We will probably never be the same again...
Is that okay?
Is that okay?
(Essay # 8)
Daniel J. Willis, Ed.D.
As a practicing member of the Catholic Church, I would say unhesitatingly that one can comment on the loss of identity and the diminishing influence of the American Catholic Church in a reflective way without being tagged as either an apologist or a "basher." In fact, it would probably be safe to assume that there are few people without an opinion on the Church at this time. But I wonder if this is not also a "timing" issue. With the implications of the clergy sex abuse scandal finally being addressed honestly and above board in many dioceses, a number of Catholic Christians were hoping that the actions of their church would no longer command the spotlight. Our sensibilities are heightened with the release of the movie, The Passion of the Christ, the report of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board, the Church's public position on same-sex marriage and, in many areas, the down-sizing and merging of local parishes.
I am not going to refer to any of the above topics because I am sure that you have your own opinions on each, but I do want to raise questions on our identity and role as a Catholic Church. I realize that there are many ongoing discussions in academic and church settings about this topic and related ones, e.g., Boston College's The Church in the 21st Century: From Crisis to Renewal. While not questioning their valuable contributions, I wonder if their findings will include direct input from ordinary people that are still sitting in the pews as well as the many individuals who have chosen not to attend anymore. I believe that, as an institution undergoing transition, the dialogue should include both the voices of those with a vested interest as well as those individuals who are generally not heard or included before moving on to resolution steps.
Regardless of where one stands on the topics cited above, one cannot help but notice the level of intensity exhibited. Without appearing hopelessly naïve on the one hand or sinisterly blasphemous on the other, are they not merely tangential to our real issue at hand? Are we not really confronting the fact that the role of the American Catholic Church in our culture has changed and will likely never be the same again? Our current situation can lead us to scenarios which might result in a loss of face, concern for competence and the ripple effects of not knowing where things will end up or an opportunity for acknowledgement, reflection and redirection. When institutions and individuals are faced with adversity they generally tend to ignore or avoid the situation as long as possible because it places them in positions of dis-ease and creates tension, uncertainty, surprise and loss of control.
Can we honestly say that we're okay with the Church probably never being the same again?
I believe that it is disingenuous for Catholics to say that the erosion of active church participation is primarily a result of the clergy sex abuse scandal and our stance on the same-sex marriage question. YES, they are major factors, but people have been making decisions with both their feet and wallets for a long time. There are others, but it is not my intent to raise these issues at this point. However, I can safely say that many people feel out of step with their Church.
But what do we mean when we say the Catholic Christian Church? You often hear about the Catholic Church and its various positions. But you never hear about what being Catholic actually means. I recently read a passage from a meditation book which highlights a similar concern.[i]
In C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, the goal of the devil is to keep Christians in a "Christianity and ..." state of mind and away from the knowledge that they are in a state of grace. The devil tells his demons to keep Christians talking about Christianity and psychology, Christianity and politics, Christianity and marriage. "Keep the emphasis away from "Christianity is."
It is easy to get bogged down with non-essentials. I am suggesting that we become more deeply in tune with our baptism call (responsibility) to proclaim the "good news" God desires all to be made whole to the world.[ii] Upon reflection I think that it is not only "okay" that our role as Church in America will never be the same again, but it is okay that it has to change, if we are to be truly relevant witnesses of the "good news." Although we can see where our past actions have gotten us, there is no value to blaming or pointing fingers at this time; but rather to consider what we both as individuals and as members of the greater community can do. We have an opportunity to mend many of our internal wounds and to also make contributions to the greater good by choosing to follow the core of our message, i.e., to Love God and Love our Neighbors as Ourselves.
How are we to do this?
As members of a pluralistic society where the privatizing of one's beliefs and practices is the general preference there is a reluctance to be truly present to the other. Yet our primary mission as Catholic Christians is to love our neighbors, in the way that Christ demonstrated. This is not easy.
Many of us have come a long ways from our forefathers' status as newly arrived "Catholic immigrants" to this country and have struggled to not only earn our place, but also to become successful and as a result, fully assimilated into its materialistic values. It is one thing to participate in familiar church's activities, including donating to Catholic Charities and other worthwhile entities, but quite another - to step out on one's own—and to become "leaven" to potential yeast-like situations in the world.
