Thursday, November 22, 2012

200 Years Behind?

On August 31st, the Roman Catholic Church mourned the passing of Cardinal Carlo Martini, a Jesuit Biblical scholar and former Archbishop of Milan. Several weeks before his death, he granted an interview with the caveat that its contents not be released until after his death. On September 1st, the interview appeared in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and quickly became seen as something of his "spiritual testament." It is a short piece and the English translation can be found by visiting this link; I high suggest reading it. 

I'm struck by the imagery describing the situation of the Church as "embers hidden under ashes." As Martini looked out at the Church, he saw that "our churches are big" and our "religious houses are empty." The emptiness of our churches does not seem to stave either the growth of the Church's bureaucracy or the "pompous" appearance of its rites and vestments. As depicted in the media, American and European Catholicism seems cranky and fearful, entrenched in vacant cathedrals and nostalgically pining for a return to an earlier era. 

The eminent Catholic thinker George Weigel, in a column published yesterday in the Denver Catholic Register, is critical of Martini's final observation. At the end of his interview, Martini says:
The Church is 200 years behind. Why in the world does it not rouse itself? Are we afraid? Fear instead of courage? 
 Weigel replies:
To which one wants to reply, with all respect, "Two hundred years behind what?" A western culture that has lost its grasp on the deep truths of the human condition? A culture that celebrates the imperial autonomous Self? A culture that detaches sex from love and responsibility? A culture that breeds a politics of immediate gratification and inter-generational irresponsibility, of the sort that has paralyzed public policy in Italy and elsewhere? "Why in the word," to repeat the late cardinal's question, would the Church want to catch up with that?" 
Weigel then cites Blessed John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Jerzy Poieluszko as witnessing to the "flame of love" buried beneath the ashes. Ultimately, he concludes, we should not lament being behind our contemporary culture. Indeed, the Catholic challenge is "to get ahead of that soul-withering ideology, and convert those in thrall to it by example and persuasive argument."

In large measure, I agree with Weigel - Catholic do need to proclaim their faith in both word and deed, by both argument/engagement and example. Indeed, Christianity's critique of culture is nothing new:
And Peter testified with may other arguments and exhorted the crowd, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." so those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand person were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers." (Acts 2:40-42)
The irony of Weigel's column is simply this: his characterization of our secular culture as "embittered, aggressive and narrow-minded" seems a mirror image to today's Catholic Church! Where is our Catholic joy? Where is our excitement in the Eucharist?

I remember the Church of my youth: in the 1980's, my parish was filled. Today, my own siblings won't go to Mass. While I'm disappointed, I can understand their reluctance: the Church seems in turn cold and hostile. They are far more apt to make it to the gym daily at 6:00 am than they are to make a Sunday mass. Why? Because at the gym they feel a sense of community, a sense of common purpose, a sense of life.

When Cardinal Martini spoke of being behind by 200 years, I don't think he meant that we had to accomodate the Church to today's culture. I think he meant that we can't spend our days wistfully gazing into the past and pining for its return. We need to allow the Gospel to take root in our hearts in our lives in this era and let the Word of God speak to this culture.

The Holy Spirit is not dead and it continues to blow upon the embers of the Church, the embers that possess the ability to enkindle the fire of love in our hearts, in our world. We needn't be angry or embittered, but joyful that God still calls out to us, still invites us, still commissions us to make disciples of all nations. Rather than being antagonistic toward culture, what if we were to make our lives signs of contradiction to the culture, allowing our whole selves show the way to and riches of joyful discipleship? Again, look to the Acts of the Apostles:
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
There is life still within our Church, even if it is sometimes hard to detect. It falls to each one of us to uncover the ember that burns within each of us and allow it to ignite our lives. My little fire might not be much, but I suspect that if I allow it to join with others, soon it will become a beacon inviting others to join us around the fire of faith, finding food and welcome, and a growing sense of what it is to be the Body of Christ. 

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