Friday, November 8, 2019

Staying Active in the Church

Dear Friends,

A short book by Bishop Robert Barron is making the rounds of our parishes. Entitled “Letter to a Suffering Church,” Bishop Barron lays out the issues of the sexual abuse crisis in the church. He taps lessons from Scripture and the history of the church to show the Church’s power for good in times when the power of the demonic has tainted and diminished aspects of church life. He points out how the church has been durable and enduring as it has returned time and again to the commitment of Peter in John 6.66-68 where Jesus says to Peter as other followers walk away: “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter responded: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” In the last chapter of this slim volume, Bishop Barron encourages Catholics not “to cut and run” but to stay and fight for the Church of Jesus Christ.

I’d like us to consider some practical thoughts, building on Bishop Barron’s call to stay active in the church. And I take my cue here from no less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt.

Somewhere, sometime she said “Great leaders we have had, but we could not have had great leaders unless they had a great people to follow. You cannot be a great leader unless the people are great.”

As a church, are we great? I believe we are greater than we seem to be, yet many parish church buildings echo with diminished Mass attendance. Parents don’t encourage children’s religious education or other involvements for fear of abuse or even because it’s dull. Committees, parties and social justice concerns are scarcely attended, if at all. Give it all a second chance, just as each of us has been given a second chance at something important.

Eleanor Roosevelt would tell us that we are the ones who must have the insight and do the work of strengthening parishes. Instead of complaining about the lack of parish vitality, consider doing something about it. Pose the question to the pastor: “What would you think if we had a   ___or began a ___ or revitalized our ___?”  If we ask these questions, we also need to be ready to follow through!

And when we come to Mass, do we make a point of getting to know other (maybe even new) parishioners or the visitor? It’s been well noted that people do not come back to Mass if no one talks to them. Do we sing and pray with energy? It would make a difference to the people as well as the presider. It is not his Mass. It is the Mass of the community and we all share it. And why is it that we have the same lectors and Communion ministers each week – mostly women. Why do men hold back?  “Oh, I am not worthy?" we might say. But we are a priestly people and that means all of us side by side.

It is true and ugly and unworthy of Christ that a relatively few clergy have been abusive of children and youth. But it is not all of them. Have you encouraged faithful, hardworking priests by your words? Have you taken the initiative to invite them over for dinner or host a gathering at your home with a few others just to talk about parish life?

Rediscover the possibilities of parish life, the great works of the Church, like Catholic Relief Services. Make room in your weekly schedule to become Catholic anew. Start somewhere, like maybe with prayer.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Death is a Stage of Growth

Dear Friends,

 Death, that threshold into the unknown, has visited our homes  during the last twelve months, if only in the newspaper. We have looked at the obituary pages, and seen familiar faces looking out at us – the faces of people we have known and loved or known slightly but admired nonetheless. We’ve seen the faces of people who died tragically, and others who had fought the good fight against potent diseases. To talk about death before it’s proximate for us or for our loved ones is an important thing to do. For, when death is proximate, we want to deny it, to negate it. Death infuriates us, makes us fearful, absorbs us in its details. Death, when it is upon us or our loved ones, can hold us hostage. At that point, we cannot hold death  up to the light, examine it, study it, put it in a life context or learn the lessons that human history, religion and culture have to teach us about death.

The Rev. Peter Gomez says in The Good Book, “Death is not something we want to understand or know; death is somehow unfair, and in this country it is culturally unconstitutional, violating our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” At the same time, individuals and groups are searching for ways to help people be healthy in their dying. We also find people understanding death in spiritual, religious and metaphysical terms and valuing these understandings.  Americans  are coming to recognize death as a life companion . It takes a certain daring to learn lessons of death and dying before one needs them.

Death is too important a time in our life to enter into without thinking about it – without preparation, but we are sorely tempted to do just that. I don’t mean the how, when and where of dying. We can fantasize about those things, but it’s not likely that we will die the way we think or would like. Instead, it would be valuable  to prepare our minds and hearts for a reversal. Usually, we prepare for the more: higher education prepares us for work, maturing prepares us for relationships, growing to adulthood prepares us to embrace a bigger world. Preparation for death acknowledges that one day, work will diminish, relationships  will  no longer be as they were. Our world will shrink, for as we die, we shed expectations, plans, the need to possess.  Preparation for death opens us to the paradox: less is more. Yes. In the face of death, less is indeed more. 

The mystical teachings of ancient lands and people as well as the Christian tradition all speak of death as a passage. Not the end, a passage. Death is another stage of growth. Those of us who embrace Christianity  acknowledge  the passion and death of Jesus as an indispensable part of our tradition. If Jesus had died, and that was all, our faith would be fruitless. But our tradition holds that Jesus passed through death to new life. We call Him the firstborn from the dead, and what was real and true of Him is a promise for all of us who live. Death is a door to life. It’s not an easy door to pass through. It includes suffering. But for Christians who understand the meaning of Christ and the power of His own experience, the only way out of suffering is through it, and only Christ can get us through it.

We hope we will die well. But that can only happen if we do sufficient “death-thinking” earlier in life. As the author Ira Byock reminds us, “The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last days or weeks that we compose the message of how we will be remembered, but in the decades that precede them .Who lives is dignity, dies in dignity.” 

-Sister Joan Sobala