May 22, 2022, Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 15:1-2, 22-29
Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23
John 14: 23-29
The reasons flow like rivers off the mountains. “I don’t have time.” “I’ve not gone back to church since COVID, and I found my favorite sites for Mass online.” “I cannot forgive the clergy for the harm they have done.” “I find God in nature, and I don’t need the Church anymore.” “My kids have tournaments out of state on weekends and so we cannot get to Mass.”
Listening to the myriad of reasons people who have walked away from the Church and left their faith on the doorstep of a secular culture creates this wall — this solid concrete wall — of faith vs. a kind of lukewarmness that seems impenetrable. I cannot quite get my head around it; but it is real, and it has been for decades: this flight from religion. Most of us aren’t trying to make converts out of pagans but rather to bring back to the Church those who have let religion fall into oblivion. C. S. Lewis once described this difference as that between a man wooing a young maiden and a man winning a cynical divorcée back to her previous marriage.
America is a Christian country historically. But this brings stiff challenges because when Christianity is the main event, many tend to be lukewarm in the pursuit of their faith.
In this liturgical year, we are on the cusp of celebrating Pentecost, a time when we observe the coming of the Holy Spirit to us and the Apostolic Church, the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus just before he died: “I will send you an advocate.” The advocate will be sent by the Father, and he will remind the world of all that Jesus taught. The teachings of Jesus Christ — his parables, his beatitudes, his miracles — would be at the mercy of the Spirit’s reminders and the early Church’s evangelical efforts, which continue through the Word of God today.
And what are we to be reminded about? Well, first, that the Church is not perfect. It is not an excuse, but it is a reality. The early Church struggled with how to allow the Gentile community into the Christian world. Circumcision was in question. Do Gentiles need to be circumcised, a covenantal sign going back to Abraham, or can they bypass that ritual and come directly into faith in Christ Jesus? The dilemma would be taken up by those in authority: Paul, Barnabas, Peter, Silas and others. Jerusalem became the place of the first real Council of the early Church.
There is confusion among the believers and the human desire to exclude some for the sake of an old law. Here is where the Holy Spirit truly leads the Church, for in the Acts of the Apostles, it clearly says: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.” Here, the dietary and marriage laws are mentioned, but circumcision was put to rest. Why? This law disturbed the peace of mind of the early Gentile believers, and it placed upon them a burden beyond what was necessary. The rule for circumcision was no longer essential to the Covenant, but rather faith in Christ Jesus.
It was a new day. And more important than looking backward was the importance of looking forward, to laying the foundation for an inclusive Eucharistic people.
But what about the questions, the doubts, the resistance to the Church today? When Jesus talks about the peace he offers, where can it be found? In the woods? Maybe. At the sports arena? In the struggles with unforgiveness? Online? Grappling with the questions of evil? I don’t have the answers to folks who have entered the corridor of doubt. Theirs is a most unique journey, one to be attentive to.
I do know this, and it may sound counterintuitive, my antidote to the ships which have lost their sail is the Mass. Why? Because the Mass is the supreme source and summit of Christian faith. Even if one wanders into the steepled parish in their hometown and sits in the back pew with plaguing cynicism, there is still grace aplenty. Somewhere down the pike of life, the questions will have no answers, the doubts will awaken us in the night, the excuses will seem empty and the human heart will begin to search for purpose. The Mass takes us into transcendent mystery and, by grace, we encounter the living God there.
Recently I had the opportunity to participate in Bishop Robert Barron’s online “Mass Class.” Owning the fact that in America only about 20 percent of Catholics attend Mass regularly, Barron talks about the Mass as the privileged encounter with Jesus Christ. It is the supreme mystery and the source and summit of Christian faith. He uses superlatives a lot, and his face turns red with conviction. He knows the Church is not perfect, but the Mass is the place we encounter in personal intimacy the living God in Jesus Christ.
Pausing in life to feel the sense of spiritual malaise tug at the heart might be the first step toward return. Talking to someone, praying with someone, grappling with what most haunts our sense of purpose, might just be the beginning of feeling the Holy Spirit stirring within. After all, Jesus promised the advocate, and he promised peace. Perhaps that is the most important reminder.
Do you know someone struggling with their relationship with the Church? Invite them to Mass, to the place where Christ doles out the peace that the world cannot give.