9 Sept 2018
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
You see the dark clouds in the West; dark, purple, heavy clouds and we get nervous—or excited. A storm is coming. “Will the old tree hold up through one more storm,” we wonder. “Is the roof going to stay on...or, at least, is it going to keep the rain out, or is it going to leak again,” we say to ourselves. When the clouds are heavy in the West, we get a little nervous—a storm is coming.
Of course, then the storm hits and you really start praying. And that’s kind of where we are as a Church. And the storm’s been brewing for decades. I could be talking about the abuse scandal which just seems to get worse as new allegations surface about abuse from years ago. I could be talking about the steady decline in people receiving the Eucharist at Mass. The storm could be the wave of de-Christianization of society and culture. It could the crippled sense of the other-worldly, the spiritual within humanity today. The storm could be a lot of things. And, really, it’s all of these things...and more.
And sometimes people ask me if the Church has ever been in this position before. Has the Church been hit hard in the past...and survived? Of course, the question behind the question is: Is there hope? Is there hope that the faith will not be wiped out by the storm we’re in? And the short answer is: Yes. Yes, there’s hope—as long we have hope and faith in the right things. The faithful have been hit by storms in the past, but they’ve always survived—by hope and faith.
For the first 260 years of the Church, Christianity was illegal. It depended on who the Roman Emperor was at any given time, but Christians were either barely tolerated or persecuted and killed. And at the time, Christians numbered just in the thousands—not the billions like there are today.
And, even today, Christianity is illegal in some parts of the world. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it is illegal to practice the Christian faith. And so the Christians over there practice their faith secretly—not all that differently from the early Church. If they’re discovered, they either have to renounce faith in Jesus or be put to death. In such hostile environments that existed in the early Church and in some part of the world even today, the faith survives and is strong.
And that’s because those Christians’ faith and hope are in the right thing; namely, God. They take the words of Scripture very seriously, as we heard in the psalm: “Praise the Lord, my soul! The God of Jacob keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry.” Persecuted Christians past and present are a reason to have hope; the Church, the faith, survives those storms very well.
And then just after Christianity was made legal in the year 313, there was a major heresy that took hold in Church leadership. It’s called the Arian Heresy, and it taught that Jesus was not the Word of God; Jesus was not the Son of God; he was not divine. The Arians taught that Jesus was created—like you and me. He was the most perfect creation, yes, but he was not God.
And for about thirty years, the major of bishops in the world at the time were Arians; they didn’t believe that Jesus was God. And that was a major crisis for the faith. By the grace of God, however, there were some bishops (and most of the lay faithful) who were very solid in believing what St. Peter said when he said to Jesus: “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
And after those thirty years or so, the winds changed, and the Church got back on track. The faith—the truth—survived...by the grace of God.
And then there was the Protestant Reformation, started in the year 1517. Only that was a little different. What Martin Luther said back then wasn’t entirely off the beam; the Church had some significant problems. Luther wasn’t entirely right, but the Church wasn’t entirely right either. And, as we know, all of Europe was thrown into a storm. Almost all of northern Europe left the Catholic faith and became Protestant.
And, as a result, the Church did make some much-needed changes. It was a terrible storm, and one that could have been avoided. But, in the end, the faith survived—even if the community itself had ruptured. And that’s because at the heart of the faith—whether Protestant or Catholic—was and is Jesus Christ. As long as he’s at the core of what we’re about, there’s hope.
But that’s also why the storm we find ourselves in today is especially troublesome to many. Ever since around the mid-1500s, the idea of faith, the notion of the spiritual and the divine has been slowly but steadily worn down. It’s like how over time water wears down a stone until that stone doesn’t have any sharp edges anymore. The stone isn’t gone, but it’s not as sharp as it was before.
And that’s what the storm of rationalism and radical individualism has done to the faith over the course of 500 years. This age we live in now where I am the master of my destiny, where “my truth” is the only truth, where the history of the world started the day “I” was born...it didn’t just come from nowhere. The “me” generation didn’t come from nothing. It’s a result of a very long, steady rain that’s worn down the “religious sense” in the human race.
And that’s only bred other storms we’re dealing with today. Among other reasons, the abuse scandal is a result of the sin of selfishness, where some clergy have said—at least in their hearts—“what I want is more important than this child’s human dignity.” And when that abuse was discovered, instead of being reported, it was covered up when some in Church leadership said—at least in their hearts—“the public image of the Church is more important than the truth.”
But that’s also a storm which—like the Protestant Reformation—has had some positive results. First off, the truth has been revealed...and that’s always a good thing, even if it’s painful. And, finally, victims of abuse are given some measure of dignity. And second, the formation of priests in the past twenty years or so is radically different than it was before. Priests still learn their theology and philosophy, they learn how to pray and say Mass. But they’re also made to be honest with themselves; to learn what their weaknesses are as individual men and how to be honest about those with themselves and others. They’re made to address sexuality and how to be healthy in that respect. And all of that makes them to be better priests, better humans who exist not for the gratification of “me,” but for the fulfillment of “me” and “you,” and for the sharing of the Gospel.
It’s maybe like a volcano that’s spewed globs of lava all over a once beautiful scene. Maybe that’s what the abuse scandal is like. But, at the same time, some little flowers and plants do grow out of the muck. And that new growth is happening already within the priesthood, and has been for about twenty years now. Still, though, we’re in a storm. But there’s hope. As long as Jesus is the heart of what we’re about, there’s hope.
Of course, as I said, we’re in an age now when Jesus isn’t necessarily the center. Even faith in the spiritual or the divine is worn away. And that helps breed the other big storm we face as a Church today—a shortage of priests.
Priesthood is a life commitment. It’s just like marriage when somebody commits him- or herself to their beloved for life. But what happens when people are less inclined to believe that Jesus—the Beloved—even exists at all? Well, then, priesthood seems kind of...silly. The shortage of priests isn’t necessarily a shortage of people saying “yes” to Jesus. Maybe it’s a shortage of people believing that Jesus actually exists? It’s a crisis of faith—simple, basic faith in the divine, in the spiritual.
When the clouds are dark over in the West, we get a little nervous. And when the storm is on top of us, we pray a lot and hope to God that we make it through. We’re in some pretty big storms right now. But, if the history of God and his people show us anything, it’s that we can have a “sure and certain hope.” And if our personal history with storms shows us anything, it’s that behind the storm is clear skies. Always.
With God, the skies are always clear after the storm. We just have to get through the storm. And our faith and hope will us do that.