Freely You Have Received
Like many converts, discovering the faith felt like opening a treasure chest for the first time. I was overwhelmed taking in the immense beauty of it all. The more you get to know it, the more you realize just how wonderful and deep it all is. A growing familiarity with this new-found treasure didn’t make it seem less valuable. Instead, I began to realize just how much possessing it would radically change my life.
Slowly a core conviction was formed: I had to share the beauty of that treasure with as many people as possible. It had taken me so long to find it, and I didn’t want others to live their lives not knowing such a transforming gift was just within reach.
As I attempted to share it, I realized its custodians, we the Church, had allowed a seemingly overwhelming number of problems to tarnish and hide its beauty. Just look at the recent treasures the Church has given us in the last 100 years: the Catechism, an amazing revision of the Lectionary and Liturgy of the Hours, a renewed focus on the universal call to holiness, and the development in the role of the laity. But even these recent gifts are relatively unknown.
We have an obligation to keep this treasure–both old and new–bright and beautiful so others can find it. It is because I love the Church so much that I have to honestly recognize just how much we have failed to do this. We aren’t dealing with minor challenges, but deep, systematic, catastrophic failures.
To name a few: the general state of catechesis; confusion from a lack of orthodoxy among clergy, bishops, and even cardinals (to the point of outright heresy); the status quo for liturgy in many parishes is dead and devoid of genuine beauty; our failure to lead most Catholics to an authentic, vibrant spiritual life; Vatican II, the richness of an entire Church council, rejected by both “progressives” that distort it and “conservatives” that renounce it in its various caricatures; our absolute loss of credibility from the shameful failure to protect vulnerable children; and so on.
It always surprises me that many Catholics don’t recognize these problems as the truly profound crisis they are… if they can even see them at all. Less surprising is the fact that most people who do recognize them feel unable to do anything or understandably lack the courage to try. What can a single person accomplish that would fix such profound brokenness without some mandate or authority?
But didn’t Christ promise to preserve His Church? Of course he will! But just as we hope in our own resurrection, we don’t abandon the hard work of walking the narrow path. God Himself intervenes, calling holy men and women like St. Francis to rebuild the Church when “it is crumbling.” Even the chosen people of Israel, the spiritual precursor to the Church, was a continual story of radical failure to live up to their divine call. It is precisely a widespread feeling of complacency and inability to recognize this grave necessity that should shake us to the core and wake us up to God’s call for a profound renewal.
For a while I thought, surely God would raise up men and women within the hierarchy to deal with this crisis: some bold, articulate bishop to champion the faith and take a stand against the politics? A fervent young priest or charismatic religious to call out or help the institutional Church address our shameful deficiencies?
No doubt, there are some incredibly wonderful people seeking to make a difference, but even more is needed given the truly terrible state of things and the fact that literal demonic powers continue to rage and battle against the work of the Church. Both theory and history teach 3 things:
- The Church is constantly in need of authentic reform (sometimes critically)
- It rarely comes from within the chain of command
- The ONLY real weapon we have to face this kind of dire need is an even more urgent, absolute, radical holiness
So, do we just wait for a new reformer saint? Personally, that has been on my mind for a few years now. A single saint was often a catalyst for renewal, but it was not just Francis who was called to rebuild the Church, but his Franciscans. It was not Benedict alone who saved Western civilization, but the Benedictines. Ignatius, with all his gifts, was not the counter-reformation, but the Jesuits. In various moments God gave a particular gift, a mission that was shared. It was often inspired in a single, holy individual, but the gift was not for that one person. And more importantly, holiness and sainthood was not just for the single individual either. What they had was not a lone, beautiful flame, but the start of a raging wildfire.
It may very well be a new reformer saint is the means God chooses to call the Church to renewal, but till then we cannot wait idly for someone else. The urgency and seriousness of this moment demands that, to the absolute best of our ability, we fan the flames of personal holiness into the renewal our Church so desperately needs.
Things Old and New
There are so many beautiful paths to holiness already proven and laid out for us. The Church has these treasures already packaged like gifts ready to be discovered. In my humble opinion, I think what the Church may need at this moment is a deep rediscovery of the incredible wealth it already has. At its core that’s just a rediscovery of the Gospel, but 2,000 years of pondering has found an incredible expression that only needs to be dusted off and re-proposed to an age fed up with empty “spirituality” and a meaningless existence.
And that is where I see our greatest deficiency. We have completely and totally failed the people of God in making this richness accessible to them. We have a feast at our fingertips and the famished masses at our doorstep. But the great scandal is not found in our inability to help the hardened sinners or infrequent Mass goers. The real scandal is our failure to reach the weekly Catholic. They are not just at the door, they are in our own home week after week and we have failed to feed them.
But all is not lost—with Christ, it never is! Many parishes are still full… for now. Though, the decline in attendance is continuing to accelerate. I see the solution precisely in the area of our greatest failure: the parish. I propose a radical renewal and return to the parish. The average Catholic comes week after week and participates in the Mass, the very source and summit of Christian life. Fundamentally, the faith is formed in nearly every member of the body of Christ here, by the Sunday experience. The parish is ESSENTIAL.
But it can’t stop there. The Sunday experience must consistently lead people to authentic discipleship. This can happen through personal study and prayer, but most often genuine friendships and small groups are key to help people find personal growth rooted in an authentic spiritual life and a rediscovery of the tremendous riches of the faith.
To be clear, it isn’t enough for things to just be “better.” True renewal can only come when priests and lay leaders commit to seeking holiness, because radical renewal is only driven by a group of people living radical holiness. For this small flame to grow into a raging wildfire, an entirely new standard has to be set for what parish life can and should be. This isn’t a new program. It is nothing less than what Christ and His Church have always called us to.
If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze. – St. Catherine of Siena