Parents often ask me (if they find out) why their son or their daughter never goes to Mass at University whilst still going to Mass back home. The answer is simple. At home going to Mass is easy. It’s the place you know with the people you know. It doesn’t require much effort. Going to Mass at University is much much harder. No parents to go with in the car, and a new church to find at a new time, and a sea of unknown faces to face when you walk through the door, with an atmosphere which may be very different from the church back home.
But there are also suddenly so many other new things you have to do, new priorities that have to be worked out. Shopping and cooking if you are to eat. Timetables to be read carefully, so you find your way to the right room on the right campus at the right time. Making new friends. Because without the companionship of other students, University is just a big lonely and rather frightening place. And then the highest priority of all – dealing with your money! Spending it sensibly, and also making sure you have enough to live on, which may well mean getting paid part-time work, and fitting that in with everything else you are expected to do.
So, when Jesus, in our Gospel today (Luke 16:1-13), uses an example of coping with a money crisis, he does so because he knows only too well that in most people’s lives money is the highest priority of all. But Jesus goes further and deliberately shocks us with an example of a man who copes with his major money crisis by stealing from his employer. And then he adds to it that other priority already mentioned, making friends. Of course, as our 1st Reading (Amos 8:4-7) and the second half of the Gospel make clear, Jesus is not suggesting that it is OK to act in this immoral way with money. Nor is he suggesting that this is the way to make friends. He tells us this immoral story because he wants to shock us into realising that responding to God ought to be the most urgent and pressing priority in our lives – even more important than having enough money to live on.
Now that’s a hard message to take isn’t it? For most of us would have to admit that if we had to choose between earning enough money to survive and going to Mass, we would put the money first!
Many of us would also add on to that other things that we would also put first – friends being one of them. The most obvious solution to all this is to say as many do, that “as long as I say some prayers in my room” I am still responding to God, and showing him I love him, and then Mass becomes an optional extra if and when there is time.
Now I could go on at this point about how important Mass is, how it fulfils the command of Jesus “Do this in memory of me”, that it’s the way above all ways where we show how much we love him, that prayers in your room can diminish into selfish day-dreaming. But this is all so much propaganda if people do not believe in their hearts that Mass is the priority that the Church says it is. What then is it that will help us to see that without the Mass everything else we do, even survival itself, is a waste of time?
I want to give an answer by looking at the things that make people come back to Mass after a time away. At University, it may simply take time for a student to realise what they are missing. Sometimes they go back home and go to Mass at Christmas. With tears in their eyes they come back determined to find a Mass, and hopefully contact me to find one. Other students keep meaning to make it to Mass and never do until much later on, even in their final year. Then suddenly they realise they are about to go out into the big wide world of work and maybe aiming for marriage, and they want once again to be a full part of the Church. Others stay away much longer, until they have their own children, and suddenly regret what they have missed and realise that they want for them, what they had and have lost.
My job as a priest is to be the good shepherd looking after the sheep whatever they are up to, to be the loving father waiting with a warm welcome to anyone whenever they feel moved to come back to Mass. To make it clear that they are needed, that the Church is the poorer without them. But sometimes sadly, it is not until a person faces the ultimate crisis of death, in their life or in that of a loved one, that they realise that in the end, the final end, all that matters is God. For without God, money, friends, education, everything, has no point, no meaning, no purpose at all.