A church Already Dead | 3rd Sunday of Lent

The article, “Others Do Not Create Problems for Us; Others Make Us Aware of the Problems We Have”, an interview with Fr. Julian Carron, is quoted often in this homily.

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent – 24 March 2019
Cathedral of St. Raymond and Sacred Heart Parish


Let me set the scene: on the morning of Thursday, March 21, a sleepy Joliet woke up under another day of cloudy skies. The weather otherwise seemed more promising than recent days, however, and by 7am it was already 40 degrees with light, North-Northeasterly winds around 8 miles per hour. Car engines started, lights in schools and open-signs at businesses began to come back on and our little world, which was once was at rest, was coming to life again. Another day in the Crossroads of Mid-America.

Thousands of us groggily made our way to the front door, opened it up, bent down, and picked up, as we always do, the Tribune, or the New York Times, or, if you’re Fr. Benedict, the Malawi Daily Register. For those of us who picked up the Herald News on Thursday morning, you know that despite the comfortable weather, and despite things otherwise being at peace, there was darkness on our doorsteps.

“The Accused”, the headline read. “Law firm report details 395 Illinois claims of Catholic clergy abuse”, page 3.

For those of you who saw that, I’m curious: what did you do next? What went through your head?

Here’s what I did: big sigh, plopped the paper on the table upside down because even the words, even the face of the attorney on the cover, gave me a stomach ache. It all gives me a stomach ache. But I stand by what I’ve said before, that as hard as this is to navigate, as troubling as it is to know the sins of those who’ve come before us – especially those who have served us, known us, lived among us, and brought us Jesus; especially those we trusted – as troubling as it is, it always better to turn on a light than to wander in darkness.

From what I can tell, the reactions to all of this fall into one of 3.5 categories.

First, which since you’re sitting here I think many of you fall into, are those who say, “this is terrible. It’s sick. It makes me feel many things. But this is not the Church, this is a wound in the Church, and despite all of this the Church still offers the truth. I will stay.”

There’s a second group who say something like, “this is terrible. It’s sick. It makes me feel many things. I still believe, but I’m not finding what I’m seeking here. I still want to go to church but this is not a place where I feel safe/welcomed/comfortable/etc.” A totally legitimate place to be.

But we have to be careful here. According to the data from many polls conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the adherents to this category typically go one of two places. They either go to a non-liturgical, “megachurch” style community like Willow Creek in the northern suburbs or places like Community Christian in Plainfield or Parkview in Orland Park and Homer Glen, or they find a liturgically based Christian Church such as Presbyterian or Episcopalian. The data from megachurches reveals a very high turnover rate, with people bouncing from community to community before eventually becoming disengaged altogether.

The third category is the people who say, “this is terrible. It’s sick. It makes me feel many things. And I’ve had it. I’m done.” And they leave. They don’t usually call, they don’t usually ask to be taken off the books, they simply fade away. This is a legitimate position and it’s one that I actually kind of understand. It’s something that, to be perfectly honest, as a priest I take quite seriously and it weighs on me. I feel personally responsible for the souls and salvation of my people. Yes, I get worried about the future of the parish and money and butts in seats and all of that; but I wasn’t ordained to be the manager of God’s assets on earth. I was ordained to be the shepherd, teacher, and guardian of God’s flock.

This might be seem like antiquated mumbo-jumbo, but for me this is all about your salvation. Your life forever in heaven with God. That’s it. 

The half-category I mentioned are those who belong to this second or third category, and once they have already left or fallen away they still want to claim their Catholic identity for the purpose of posting articles and news about the Church’s troubles on social media, happy to play the role of outspoken hero.

My goal today is to situate all of this in the greater context of the life of the Church and of post-Christian, and now even post-modern, society for the purpose of showing where we are and, perhaps, some ways forward.

