What is there to make of Raul Castro’s strategic little slip about becoming Catholic again? I say “strategic” because I can’t think that an inactive church member would ever say such a thing without assuming there was some advantage to be gained by saying it.
Castro’s papal fawning is, he says, due to the pope’s “wisdom and modesty.” I’d rather hear Castro say the pope’s Christian example had convinced him to ban extralegal political executions, but let these things come in their time, I suppose.
By way of emphasis, Castro declared he would attend all of Pope Francis’s masses in September when the pope visits Cuba on his way to visiting the United States. That makes Francis the third pope within twenty years to visit the last bastion of international communism (not counting any of the bastions yet lingering in university classrooms).
USA Today quotes the Communist leader as saying, “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I'm not joking.” Other news sources quoted it as “and I’m serious.”
I do not wish to call Castro’s sense of humor into question, nor his seriousness, but I cannot help noting that he fits a pattern peculiar to inactive church members. I do not know a pastor, priest, or minister who hasn’t been told something of the sort by a lapsed parishioner who, out of whatever motivation, wants to impress the current pastor or flatter him into thinking his ministry “is making a difference.”
This was my experience as a parish pastor. The inactive member wanted something. I didn’t know what it was, but I did know I was the bread to butter. Take your pick: a wedding, a Christmas Eve baptism, something of that sort. They all started out, “we used to belong to your church”—it was always “your church,” like I was a proprietor—“and we’ve been thinking about coming back.” I had the idea I was supposed to do handsprings upon hearing this.
I always did reply, “Well, sure, we’ll be glad to have you.” That’s the polite thing to say and I said it every time, even while aching to add, “And don’t worry, the building won’t collapse if you do show up, though I know some people who might fall over.” I never said that; I wanted to be liked.
There is a singularly arrogant message in these sorts of gesturing declarations. The inactive member is saying he or she sets the terms of his or her return and it all depends on likability. Castro framed it well: “If the pope continues this way.” Inactive members expect, as G.K. Chesterton remarked, that “Christians must embrace every creed except their own.”
On the odd chance that you yourself are an inactive member who is seriously thinking about returning to worship in the fellowship of a Christian congregation, here’s my advice: Ignore Castro and instead find a pastor, priest, minister you dislike.
It can be a strong dislike or just an uneasy distaste, but that’s the place to start if you are really serious: Begin with a clergy member you can’t stand.
This is the pastor, priest, or minister (we can be ecumenical here) who mumbles every sermon into the ambo and reads liturgy with a numbing monotony at a volume just below the reach of human hearing; someone who finds more “duty” than “delight” in leading praises to God, and whose conduct of the liturgy is best described as a series of inadvertent missteps. When he preaches, his sentences never quite seem completely sequential, and his people skills hover somewhere between abrupt rudeness and casual indifference.
Find somebody like that. It’ll test your resolve about returning to worship. Think about it. Everybody else is there already, Sunday after Sunday, more Sundays than not, and they manage somehow to endure it. So, why shouldn’t you join them?
As pastors go, I’d guess the best you can hope for is that he won’t get in the way of your renewed sense of faith. If it turns out you like him, fine. But if your Christian life is tied to how much you like the pastor (or the pope), let’s just say it will have a very limited shelf life.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his previous First Things contributions are here.