In a recent parish email, we were invited to partake in synodal listening sessions. The letter invited us to reflect on the following questions in preparation for the sessions:
- What is your experience of the Church?
- What do you hope your experience and others’ could be?
- How would you describe Jesus’ presence in your life?
- What could the Church do (if anything) to help you and to be a more meaningful part of your life?
- What impact do we want the Church to have in the world?
This whole synodal thing reminds me of a recent explanation of the Church’s dwindling membership given by psychologist Jordan Peterson in a conversation with Bishop Robert Barron: “My sense is that it’s because the Church does not demand enough of young people. And by not demanding enough it doesn’t indicate its faith in their possibility… And the reason that people are leaving is because that adventure isn’t being put before them.”
Is Peterson right? In a sense, there is no such thing as a cradle Catholic; there are only converts. Most of us were baptized in infancy, receiving the gift of sanctifying grace, but that strength imparted by the Holy Spirit must be embraced at some point after Baptism. Call it “born again,” call it what you will, everyone’s salvation involves conversion; it involves taking up one’s cross—in Dr. Peterson’s words, the “adventure.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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When I was a child—we’re talking pre-Vatican II—when reference was made to the Mass, it was nearly always referred to as “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” The word priest conveyed all that needed to be said. He wasn’t the “celebrant,” he certainly wasn’t the “presider”—a term which wreaks of the heretical concept of consubstantiation—he was the priest: the one who offered the sacrifice. It was all very self-explanatory. Sacrifice was the adventure.
Concerning question number three above—How would you describe Jesus’ presence in your life?—I feel called to join in His sacrifice; that is the adventure; that is His “presence in” my life. He has sacrificed for us, so we sacrifice for others in His name, and He is present in that sacrifice. Sacrifice defines adventure.
Modern life is not exactly the embrace of vulnerability, and certainly not of sacrifice. To be truly human is to be vulnerable. The Christ of many heresies was never fully human because many a heretic was not comfortable with the idea of an infinite God who was vulnerable, primarily because sharing in that vulnerability was a cross that they were unwilling to carry. Such heresies were, in essence, ancient prosperity theologies: gain without pain (there’s nothing new under the sun). But God is love, and love, in a human sense, is only love if we have something to lose. By embracing our vulnerability, we become fully human and a true reflection of the Godman.
To paraphrase JFK, “Ask not what your Church can do for you; ask what you can do for your Church.” Just as we, in essence, are the country, much more so than is the land mass that we occupy, all the more so, we are the Church, and as we are all sinful, we are all part of the problem.
A nun that I knew years ago spoke of how her mother had always prayed only the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, but that, thankfully, her own spiritual life was centered on the joy of the Resurrection and that she therefore prayed primarily the Glorious Mysteries. If her mother had erred, it was an error of imbalance; but in fairness to her, there is no Resurrection without a Crucifixion, no glory without the sacrifice. Life is our Golgotha.
In a recent conversation between my wife and a certain bishop’s secretary, the concept of the Church Militant entered the conversation, a concept unfamiliar to the secretary. My wife explained that those souls which still inhabit the earth are the Church Militant, that the blessed souls in Purgatory are the Church Suffering, and that the saints in Heaven are the Church Triumphant. No judgment, but the dear lady with whom she spoke had never heard these terms. What does that say about our catechesis?
We are the Church Militant. Life requires that we be engaged in the battle, wearing the armor of God, prayer weapons on our lips, all with a readiness to serve. Does that describe modern life? Clearly, that is the message of the Gospel, but is it the message of today’s clerics? Is it the message we’re passing on to our children? Or are we too busy celebrating the Resurrection to get bogged down by the Passion? Do we offer the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass”?
There is a staggering, vulnerable beauty in the horrors of that sacrifice. The crucifix, too intense with the devastating beauty of that horror, is reduced by many to a cross: to the mere instrument of horror. But the instrument of horror is not salvific, only the sacrifice. Whether we are suffering an abominable marriage for the sake of the children, or suffering abominable children for the sake of the marriage; whether we are employed by an insufferably hostile boss, or are business owners straddled with insufferably difficult employees; whether we are dealing with a Church hierarchy flirting with heresy, or are priests attempting to quell veritable rebellions against orthodoxy from within the pews, that suffering is not incidental to the adventure; it is the adventure. Every challenge accepted makes us more like the Savior, who came to lead the way through mire the likes of which we could never navigate by our own strength.
That mire is not new and is here to stay. What has changed, I fear, is our engagement, our readiness and eagerness for battle. If our clerics have failed us in many ways, I suspect that we have also failed them in many ways. Bivouac is not battle. It often seems that we are a Church that is standing down. No one wants to talk about the enemy: sin. Talking about sin, about personal responsibility, is not fashionable.
Historically, the Church has been catechetical, but it has never been particularly apologetic, at least not at the local level. Non-Catholic faiths, on the other hand, tend to be weak in catechesis and nearly completely focused on apologetics. Those apologetics, however, have, more often than not, been more offensive than they were defensive; that is to say, they were not about why certain things were believed but more so about what was wrong with what Catholics believed. With the rise of ecumenical effort, we were a Church less than perfectly prepared for that effort; we attempted unification with troops that were not entirely sure what the battle was about.
Yes, unification is a battle, often a fierce one.
If you don’t believe that, get married—or join a monastery—or get a job. Life isn’t about being on the same page, it’s about getting on the same page, an effort that only has value if we all recognize that the page—objective reality—is an actual thing and that working together toward that end has value. The synodal process only has value if approached in this context—a battle for real unity based on objective reality; that is, based on the wisdom of the ages: the faith of the Universal Church. Otherwise, it is a dangerous, stupid exercise destined for schism.
It seems that our reward for our less-than-perfect attempt at ecumenism is a taste acquired from our Protestant friends: a taste for Church as commodity, something we consume; when we don’t like some things about the product, we move on until the divisions become too numerous to count, divisions that cast the shadow of dissolution upon the teachings of the Master. One cannot live long in the shadow of that dissolution; universal truth and agnosticism soon enough become the only tenable selections: Catholicism or doubt. This defines the great cultural divide of our times.
Jordan Peterson has a very interesting take on the story of Eden. God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Nothing about God will ever change; perfection cannot be altered. Perfection, in Peterson’s words, has no story to tell. We, on the other hand, are finite. Christ, in His physicality, shared our finitude. The Logos, the Word-made-flesh, Peterson goes on to say, is God’s only story, and we are an indispensable part of that story. Years ago, Hollywood produced a movie about the life of Christ titled The Greatest Story Ever Told. Indeed, it is the only story ever told; our stories are all bound up in it.
The Church will rebound because we have nowhere else to go. As the world tests a multitude of political panaceas, and flirts with certain catastrophe, we must be the ones holding the torch; shedding light on the unchangeable. We need to stop trying to write our own stories and get into character for the only one that matters.
There are voices within the Church, as there have always been, telling us that we need to get with the times. But that is not the Church’s mission. Our task is to create the culture, to recreate the times, to fix a broken world. If we are to be creative, let it be creativity in presenting ancient, refreshing truths to a world worn old by novelty. No one needs a Church worn old by novelty, for novelty is a heartless taskmaster that is never fresh; it is an adolescent fascination, an end in and of itself—seemingly new, but forever stale with the taste of that first novelty in Eden.
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