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