflict zone in Eastern Europe, not having my passport in my hands had my heart beating a little above its normal rate. Once we did pass though the crossing, the effects of the 1992 Bosnian conflict were clear where crumpled stone structures littered ditches and fields. After the bus arrived at the terminal we took a cab to our final destination: a small compound-like retreat center run by a middle-aged couple populated with sand-colored stone buildings curving and jutting like ramparts and towers. 

We found our hosts and introduced ourselves as students from Franciscan University who had traveled to visit Medugorje, site of alleged Marian Apparitions. Other students had come previously in a larger group some weeks before and we decided to visit and check it out for ourselves. They very generously fed us and gave us rooms to rest and wash before taking us to the Queen of Peace Shrine for Vigil Mass. 

After Mass outside in the large amphitheater extension on the Shrine, we went inside the smaller church building for adoration. A small musical group led worship in several languages as the pilgrims packed in to spend time with the Lord. After traversing so much foreign territory I finally felt at home and like I could breathe. I gazed at Jesus on the altar and thought, ‘this is the most important thing I could do here’. Having received Him in communion, I knelt in worship before my God and heard him speak to my heart: “You traveled all this way to see Me.  Don’t you see I was always waiting for you in the chapel next door? Why have you not visited Me there?”

He was right! Cumulatively we had traveled a day and half, enduring a hot restless night-train, the relative danger of late nights in bus stations, and searches by armed men allowing us a handful of waking hours to “pilgrimage.” All of this for the grand revelation that to find the Lord required no such odyssey from me. All He asked is I take time from my studying, my late nights laughing and drinking with friends and come visit him. “I was never far away” He seemed to say to me as I thought about how blessed I was to have on my campus daily Mass, adoration and confession. 

The reality is you don’t even need to go to a private Catholic college to have this same access. There is likely a parish within 20 minutes of where you live that has daily Mass and offers adoration and confession weekly. Maybe you even go to Sunday Mass, but are you really taking advantage of all God is offering you through the parish? 

The Archdiocese of Washington and the diocese of Arlington organized a Lenten initiative which has spread to many dioceses in the US, called “The Light is On for You.” It aimed to encourage all parishes to be open for Confession and prayer from 6:30 to 8pm on Wednesdays throughout Lent. Some offered adoration as well, some planned to have a parish mission or special reflection series around the same time. It may seem simple but much effort goes into making room in the busy schedules of parishes and their pastors to be consistently available for this additional time of reconciliation and prayer. 

Recently, I walked into a Church during this time. They had exposed the Blessed Sacrament and Father waited in the confessional for any willing penitents. As my wife and I walked in, I looked around hoping to see some of the young couples and families we notice at Sunday Mass. The deacon, who is older, and his wife were near the front, and maybe three or four other people no younger than 45 (but mostly much older) were scattered throughout the rest of the church.  

Having just gotten married, bought a house, gotten pregnant and started job searching again we had been looking for some time away from the house and our hectic lives for quiet prayer. So we were thrilled to be there. All that being the case left me wondering, “Where is everyone else?” 

Of course I knew the answer. They were busy. It’s a weeknight after all. During the week my wife and I commute an hour and a half home and then make dinner, take care of our dog, try to keep up with chores and any other commitments we have before crashing into bed later than we want to get enough sleep to face the next day. I know the struggle. Adding one more thing onto our evening seems impossible! 

Besides the fact that all our running around is exactly why we need quiet time for prayer, God asks us to do what seems impossible all the time. I already feel like my life is full of activity and work, capable of handling no more, but in a few short weeks our first child is going to arrive. Somehow I’m going to have to make room for this whole other life! Call me naïve but I’m not even worried. Why? Because my parents have done it before me and theirs before them. 

Not only do humans manage to become superheroes when faced with parenthood (I’m so pumped) but we move mountains for things way more trivial. We set aside entire days to celebrating the Super Bowl. We devote hours a day outside of work to practicing a sport or mastering a craft. When I was in college I would drive six hours to visit my family some weekends, but there were many weeks when I didn’t make time outside of Sunday Mass to drive five minutes to the men’s group on Saturday morning, the Rosary Tuesday nights, or adoration on Wednesdays during Lent. In our absence we reject the responsibility of engaging our parish family that exists to support us when we’re faced with starting a family, mourning a loss or even just looking for Christian friendships. If we don’t support these ministries now they might not be around when we need them.

What many people don’t realize is that the laws of supply and demand apply to many of these parish programs. If no one shows, eventually, they won’t bother having them. 

“What if I’ve looked and my parish doesn’t have anything engaging?” Then engage your parish! Most parishes welcome young, energetic people who want to help. Some are even looking for parish council members to represent the voices of young people for the rest of the community. The Vatican is holding a Synod on Young People, The Faith, and Vocational Discernment next year. In preparation they are encouraging dioceses to hold “listening sessions” to hear what issues young people face and what the Church can do better. Never has there been a time better suited to engage your parish! 

Every diocese is collecting responses differently to questions the Vatican wants answered about issues facing youth and young adults. In my own Archdiocese of Washington, in addition to in-person listening sessions there is a website (sharewithfrancis.org) where you can submit your feedback and ideas to be sent to Pope Francis. 

As young people we know how to build, create, and contribute to a community. We find our passion and build up around it. This drive in our generation has led to amazing technological advancements and powerful social movements but I believe as Catholic young people we need to rethink what it means to build a community. Many of our non-Catholic peers think of themselves as spiritual or agnostic. They abandon the Church’s two-thousand years of wisdom for a myriad of reasons and try to re-invent the wheel of religion for themselves. How do we convince them they’re missing out? 

We have to begin with our witness. If we’re not convinced that the Church is offering us an indispensable resource in parish life then how will we draw others into our community? As the Church seeks to address crises of social justice, rapid cultural change, and growing spiritual apathy we must raise our voices as part of the response. We do this by showing up, not just at Mass but by going to confession, filling the adoration chapels, applying to parish councils and offering our own gifts and passions.

People say, “Why can’t I go pray on a mountain instead of going to Church?” Why climb a mountain to hear a whisper when you can drive five minutes to your parish and be with God in person through His people and His Sacraments? 


Written by the Holy Rukus