I took the day off yesterday from the blog for a number of unspectacular reasons. The highlight of the day was a trip to McDonald’s in midafternoon for its signature one-dollar smoothie ice cream cone. This is something of a retirement ritual for us, though we usually do it on Thursdays or “date days.” But our calendar is still out of synch after being on the road so long that this was our first McDonald’s run in a long time. I think I saw McDonald’s in Ireland, but in honesty I was looking for quaint pubs and eateries most of the time. Even here in the states McDonald’s is not a place I care to eat a regular meal; there is too much distraction behind the counter, for one thing. McDonald’s never caught on to the simple architectural step of building a wall between their industrial kitchens and the eating space, a la Panera’s.
McDonald’s, it seems, is having a hard time maintaining a place in the present culture. (I guess the same could be said about the Catholic Church, for that matter.) I observe the dynamics on my weekly ice cream visit. It is no secret that the company has worked to improve its menu toward the healthy side. There are more meal-sized salads, to be sure, but they sit alongside the multi-patty, bacon and cheese classics that have made cardiologists rich men. The coffee is recently better, relatively speaking. Once the worst on fast-food row, it has moved up to undistinguished, good enough to hold the seniors who make a day out of their visits. But in my state there is much better coffee in a variety of flavors in 7-11, WaWa’s, and surprisingly Racetrac. (I stopped there last week on the road for a 24-oz. hazelnut; even with the tachycardia it was still a grand experience.) McDonald’s has always been noncommittal on desserts, and the size and quality make that evident; I tried the little Bundt cakes introduced earlier this year to see if McDonald had captured some of the Panera lightning, and it had not.
McDonald’s does have a curious social scene. It is still a hotspot for kids, from the little tots to the high schoolers, though I’ve never seen anyone of that age cohort purchase an Asian chicken salad. They eat the same stuff that made McDonald’s famous forty years ago. Clusters of seniors visit in the mornings. I guess most of the stores now have Wi-Fi, though on a busy day it is hard to find a clean place to set your laptop. If you go in the slow early afternoon hours as we often do, you might catch a management meeting with the staff in the dining room where you can strain to hear what the corporate suits are thinking about on a given day. The thing I really don’t get about McDonald’s is drive-through. Yesterday the building was entirely circled by cars in line, allowing me to park at the door, eat, and back out in the time an order was filled at drive-through.
Now whether McDonald’s has a future is uncertain; it may well outlive me. It serves in some ways as America’s parks: a place to hang out with friends but with food service, where the little kids can swing after picking at a Big Mac junior and the older ones check their social networks. It is more predictable than food trucks. Retired folks enjoying coffee on the patio can always move back indoors if it rains.
So what does all of this have to do with our Monday theme of Liturgy? Well, I looked at my blank terminal at 7:30 AM and said to myself, what is there really to add about sacramental life, particularly the Mass, in a blog entry? Years ago, in the generation proceeding Vatican II, liturgy was a vibrant subject of discussion and academic pursuit. There was a lot of church shopping, so to speak, for parishes with good music, compelling preaching, conducive environment, social outreach, and the like. The same was true of priests: people used to seek out confessors and counselors for reputations of compassion and inclusion. One day a savvy layman in my diocese told me that the parish I was pastoring was known in the diocese as a refugium peccatorum, or “refuge for sinners.” There was something to that: I began to notice that many lesbians, not presently registered in the parish, were seeking appointments with me, to a point where I had several such meetings a week. (The term “social networking” was still a ways away.) They all asked, in the context of their life stories, one basic thing; it was of the highest importance that a pastor kindly tell them they were welcomed to worship and were still part of the Catholic Church of their youth.
Today the landscape of sacramental life is so different, at least from the vantage point of how we do business. We talk of the “New Evangelization,” and I must commend my own parish priests who never fail to welcome newcomers and seekers at every Sunday Mass. But despite their local efforts, Church policy as a whole seems devoting more time to delineating who can and who can’t participate in the sacraments. Look at your Sunday missalette or worship aid with its full page description of who may and may not receive communion. Look closely at the diocesan or parish premarital guidelines and note the checklist of reservation. Read the national press about Catholic employees who have been fired because they are gay. Consider the number of seminarian applicants who have been refused entry to priestly study because of honest philosophical differences over specific matters of teachings, such as the use of oral contraceptives.
Each of these issues is complex, of course, but when seen in totality there is the vision of exclusion clouding the sun of successful evangelization of baptized Catholics and those who see us from afar. Corporately we look like McDonald’s: we want to promote a healthier dietary fare but we want to hold on to the 1100 oz. milkshakes, too.
And so parishes and the Sunday liturgies will no doubt live on, though not everywhere, like McDonald’s, the village watering hole that meets many needs but will never attract those in search of a round-the-clock balanced diet.