No Turning Back

Article excerpt

Pilgrim church has ventured beyond the fortress

Hope is the oxygen of the soul.

Many today are afflicted with fear and hopelessness and find it difficult to breathe in the church. Air is such a striking image of grace. How do we find air to breathe in the church again?

This is a tale of two churches. Many of us have lived in both of them. All of us need to know what that was like. The fortified church of the Counter Reformation was very different from the pilgrim church of the Catholic renewal. In discerning the difference one learns how to survive and to serve and to breathe the air of freedom and peace.

Church of Counter Reformation

We might date the Counter Reformation from 1517, when Luther posted his 95 theses, to 1962 when John XXI-II opened the Second Vatican Council.

One of the most telling features of this church was massive building. We built with pride and prejudice: proud of the structures, prejudiced against all who were not Catholic. We thought we were building out of strength rather than fear, but, indeed, fear was everywhere. One false step and we might not recover. What if we before we got to confession? What if we fell in love with someone who was not Catholic? What if we left ministry? What if our marriages did not last?

I remember an incident from this period. A priest friend had died young, tragically. He was waked in Mass vestments. The mother of a priest who had lest ministry entered the funeral parlor, and there was an audible gasp in the room. The shame on all sides was painful. She was like a sinful woman entering the place where Jesus was, but no one knew how to receive her as easily as Jesus would have. We simply did not know what to do. She sobbed at the casket in anguish, confusion, embarrassment and loss. She walked to the mother of the dead priest and could be heard in the silence: "My heart aches for you. But at least your son died a priest. If only my son could be in Mass vestments! I would rather he were dead and a priest than as he is now."

This woman and her son were outside the walls of the fortress we had built. There was no room for them inside. We blamed the priest for having done this to his mother. We found nothing in the gospel or in the life of Jesus that could explain or justify such a decision. We went home and thanked God that we were not like that priest. We felt security and peace within the walls the church had built around us.

In the movie, "Shawshank Redemption," the prisoners identify with the massive walls that surround them. Eventually they prefer the walls and cannot do without them. After release from prison, many become confused, depressed, suicidal.

We would not have been surprised if the priest who left the ministry had taken his own life. One understood such things then.

There were happy moments in the church of the Counter Reformation as long as one stayed within the walls. And there were holy moments. God pays no heed to walls and brings us grace wherever we are.

One might add that the walls served a purpose. If there were excesses in the Catholic system justifying a Reformation, there were excesses in the Reformation explaining a Counter Reformation. If the assault by the church on scientific inquiry was sometimes unrelenting, the scientific attack on religion was unwarranted. And so walls were built.

The first tentative steps when the walls come down are unsettling and exhilarating all at once. It must have felt that way in the Exodus as the captives faced a limitless horizon and breathed hungrily the air of freedom. Not long after, however, the beleaguered community asked for the walls again and the chains and the slavery. Certitudes and walls can be comforting and, after a time, necessary. It is not that either is bad; it is the assumption that they are enough that is toxic.

Allow me another story. It was late January 1959. …