There are things to be carefully considered in the current squabble within our diocese over the closing of a number of parishes by the bishop – things about which I wonder what You would say.
It seems there are at least some things that can be said for the bishop’s side, for the side of a few outspoken clergy who oppose the bishop’s actions, and for the side of groups of faithful from some of the closed parishes.
From an economic and administrative standpoint I don’t think there was any doubt that the diocese had to do some “down-sizing.” This understandably hit life-long members of a closed church very hard. Often two, three, or more generations of a family saw their churches shut down. The degree of resentment and reaction varied. Many have filed appeals to either the bishop or directly to Rome. One group has rented their own building and, with their pastor, has continued to be an active parish despite the bishop’s threats of excommunication. The bishop, it seems to me, has definitely put himself in an indefensible position with this move. He may be a renowned administrative leader, but his pastoral leadership is becoming infamous. His threats regarding the endangerment of their souls and about excommunication to those who most strongly oppose him seem hollow and self-righteous compared to a flock that has found a way to worship together and celebrate with an alternative that still allows the bishop to close their church building.
I cannot help but thinking that You would say that all sides are missing the point. Establishing, nurturing, and growing in our relationship with You is not about buildings, or priests, or bishops, or even about economics or administration. All these my have ties to our growth, but they are not the foundation. In Russia people’s faith survived for decades without churches. We don’t often enough consider the fact that people are church – not buildings!
The historic major changes that have taken place in our diocese and been officially announced recently have made me once more reflect on the meaning of “church.”
Due to times of economic difficulty, a shrinking diocesan population, and fewer clergy, down-sizing on a large scale has come to our diocese. It has manifested itself in the closing and/or merging of about 50 parishes. There is, of course, emotional backlash from long-standing parishioners who’ve seen a particular church that has served their family for generations suddenly closed for good and probably later demolished. I can’t say I’m totally immune from those feelings. The parish our family has belonged to for 40 years was not that old when we joined it. So, we have no previous history with it.Even now, we spread our attendance around so much that only occasionally are we at our own parish. Thus the attachment there is one of proximity and convenience more than anything else. It will be merging with two other parishes to form one new one.
But the parish I grew up in, now almost 100 years old, to which I have not been actively connected for 40 years, has been closed. This tugs at my heartstrings. This is the parish in which my mom and dad were married, where my brother and I were raised and went to school; where we were baptized and received our first communion and confirmation. It was the church we attended every Sunday and the church from which our mom and dad were buried. It was the church where I served Mass and where my aunt took instructions and was baptized. It’s a huge, beautiful basilica-type edifice full of marble and stained-glass. It was modeled after a famous cathedral in Palermo, Sicily; and now it will be gone – just like that!
Somehow I can’t see You being as sentimental about it as I am. And that’s the point. Church most certainly is people, not a building. When or wherever we gather together in Your name is church. So the moaning and crying over the closings is really an outcry against habit, comfort, and history that has been “violated.”
Our lives, most basically, are about our relationship with God, and, while it helps, we don’t even need a church for that. If anything it offers us a chance to exert more effort in pursuing our relationship with You. One other major concern is that the programs of good works established by specific ministries in certain parishes will be lost in the shuffle. I don’t think this will happen despite the loss of certain familiar location.All of this best serves to remind us that WE are church!
It has come to me (through friends who are informed sources) that our new bishop from New England may be at war with parts of Vatican II. His ideal of the Catholic Christian is apparently drawn from his background. Thus east coast American Catholicism (particularly New England Catholicism) is, or should be, the true form of Catholicism in this country; or, in alignment with the staunchly conservative inclinations of Catholic orthodoxy. What many of a more liberal persuasion would see as steps backward, he sees as progress.
I am disconcerted by this and it makes me fear a divisiveness for which there are historical precedents. I am told that he and conservative Rome are of one mind and that mind is more anachronistic than progressive. In this conservative framework many lay ministries, the diaconate program, female altar servers, and communion-in-hand are being rethought here. There are other issues too of which, at this writing, I am not certain. The point is that our diocese and the global Catholic Church are led respectively by a bishop and a hierarchy who, as shepherds of their people, appear to think the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII and attended by bishops from all over the world, made more than a few mistakes in guiding the church into the new millennium.
How can this help but make one wonder about the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Can it be that the Spirit initiates the friction between conservative and liberal camps to the end that a middle ground be reached? God’s ways are not our ways; and maybe I shouldn’t even try to be figuring it out. But certainly there must be a lot of priests who are confused and disconcerted. It just does not seem healthy. The often inadvertent result of the church’s good intentions is a confusing complication of the simplicity of just loving God and our neighbor.
