In anticipation of the weekend’s readings, I read an article that treated a matter of personal and ecclesial concern. The people of the Coal Region once were known for, among other things, their deep identification with the Catholic faith. What happened to that?
The current religious and spiritual landscape is becoming increasingly arid. When I visit the hospital, I receive a roster of patients grouped according to parish membership. The largest classification is “Unaffiliated." It contains people of all ages. I sometimes feel like I’m trying to sell something to them!
More to the point, I feel like Saint Paul as he lamented all the graces that his own people were failing to appreciate. Maybe his manner of expression was dramatic, maybe it was sincere; but he said he’d be happier losing his own relationship with the Lord if it meant that people could gain theirs.
So as to redirect my pessimistic tendencies, I found a more accurate way to express myself in the article I read: We can no longer count on the secure transmission of the faith from parents to children within the larger context of fervent families and parishes.
For good or ill, people had a better chance of becoming and staying Catholic if they were of a traditionally Catholic ethnic background (e.g., Polish, Lithuanian, Italian). Cultural expressions and family traditions conveyed the faith as perfect supplements to sound Catholic schools and CCD programs. Of course, knowledge alone doesn't purvey genuine faith: one can get into even heady theological discussions where God is best incidental and at worst a bludgeoning tool.
On one hand, then, a person can have absolutely no experience with a community where God is praised, doctrines taught, and morals lived; on the other hand, one can learn everything about God, pay strict attention to rubrics, and do the right thing, but never come to know God personally. Neither scenario is ideal. What is?
As a universal Church, as a diocese, as a parish, as families, and as individuals, we need to become the place where God is praised, doctrines taught, and morals lived, and all this propelled by a vibrant communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, with Mary and with all the saints and angels. If heaven and earth do not start to come together in us, here and now, we will never raise a generation who really cares about either.
In order to cultivate a real and living relationship with God, the first requirement is the ability and willingness to be silent. Face it: it’s not easy to be silent for long enough, like Elijah, to hear the “tiny whispering sound” of God. Our minds better resemble the storm-tossed boat in which the distraught disciples suddenly found faith.
(By the way, “distraught” comes from an old adjective “distract,” which was an archaic past participle of “stretch.” You might say Peter and the other disciples, and every disciple since, has had to be stretched in order for faith to grow.)
The proliferation of sin prompts doubt about our worthiness of God. "I suffer from this or that failing. I rationalize my bad actions. I fear I may die without friends. My heart's desires will remain unfulfilled. Life has not dealt me a good hand. Untreated resentments about people and things in my past stew within me. I am distracted in every imaginable direction. I am beset by paralyzing fears, selfish attachments, and wayward drives. I’m a mess!”
Can we become honest enough with God and other people, to let them in? Are we that honest with ourselves? By His own admission, the Lord Jesus is the perfect audience, the perfect companion for messes like us: like our families, our communities, our workplaces and schools and world. It has to start with us. We have to let us into us so we will let Him into us, and then let Him move through us.
And fortunately, in establishing a personal relationship with us, Jesus “jumps the gun,” precisely by giving us the Eucharist, His own Body and Blood. He inserts the Mass into our mess, so we can take our mess to the Mass. The communal relationship of Holy Communion facilitates the personal relationship that the Catholic faith needs to flourish in our land.