Last Sunday, we gathered in the early morning with some friends who have not returned to our Catholic chapel community since March. We brought chairs and spread them out physically distanced across our sweet friends’ big backyard on a beautiful Sunday morning. We sat in masks, made the sign of the cross, sang, practiced Lectio Divina, prayed for our people and our intentions, sang some more, and blessed each other. There was coffee and doughnuts and blessed community, for the first time in so long, and all who were gathered were intentional, prayerful, serious, joyful, and very much at peace. As we prayed, leaves fell from the trees like the dewfall and the ground shook beneath our feet. (Seriously, there was a rare earthquake that rumbled during our hour together that morning.) It was wonderful, refreshing, and holy.
No, it wasn’t mass, but it was church.
And I’ve been thinking about it ever since, as we face new revelations in the McCarrick report about the destructive influence of clericalism on our church and its impact on the priest sex abuse crisis. This combined with the divisive political rhetoric from many clergy leading up to the American election and the church’s reaction to a pandemic much more centered in politics than in care for the sick, unemployed, or hungry have separated many of the faithful from the church they love. It’s painfully evident to many American Catholics that a significant portion of the priestly class is less interested in protecting and helping the flock than it is in protecting and helping each other. There’s a new tribalism on political lines in American Catholicism that ignores the reality of the Body of Christ, the real truth that we belong to each other. And that’s a sad reality to face, especially in a time of so much suffering for so many.
The group of faithful who gathered with us in the yard that morning had been steadfast community members for decades, but I wonder if anyone noticed their absence. I wonder if anyone is reaching out to disaffected Catholics in care or concern. I wonder if anyone thinks to ask why. The reasons for their intentional distance are many and varied, and not for me to guess at or to communicate. But as I stand at the front of our chapel on a typical Sunday in my role as a music minister, I see and feel the weight of their loss. As our faith teaches, we belong to each other and the pain or absence of one deeply affects the whole.
Our church is broken. As we enter into this winter, Catholics across the country will experience the effects of an unprecedented COVID spike and national political division on our families, health, holidays, jobs, school, and faith patterns. Each Catholic parishioner, clergy member and parish will face new challenges in this time and the response from the institutional church to those challenges will tell the story moving forward just as it did in the spring of 2020. When we emerge in the spring of the year ahead, there will be both questions and consequences. Did we care for the least of those among us? Did we provide food or shelter, pastoral care, counseling, spiritual help or encouragement to those who were suffering? Did we make our spaces and staff safe for our communities? Did we prioritize people over politics? Did we reach out to those who were missing from our communities either in person or online? Could a country so exhausted, sick, and needy as America today recognize the church as Christians by our love, or not?
What we do and say in the days to come will tell the story of the Catholic Church in America for the foreseeable future. We’re planting seeds that will emerge in the light of the spring after a long and dark winter. Let’s plant well. Let’s plant like Jesus did, in love.