When the parish to which we’ve belonged for over 40 years recently merged with two neighboring parishes to form a single brand new one, a revised “Mission Statement” for the new church community was formulated. There is a line in it that I really like. It always pops out at me whenever we recite it as a group. It goes, “...that we not just proclaim the good news but that we be the good news...”
What this means is that beyond stating what we believe we actually live it. What others must see in us is the living gospel, not just its words. I’ve seen carefully worded mission statements of other parishes before, but never one so succinctly descriptive of the need of the existence of the Christian church community. It’s all one really needs to say.
If we are the good news, then we are extensions of You. We are Your hands, feet, Your life; and it is evident to others. The evangelical record of Your teaching about life is the blueprint for each person serious about living the Christian life, establishing a relationship with You, and, hence, with the Father. Thus others do not have to be told this, they can see it. News is news, but to be good news some happy dimension must be added to it. We are born, live, and die. That is news. That we love and are loved by God is good news.
The “comfort level” we attain, and then maintain within our religion can present us with a very real spiritual quandary when we realize that it may be holding us down.
Take the Jews, for example, who associated themselves with You and Your movement. Consider that after Your ascension they wanted to follow and grow in Your movement but they had anxieties about whether or not that meant abandoning Judaism. This was the religion of their tradition. It was their comfort level. Never did You specifically say that what You taught was contingent upon leaving Judaism. Yet there was an undercurrent about it that said their tradition was a point of departure if they wished to follow You and grow,
This quandary exists now as it did then – for member of all religions. This quandary includes serious considerations of how much of the comfortable traditions of our own religion we need to hang on to, and how much we need to let go in order to grow. Like Your Jewish disciples after Your ascension, we need an infusion of Your Spirit to help us figure out who we are and what we should do.
Maybe the religion we’ve followed and embraced all our lives is just a point of departure. Maybe that’s all faith-based religion was ever meant to be. Getting too “cozy” in any tradition probably means it’s time to move on. For us it is not easy. But with our recognition andacceptance of Your Spirit it is possible. When we reach the point presented by this quandary we might do well to look at the example of those early Jewish disciples and, with faith and trust, let go and let God.
If we consider the panoramic view of what is documented by the Old Testament, and compare it with what the New Testament documents, from God’s apparent point of view there really isn’t much difference. Of course that would not be said by the people involved in whom the differences ostensibly reside.
For one thing, from God’s point of view, the “chosen people” were always “all people” – mankind! Human beings are the chosen people of God and, from creation, always have been. Much of what we consider the difference between the Old Testament and the New is the perception of the people involved. Historically the concepts and perceptions of our monotheistic faith in a God who cares about us come through the Jewish people and the Jewish faith-tradition. For this reason they might consider themselves a “chosen” people. But the record of their perceptions is theirs, not necessarily God’s. In fact, while the recorded revelations of God’s communications with the Jews often uses the phrase, My people, nowhere that I know of is God’s affirmation recorded that the Jews are exclusively the “chosen people.” They are, indeed, a chosen people, but no more so than any other people. It just so happened that the Jewish people recorded their evolving relationship with the one God who chose them at a particular time and in a particular place to touch all mankind. For our concept of a great and loving God who cares about us and who involves Himself directly with us, we owe the Jews much gratitude.
God chose the best channel through which to reach mankind and implement its redemption. In this sense the Jews might be spoken of as the “chosen people.” They were picked as the first fruits of the total harvest.
The reason, it seems to me, that You were not sent to the Romans, or the Greeks, or the Persians, or any other race (all of whom, in the big picture, were equally chosen with the Jews) is because God worked through the tradition and history of this one people in order to establish His relationship with the whole world. This is the panoramic view.
The other side of the story, in my perception, is that despite their rejection of You the Jews are still as much a chosen people as everyone else. We Christians might tend to believe that we are now more “chosen,” but what we are is chosen now to take the lead as once the Jews did. In this sense we are now God’s chosen people. In one of the most magnificent transitions in recorded history St. Paul realized this.
Yet, in our time, if we “drop the ball,” others will be “chosen.” God’s relationship with humanity overcomes all the vicissitudes of any race. A “chosen people” is chosen by God, not man. I think the Old Testament, in Isaiah 11:6-9, bears out God’s intention that all people in the world then known to the Jews, from north, south, east, and west, were meant by God to be His people.
In his short homily this morning the priest referred to Your thinking and preaching to the elders of Israel as “outside the box,” and Your message as “mind-bending.” I got to thinking about these two phrases in regards to Your approach to teaching. Because of the human proclivity for comfort and routine, they seemed quite apropos then as well as now – because the “elders” now are not that much different from then.