We are witnessing in every area of life – religion, politics, entertainment, sports, economics – the crumbling of the values we once held dear, the values we believed would stand forever and so the values on which we have built ourselves. The values of freedom, generosity between persons and nations, and solidarity in society have been replaced with various slaveries of every kind; we are more individualistic – a position which says, “I am god and I will create” – pluralistic – a position which says, “everything is true, or perhaps nothing is true, but it makes no difference” – and relativistic – a position which says, “I am the arbiter of what is true; and you are the arbiter of what is true. And even if these two truths contradict, no one must change because we’re both right” – than ever before. This has created unspeakable loneliness, an emptiness which dominates society and has transformed, all over the world in almost every cultural context, into violence and terrorism.

This is a crisis, and it is not a crisis that is like anything we have witnessed before. We are standing in the midst of what Pope Francis has called “a change of epoch.” The Christian epoch is over, dead. We are now witnessing changes that affect every level of human life.

Let’s put this in some historical context.

At the turn of the 16th century, in the years leading up to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the Protestant Reformation, the West experienced religious unity as a consequence of the Christian presence. Obviously, there were problems and reform was needed but at the least Europe was united on the grounds of Christianity; “this religious unity went up in the air with the…Reformation.” (Carron, “Others Do Not Create Problems for Us; Others Make Us Aware of the Problems We Have,” 2) When Europeans were tired of fighting for religious reasons, they realized they needed to root society on something new. If religious belief and practice were no longer shared by everyone, what was there?

Reason. This led to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The Enlightenment thinkers wanted to recreate “religion within the limits of reason.” In other words, they asked, “how can we save the essential values” such as life, the dignity of the person, freedom, reason, etc (think of the great values of the French Revolution – Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality. “How can we save the essential values but build them on evidence that is independent of religious philosophy, doctrine, and confessions?” How can we maintain a moral, organized state without the hindrance of God and religion? How can we ensure the foundation of life together and the foundation of our humanity? Well, common life and common laws and common thinking, all founded on common use of reason.

The crisis today is precisely that we are seeing this reason, this desire for a common life, crumble. What is falling apart before our eyes “is that which has sustained our life together for centuries.” What this means is that the attempt for Western democracies and societies “to save the values of human life, which we all recognize, independently of the origin that generated them, has failed.”

The attempt to save the values that have driven Western culture for centuries, but to try to save the values without also recognizing the origin of these values, namely the Christian proposition, has failed. It worked for awhile, but now, no more. It’s like taking a pot off a stove; it will remain warm for a time but eventually will become cold.

The Church’s attempt to save these values, and, admittedly, to save her own role in society and avoid being usurped by the new, Protestant confessions was called the “counter-reformation.” A time when doctrine and practice were placed at the same level as or above a living, meaningful encounter with the personal and living God. The counter-reformation fostered a kind of disastrous religious formalism; “if I bow and genuflect perfectly, and say all my prayers, and do all of the things, then God will love me.” Vatican II in the 1960’s was known to be a primarily pastoral council, a kind of “part 2” to the doctrinal Council of Trent in the 16th century. The question was, “is Christianity still relevant for the modern man and woman? And, if so, how is it lived, how is the Church to live?”

Outside the Church, we see the effects of the moving away even from reason: anything goes. I read a post on Facebook the other day from someone, a Catholic, wondering why the Church is so “obsessed” with abortion these days. Anything goes. There are bills in both houses of the Illinois State Legislature which would allow a baby to be aborted up until his or her natural due date. Remember that killing a child one second after he or she leaves the womb is called “first degree murder.” How does that make sense? That does not make sense, our forefathers and mothers who fought at least to keep values alive would be ashamed of us.

Herod the king, in his raging, / charged he hath this day; / His men of might, in his own sight, / all young children to slay. / Then woe is me, poor child, for thee, / and ever mourn and say; / For thy parting neither say nor sing, / Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

It is no coincidence that the scandals initially broke in 2002 thanks to some incredible journalism by the Boston Globe and that this crisis began to come to full maturity now, some 17 years later. What has happened in between? We saw an enormous emphasis placed on the “New Evangelization”, teaching more Catholics the truths of their faith in a more intentional way than perhaps ever before. We went through the Year of Faith in 2012-2013, and then the Year of Mercy in 2015-2016, both of which brought countless numbers of people into the communion of the Church and reunited millions of souls with the merciful love of God. We saw an incredible surge in young, orthodox, serious, holy vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

God is purifying his Church. Jesus Christ, the risen and living One, is purifying his bride. But he is not doing it at our expense. He has raised up in his Church movement after movement in these 17 years to reacquaint us with himself, to draw us back to himself through the life and sacraments and work of the Church in the world.