Ten years ago I was working with a group of lay Catholics to develop a program designed to reconnect people with their faith. At the conclusion of the planning phase we were asked what responsibilities we would be willing to assume, i.e., either develop activities within the Church structure or create opportunities for people to become aware of, or reconnect, to their faith in whatever places that they found themselves. Should I have not been surprised when 5 of my 6 colleagues chose the former, "within the Church structure?" This is not to judge these individuals because they were very committed, yet somehow the notion of performing faith works in public settings starting with their immediate families, street, neighborhood, community, business and other environments, placed them out of their comfort zone.
Without intending to put anyone on the spot, I recently asked a group of Catholics if they would be interested in "doing God's work in the world" and I immediately found myself faced with a pregnant pause. I wonder what our response would be to that same invitation. I recently asked some colleagues what would it take for them to move beyond their comfort zone and they told me that "it would have to include something that they really believed in."
Are we not called to engage in a faith journey (traveling the UNKNOWN) with Christ or merely to stay within a safe (KNOWN) and oftentimes, selfish and self-centered construct? If the Catholic Church is truly never to be the same again during our lifetime what then are the current implications for its membership? Does that not mean that each member will be called to act differently? It is safe to say that the Catholic Church is not the only institution in America that is going through a major overhaul. We are merely the latest. The United States has gone through a series of major paradigm shifts which are causing the majority of us to practice "relativism"—anything goes or whatever; "apathy"—what else is new; and "cynicism"—don't bother to do good, it won't make any difference[iii] in order to survive.
But are they acceptable reference points for us? Yes, it is true that the demographics for practicing Catholics have shifted dramatically and we now find ourselves more often than not in situations in which we are either in the clear minority or pretty much alone. How we choose to handle this current situation can either be a blessing or a curse. The choice is our own. Those Catholics that remain are doing so out of a conscious choice. The emphasis for remaining will be less connected to one's birth and family history.
Although the current environment might feel stark and uncomfortable to many, I believe that it is good because it allows us as Catholics to reexamine our identity and to decide if it still applies or should be changed. A colleague once shared that our faith should include the following components: communion, community and mission. If we can accept that as a working definition I believe that the majority of Catholics, like other religions in America, have never really move beyond the communion and community stages. When one talks about mission, we never seriously considered the possibilities as Catholic Christians to be missionaries in our own settings. It is one thing to send missionaries throughout the world for our faith because that entails "special" people who have a vocation or a calling; not "ordinary" individuals like us. But are we not called to be Christ's signs in the world? Many people would comment that they do not have sufficient knowledge, training or skills to be effective as "gospel people." Yet a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi states "preach and use words, only if you must."
I am not disregarding the relative importance of communion and community, but I am also emphasizing that they are only two legs of the tripod. It is only when we move on to doing the mission that we are able to grow in our communion with God and in community with each other. Jesus left us with the following answer to our current dilemma "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."(Matthew 22:36-40)
The current responsibilities for us as Catholic Christians are to determine who we are; what our priorities are and how we want to be known by others. We have just read Jesus' answer for us. We must decide if we to be a people of faith or to remain stuck with our illusions, i.e., being in complete control of our current environments. This is not to insinuate that we are to deny either the big issues of our times or the small responsibilities of our daily lives. They are both factors of life; yet is it possible not to be consumed by them? Can we be vulnerable enough to be present to God (via our neighbors) as well? We have seen what happens when one demonizes the other or treat them as a less than. It is generally not good and benefits no one. I have recently experienced how well-meaning and good people, who hold opposite positions on an explosive issue, can act toward each other. They negatively categorized and treated each other as if they were invisible. Unfortunately, this situation involved neighbors, who would have to work together in order for their neighborhood block to remain a preferable place to live.
This disagreement could be found in any neighborhood or setting. In fact, this is only one of many examples that we routinely face as we go about our lives. But as Catholic Christians, how are we called to act; what are we called to do or to be? This is a point where the other two legs of the tripod, Communion with Christ through Mass and prayers and assistance from the Community, can provide us with the necessary support, advice and encouragement to be true "gospel witnesses" in the world. Maybe our natural tendency is not to get involved. We might hope that someone else will take care of it for us. I am not suggesting that there is only one right way to address this situation or others, but I do believe that when Jesus told the lame person to "Rise, take up your pallet and walk." (Mark 2:9), he was not telling us to just think about it, but to start doing something about it as well.