Boxed-in mindsets are barriers against the workings of the Spirit. Yet, there comes into play here the whole idea behind our relationship withelders of our time (who might be characterized as “the church”} and our relationship with You. It’s quite true that I often consider andcompare the “inside-the-box” thinking of the Jewish elders of Your time with the church hierarchy of our time. At both ends there are sincere, devout, spiritual people whose lives are about growing in love and understanding of God. But it is also true that at both ends we can find the hypocrites who, under the guise of holiness, seek selfish ends and use the comfort of time-worn rules, regulations, and traditions to accomplish them.
I privately entertain many thoughts and questions about spirituality and the growth of our relationship with God; but one of the most salient would be: What would Your thinking, Your teaching, Your message be if You were physically here now in our times? I can only imagine the answer. What I imagine involves confrontation with the “elders” of our day.The cultivation of our relationship with God is not synonymous with our relationship to the church. Our relationship to the church is a factor, but it is parallel or, in some cases, even tangential to our relationship with God. The “box” outside of which You may have been teaching and preaching was the Jewish “church” of Your time. If You were physically here now it would be the church of our time.
There must be at least some consideration of the possibility that You did not formally establish any religion but simply proclaimed that the way to God was through You. The philosophical and spiritual movement initiated by this good news resulted in people establishing organized religions and churches.
The point, I think, is often missed that in God’s relationship with humanity He did not set out to establish “clubs” upon which He now looks and judges their efficacy. God gave us You, His Son, His Word, and told You to deliver the message that You are The Way, The Truth, and The Light. If we believe in You we believe in God. If we know You we know God. This is why You were sent. People who believe this have come to be called Christians.
It seems to me that Christianity connotes less the name of a religion than a belief in Christ and a movement through Him to the Father. It is not Christ but we who have formed all kinds of “clubs” under the banner of “Christianity.” Our clubs help facilitate our direction, they educate us, but all that is needed is belief in You. This is the way to our Father – acceptance of You as the only way to union with God. Thus is established the truth of Christianity more than the truth of Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Calvinism, etc.
It seems likely that You came intentionally at a time when mankind, in the person of the Jews, was, in its relation to God, becoming an introverted legalistic system based on religious xenophobia. The desire by God to love and gather in all the flocks of mankind was waning and needed to be heralded in dramatic fashion for all time.
Our contemporary diversionary tactics over the years have diminished our perception of the fact that this is exactly what You did. Belonging to a religious “club” may help, but the path is not a religion – it is You!
You are not threatened by our differences, but You threaten them. You are not threatened by our semantic or doctrinal fragmentation of Christianity, but You are a huge threat to Christianity because what You stand for so far exceeds institutional religion.
The term “religion” has somehow grown to connote the sole means for man’s pursuit of spiritual truth – often becoming an end in itself. You were a threat in Your own time to that kind of thinking. That’s what killed You! If we judiciously examine what You taught we’d see the threat to the status quo it posed to the Jews. The challenge to change, to grow, to become new, threatened their comfort and, I fear, that same challenge is perceived as a threat today. Now, as then, we become anchored in a minimum risk brand of religion we form for our own comfort. It just may be that we’re killing You again.
To grow and flourish spiritually we must take Your challenge seriously. If we indeed conceive of You as a threat to our religion it is probably again in the sense of Your disrupting the status quo ; and hence there appears the message that our spiritual connection with God does not rest solely on religion – and that may appear threatening to us. It would certainly seem that this is the case with the current bastions of the traditional church. There is no question in my mind that if we take Your challenge seriously it is a threat to our religion.
The thousands of word about the “self” that I have written and/or thought over the years are, when considered in the reality of my life, nothing more than a hypocritical pile of worthless sawdust. Oh, I may believe them, but my life continually contradicts them.
In regards to my “self” it’s ‘do what I say, not what I do.’ I think if I stepped outside myself and took the role of a psychiatrist examining my psyche, I would find a person so egotistical and self-centered that delusions of self-worth and importance govern almost every nook and cranny of my life. One big reason is my inability to stay grounded in the present instead of always looking ahead. The extreme to which I carry this is settled upon a desire to be remembered in certain ways after my death. I send letters and notes to my children and store others for their later discovery. I transcribe all these letters to You into book form. I record my performing with various bands and store them on cassettes and CD’s. The size of my ego is what allows me to think that any of it is worth something to anyone – and I am the one advocating erasing the “self.”Sawdust!
I fear that my sense of worth regarding the spiritual becomes somewhat tipsy if some sort of bequeathal does not emanate from my life, and the notion of that bequeathal keeps me in the future rather than resting in the present and forgetting about all those things thatfeed my notions of self-worth. But I am always able to find some rationalization, some justification for them. I always go back to the thought that I must make my life somehow significant. What I do with my life is my gift to You. What this fails to consider is that my earthly life is far less significant than the life of my spirit. It is a bequeathal that can only be made to You.