Annie Selak is a Roman Catholic lay minister who is Rector of Walsh Hall at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. A year ago on Valentine’s Day, her reflections about the kind of church young people really want were published in the Washington Post. She had four main points. Sorting through my files, I came across her article and it remains as timely as ever. And of course: what young people want from the church is what a lot of older people want as well!
Annie wrote about a church that: (1) takes people seriously, (2) that is inclusive, (3) that embraces God everywhere, and (4) that struggles with big questions and is open to dialogue.
Annie’s four points launch my reflection for this week.
Pope Francis is certainly changing the media’s perception of the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless the Catholic exodus continues. Francis is aware of the problem and focused on it this past July in Rio. “I would like all of us to ask ourselves today,” he said, “are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?”
If someone told you that only 20% of the students that graduated from a particular university could find employment, I suspect you would say that university really needs some shaping up.
This in fact, however, is exactly what’s happening in our American Catholic Church.
Yes. Only 20% of American Catholics, who pass through “our system,” are still with us by the time they reach 23. The other 80% drops out. A bishop friend told me recently that parish closings across the country are due to population shifts and not decreased numbers of Catholics. I agreed that he had a point, but I also suggested that when his gas gauge says empty and his car stalls on the expressway, he is probably out of gas.
The Bishop of Rome is great, when it comes to positive papal PR. Too many of his brother bishops, however, just don’t seem to get the point. Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill said famously that all politics is local. I would like to stress that all church is local; and that is where Annie Selak’s four points do or do not become real.
What about, for instance, the local church in Newark, New Jersey? The local archbishop there, known for his steadfast orthodoxy, is adding an addition to his “retirement home.” Archbishop John Myers’ currently inadequate 4,500-square-foot retirement home has five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, a three-car garage, and a big outdoor pool. The new wing on the archbishop’s humble residence (which he currently only uses on weekends), will include an indoor exercise pool, a hot tub, three fireplaces, a library, and an elevator. Perhaps someone should put a plaque in the front yard: “The poor you will always have with you.”
(1) At all levels in the church, I want a church that takes seriously the life experiences of contemporary men and women. When it comes to the shortage of ordained ministers, the closing of parishes, exclusion of divorced and remarried, the firing of gays and lesbians from Catholic schools, or the firing of single parent mothers (to mention just a few recent church events and issues) the local church seems terribly distant from what is actually going on in people’s lives. The church can recover from institutional sin and mistakes. It cannot, however, recover from being irrelevant.
(2) At all levels in the church, I want a church that embodies the inclusive kind of ministry we see in the life of Jesus. He consistently reached out to the marginalized. Nowhere in the Gospels do we see Jesus banning or excluding people from the community because they are women, or divorced, or have gay or divorced parents. He did say, once upon a time: “There was a certain rich man who was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and who lived each day in luxury.” (Were he speaking today he might have added: “…and he had a three-car garage, two swimming pools, and three fireplaces.”) At the rich man in purple’s gate lay a poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. As Lazarus lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores……The story about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is an exhortation about living a new kind of life. It is an exhortation that the local church be a home (a church capable of warming hearts) for people who have no home: physically, psychologically, financially, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. All church is local.
(3) At all levels of the church, I want a church alert to the Divine presence in other Christian churches and in other religions. The pope emeritus warned about relativism; but diversity and unity are two concepts that go together. Younger Catholics especially, have grown up living with and alongside people from different churches and different religions, or no religion; and they see holiness and signs of the Sacred there. And they ask what the big God picture is really all about.
(4) At all levels of the church I want a church that struggles with the big ethical and religious questions and is genuinely open to dialogue. The hierarchy does not have all the answers to life’s big questions. It doesn’t even hear many of the big questions. And there will be new ones tomorrow. In all of our contemporary “relativism” and “secularity” we meet the living God. All of us in the church – and all of us in dialogue with each other — need to wrestle with the hard life questions. And, with one foot in Scripture and Tradition and the other in contemporary life, we need to engage the world. We don’t need to be spoon-fed static old theology. We need to wrestle with and grapple. We need to use our minds and engage our hearts. We need to debate, to think, and to pray. And we need to do all of this in parishes, schools, and chanceries across the country.