At the time I was a seminary student, the event in today’s Gospel reading was very often cited as a proof-text that validated the essential superiority of contemplative vocations over those ecclesial vocations that engage in active ministry. Mary was used as a simile for contemplatives (monks and nuns), while Martha was used as a simile for active ministers (priests, brothers, and sisters).
The same attitude of superiority based on exclusivity was applied to public ministry vocations in the Church: religious priesthood was considered superior to secular priesthood, and any form of ordained ministry was considered superior to non-ordained ministry (that is, to religious sisters and brothers). A similar stratification of value was assigned to the difference between ecclesial vocations and the vocation of marriage.
Due to cultural factors that many in the Church blame on secular society, there has been a noticeable and on-going decline in church vocations. For a few decades, that decline in ordained and religious vocations was treated with Martha-like anxiety “about many things.” (Lk. 10:41) More recently, the on-going decline in religious and ordained vocations has become somewhat less problematic; the on-going decline in Mass attendance by Catholics has reduced the need for priests, at least to a degree. Our Diocese, for example, closed a parish this past week. We live in an area of the country where the general population continues to increase; the population of church-goers, however, continues to decrease.
For a long time, the Catholic Church gloried in the exclusivity of its Eucharist, its Papacy, its various charitable works, and the like. The Catholic Church of the twentieth century was Martha: very, very impressed with all the things it had accomplished and very, very entitled to public recognition for its virtues.
Now, many of those things that were considered accomplishments have been discarded as having little value. Attendance at the celebration of the Eucharist is declining, reverent behavior during the celebration of Eucharist is declining, the value placed on ordained ministry is declining, and the Church is more often identified with scandal than with charity.
I used to refer facetiously to the Catholic Church as the Walmart of religions because Catholicism is volume business: it takes a lot of Catholics to get anything done. In all seriousness, however, it looks more like the Church is the Sears of religions: we had a winning strategy in the twentieth century that we refuse to change despite being confronted by its irremediable failure today. For much too long, Catholicism has been Martha, complaining that insufficient attention is being given to its excellence. It might be time for us as a universal Church community to be more like Mary – rapt in attention to the Lord’s Word.
The Letter to the Colossians says that the vocation of the baptized is to fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. This doesn’t mean that Jesus’ death is only a partial remedy for sin. Rather, it means that Jesus’ suffering must be embraced by each generation of the Church’s membership. To date, we have suffered too little; therefore, we have a lot to make up. Rather than basking in the glory of our own light, we need to humble ourselves and attend fully and solely to Jesus’ words.
I’m not suggesting a return to the self-serving heroics of the recent past in which individuals, church groups, and the entire Church publicized its perceived sufferings as a way of attracting the attention of others. Nor am I suggesting any alteration to the Church’s belief system. Rather, I am suggesting a return to the suffering embraced by Jesus; he gave of his time, his attention, and his compassion in order to announce to all the world the proximity of God’s Reign. I am suggesting that we tune out all voices, except the voice of Jesus. I’m suggesting that we make a sincere effort to tune out the voice within us that tells us we’re special, privileged, and exceptional. It’s time for the whole Church to set aside drawing attention to itself and its heroic labors and, instead, to sit at Jesus’ feet, attending to his Word.
It’s easy enough to understand why the numbers of Catholics attending Mass regularly has declined so significantly since the beginning of the twentieth century. For a long time, the Church proclaimed the message that exclusivity equated to superiority: those vocations to which few were called were seen as superior to those vocations to which many were called. In this scheme of exclusivity, monastic vocations were superior to ordained vocations, ordained vocations were superior to lay vocations, and scrupulosity among the laity was superior to humility. The baptized took to heart this ethic of exclusivity. Today, it is so widespread as to be considered normative: the more exclusive one’s religious practice, the more superior. This skewed perspective has become permission for highly individualized and, therefore, highly anti-social religious beliefs. It’s no surprise that people would stay away from the communal worship practiced by a religion that touts individualism as superior to communal life. The Catholic Church’s habit of moral superiority is the cause of the Church’s decline; it is also a rejection of Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus rebuked Martha because of her belief that she deserved better than she was getting; he praised Mary because she sacrificed personal pursuits in order to listen to God’s Word. Do we, as a Church community, need this to be spelled out any more clearly? Our own efforts at superiority are obstacles to perceiving the superiority of Jesus’ teachings.