Beyond the Packaging

As the campaign season winds down to the wire, both press and pundit crave the latest zinger (or gaffe) that could fuel the next news cycle. To be at their most persuasive yet, without overly taxing the intellect or attention span of their audiences, candidates will strive to make their pitches with clarity and conviction. Political professionals are well schooled in the power of perception — regrettably, at times, even over the product — and the impact of that emotional punch for sealing the deal.

The marketing of religion in our time has sometimes followed course. An analogy might be drawn with the mass appeal of some religious congregations who creatively package themselves as, for example, a rock or swing church, as some kind of shrine or tabernacle. At times even Catholic parishes, shamed by how nearby mega-churches siphon off some of their flock, invest in special interests, often nurturing a kind of culture around a hyphen-Mass with a folk-, family-, youth- or healing- orientation. Perhaps this is all to the better — if people show up and actually stick around when the ecstasy wanes and agony sets in.

As our bishops gather in Rome with the Holy Father to pray and assess growing concerns about the decline of religious practice, it is timely that we ask ourselves whether we are focusing on more of the packaging than the “product.” The real strength of a family of faith is not only in its marketing skills at attracting crowds but in its authenticity, to endure and to sustain life. Our Lord Himself often drew large crowds with His signs and preaching, but also repelled many more when He proclaimed the demands of discipleship. It is remarkable how much, for example, He asked of the 72 whom He commissioned to go from town to town, two by two, with literally nothing except their trust in Him and the Gospel. To this day, the least “attractive” — from a worldly perspective — and most self-sacrificing disciples of Christ remain the most popular — like St. Francis, the Curé d’Ars and Mother Teresa.

How often we hear it said that people just want to be fed but with what? Crudely stated, much of the unrest abroad today — Greece and Spain come to mind — is a manifestation of outrage against governments that can no longer meet demands for goods and services that a diminishing work force (and negative birthrate) cannot provide.

To expect that America is immune to such a fate — given our own growing debt, aging population, and diminishing birthrate — seems almost delusional. Is it possible that our expectations from our socio-political institutions — as well as our churches! — have become conflated through a culture of consumerism that demands first to be served before serving? Jesus came to feed a hungry world. In order to do this, however, He sacrificed Himself, His flesh and blood, making the Cross the model for His disciples. Simply stated, giving up to get is the path to the salvation He promises. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit (Mt. 5:3) and Christ-formed life is the way.

We seem to have become accustomed not only to electing officials on the basis of what we think they can give us but in shopping churches — or hyphen priests and Masses — selected by how they make us feel. Our deepest hunger, however, may be the need to give rather than to get, indeed our salvation lies therein.

In times such as ours, when everyone feels the pinch of a struggling economy, our most accessible relief comes from hearing the Gospel clearly and living it, from going beyond the talking points of a campaign or a pop church and being nourished by the red meat of the Word of Life.

A steady diet of the Eucharist, the Scriptures and the lives of the saints will do us more good than to place our hopes in the next president, a new Congress, or even another pastor.