In many ways I believe that we are all "lame" to some degree and in urgent need of healing. But the question is "are we willing to be healed, i.e., to take up our pallet and walk even if it requires giving up lives (which deny a real relationship with God and neighbor) and be seen as joyful people?" An individual recently told me that that the greatest fear for us, as Americans, Catholic or otherwise, was "to be embarrassed" or to stand out in any way. We have institutionalized much of our mission responsibilities (via Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals and schools) and yes, they have been tremendous assets for the Common Good. Yet, in a society which is addicted to quick fixes; easy solutions; limited or no pain and a diminishing of institutional resources in times like these, how are we to stand up to the many needs (and I would say opportunities) for mission starting with our own family members and friends, and in public settings including our immediate street, neighborhood, community, business and other environments that we find ourselves?
When one considers what is going on throughout society (at the local, national and international levels) we can again ask ourselves, is there a role for faithful Catholic Christians? And if so, what is it? We do not know our actual numbers, but it has been roughly estimated that 20-25% of Catholics are practicing their faith at this time. That might be a harsh reality given our past history, but shouldn't we be emphasizing intentionality, i.e., a clear meaning/purpose, rather than worrying about what an acceptable "market share" should look like? And if this is the case we should acknowledge this reality by encouraging our remaining Catholics (regardless of numbers) to include being a "gospel presence" in the world (mission) as part of their actual practice. I believe that the practicing of one's faith has both an internal and external dimension to it. Many would suggest that the internal/external disagreement is a faulty one anyway considering that in most Catholic Churches at this time, one would find either little "community" or the fact that "communion" is only a Sunday event. Christ told us that we could not love God without showing it concretely in the world. In fact, this is how He distinguished between the two great commandments. He stated: You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart...This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
What are we to do with this radical concept? What if we were to take this precept to heart in every environment that we find ourselves, starting within our Church communities? What better time than the present to do just this? Christ did not tell us that it would be easy. In fact, he constantly stressed that following Him would require taking up our Cross every day. Yet, we have experienced a time when a great majority acted as Christ suggested and did what HE asked us to do. I personally saw what can happen when people treat each other with love and respect. For that brief period after 9/11 in our country, people noticed each other and treated them as they would have liked to be treated. They ignored the risks and dangers of being present to the other and found security where one would normally expect the opposite. But as life returned to normal, we quickly returned to our old ways in a society which highly values selfishness, "me-isms" or it is all about me; competition; pursuit of control and the quest for pleasure.[iv]
This remains a good time for us to be Catholic Christians if we are willing to make sacrifices and authentically practice our faith by STEPPING OUT THERE and being a "gospel" presence in whatever situations that we find ourselves. The act(s) might initially be met with uncertainty, disbelief and even hostility, yet if one acts in selfless love and is willing to look like a "fool for the sake of the gospel" then one will often experience the unexpected. If we are willing to step out to others every day, can you imagine what type of example would be set? I once asked a group of friends how involved their kids were in their neighborhoods and they stressed while they were basically good, they did note that it would be highly unlikely for them to interact with or do an errand for a neighbor. Maybe these young people are looking for real life examples. How are people to understand what Catholic Christianity stands for if they do not see it practiced in the day to day realities of life? Unfortunately, young people are not the only ones that require concrete examples. As a parent, I have learned that the maxim "do what I say and not what I do" will only get me... As a Church, our leaders have learned "do what we say and not what we do" will only get them... and as a nation, we have learned "do what we say and not what we do" will only get us... to the point that we find ourselves today.
Do not expect instant changes. We are talking about the long term. Many folks might consider my comments to be somewhat far fetched because it appears as though I have fast-forwarded away from much of the pain, shame, anger and disappointment that many Catholics are currently facing. I do not deny that these are feelings that have to be faced and in many instances, atoned for. But it is during these changing times that we, as individuals, must decide if we want to remain stuck or stay the course and decide how (and this is a big one) we intend to invite others to consider a faith journey with Christ. After over a year of putting my neighbors' trash barrels back for them after our weekly trash pick up one neighbor recently saw me doing this and asked me "WHY?" I quietly commented that "it was the right thing to do." But the truth of the matter is that I had previously decided that being a "gospel" presence meant doing it right where I lived.