The Church must begin to have a new presence in the world, a new presence that is founded on and fed by a new and different kind power, namely the power of her resurrected Lord. “Only one thing is needed for the Church to have a different presence: that Christians make use of this circumstance.” We are faced now with a real opportunity to be reacquainted with and to embrace the essential nature of Christianity. “Christianity is, in the first palce, the recognition of God who became man, and who remains present in history through the changed lives of those who follow him.”

Christianity cannot be preached any longer as a mere system of rules or a source of Western ethics. It cannot be preached as such because it never existed as such! What was the reaction of the first people to encounter Jesus in the Gospel? They were often afraid, and they saw him and met him and touched him and ate with him and walked with him and at the end of the experience they said, “we have never seen anything like this.” Then he remained present in their lives, in their history, because their lives had been changed because of him.

The life of the Christian should be marked less by learning rules and more by falling in love with a person. We all know that when people fall in love with someone, they really change! Suddenly, the one falling in love begins to make more and more room in his “inner room” for the presence of the other, and longs, pines, yearns for increasingly deep encounters with his beloved. The other person begins to be present in the way he thinks about everything, from the most profound things like life and death and the meaning of the universe to the most mundane things like deciding how to spend time and money.

The ethic, the rule and way of life, the “rules”, are a consequence of falling in love with Jesus, not the prerequisite. “No one says, ‘I fell in love and unfortunately now I have to go out with the girl with whom I fell in love.’ To go out with this girl is the normal…consequence of an event.”

Is Christianity merely the imposition of rules and worldview and way of thinking? Ask the saints, then you tell me. Ask the martyrs, then you tell me. Ask those in the first category I mentioned who are leaving all their credibility and status and are taking the leap of faith by being present in these pews, then you tell me. Anyone who teaches you that the basis of Christianity is a mode of behavior or a contract of rules and regulations is lying to you. That is what people who have never met Jesus tell us so that their mediocrity might not be known to us.

Those who encountered Jesus at the very beginning, and those who are encountering him in every age and in every corner of this amazing world, are surprised when they notice that they are suddenly living their lives in a new, in a different, way. The effect of Jesus is simply “a new way of living ordinary things.”

And this is the task of the Church today. For awhile, we may have to hunker down and just be with each other in the presence of the risen Jesus. But soon, and I do think it will be soon, there will be a new Pentecost, a new outpouring of the Spirit into our hearts and into our communities and suddenly we will find ourselves living a new kind of life, in a new kind of way.

In the midst of these crises, in the midst of the sexual abuse scandal, what gives us the energy to live and be full of life and not to despair? We heard it in the first reading. God comes to Moses in the form of a burning bush, on fire but not consumed, remarkably beautiful. This new thing pricks the interest of Moses who moves toward it. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals himself to Moses and gives him the most precious thing he can in that moment: his own name.

How does the interaction end? God says, “This is my name forever; thus am I to be remembered through all generations.”

God does not abandon his Church. God does not give us up. Those who have hurt us, have lied to us, have derailed us, have cheated us, have scandalized us…Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. Jesus is purifying his Church. Jesus wants to become known again in his Church.

Come Holy Spirit! Come through Mary! Come, Lord, Jesus!

I know this was a long homily, and I’m sorry if I made you late for something. Tell them it was the priest’s fault; I’m sure they’ll believe you. But a change of epoch is not a time for short homilies that skirt the issue.

I want to close with a comment from Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Joseph Ratzinger, in 1969:

“…But when the time of sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more…simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely….Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been longing in secret.

“And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

Amen, so may it be.

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