But how are we to do this?
Simply, by serving, loving/being available and leading/initiating as we go about our daily lives. Much has been written about "servant leadership" as if it is a novel concept; but Christ both modeled and stressed this way of being to His followers throughout His public ministry. This is a time for the use of an active imagination. We are being called "to be gospel witnesses." What will that entail? Putting trash cans away weekly and interacting with all of my neighbors (even the ones that I do not know) daily, are two of the paths that I have chosen.
We know that Christ's evangelization model (of bringing the "good news") included both communion which is relationship and support and community by sending his followers out in two's or more. He also emphasized serving, loving/being available and leading by example. Can we first start off by acknowledging who our neighbors are? Have we been taught to ignore their plight? Do we even know them? Do we speak to them? Do we encourage them? It has always amazed me that people are so willing to go away from their settings in order to help others. I have seen youth and adult volunteer groups go away to inner cities, Appalachia and foreign environments to help poor people. Admittedly, these worthwhile activities should continue, but there is a general reluctance to do the necessary work right in one's backyard. I am not ignoring the impact of systemic issues or dismissing our social justice orientation and many of the good works that are currently being performed under the aegis of our Church. But I also think that there are other approaches to carry out Christ's mission as we go forward.
I find the three actions of 1) serving, 2) loving/being present and 3) leading/initiating to be interchangeable. You will find that if you do any of the three listed above, you will be, in essence, doing all of them. However, it is the doing which is the most difficult. How does one get to the doing? It did not come easy for me. I initially experienced trepidation as I wondered what others would think of me. I questioned my motives. I asked if there were other less direct and involving ways to bring about the Reign of God. The process of moving from the thinking to the doing was an arduous journey in itself. I cannot help you make your decision. I know that it requires one to step out in faith; not knowing where it might lead them. But I will leave you with the following questions as a way of thinking about what it might take for you to be/become a "gospel" presence in our world.
How do we go about serving others...in whatever situation(s) that we find them?...The people that officially or practically serve us in many ways, i.e. counterperson who provides coffee, janitors, security staff, etc.? ...Those who do not want to be served? Loving/Being
How do we treat our colleagues and support staff and even our bosses? How available are we when we have our own pending deadlines facing us? Are we able to take time for others even when it is inconvenient?
How do we set examples which allow for looking at other options? Are we willing to "step up to the plate" when our gifts benefits the Common Good?
In conclusion, I ask if it is okay that the Catholic Church will probably never be the same again. And if so, how much of a difference will it mean in your lives? What better time for us to move forward with our faith in a conscious and adult manner? There is certainly a need for our presence in the World. We have all been called "to do the truth in love." I have found that there are generally no short cuts or easy way of accomplishing this. Are we open to recognizing it? ...Accepting it? ...Being faithful to it?[v] I end this essay by using a commonly referred to sport's metaphor, "the ball is now in our court."
Daniel J. Willis is an organizational psychologist who works with individuals and organizations to reduce the impact of fear in their lives and their organizations. His services, "Noli Timere / Be Not Afraid" are designed to show others—who they are, how they act and why addressing fear is both healthy and inevitable for their survival and eventual growth. He has taken a hiatus (about two years) from writing essays on the topic of fear, but felt called as an individual who is concerned with and committed to his religion to respond to where we find ourselves as Catholics today.
Daniel J. Willis can be contacted at (617) 288-0567 or Gwassocdw@aol.com. Copies of the first seven essays are available upon request.
- A. Philip Parham, LETTING GOD Christian Meditations for Recovering Persons, February 16th (Harper Collins, 1987)
- Dr. Jacqueline (Jackie) Stewart, Director of Evangelization, Evangelization at St. Anthony Shrine, Pg. 2 (St. Anthony Shrine)
- Living Faith, Volume 19. Number 4, March 8th (Creative Communication for the Parish)
- The Triumph of the Cross, Donald C. Maldari, America Magazine, March 8, 2004
- Grace of the Annunciation, Pope John Paul II, Magnificat, Vol. 5, No. 14, pg. 345