I usually start out my homily with a quaint personal story. It drives my wife crazy when I do this. As some of you know, my wife reminds me that I am personally not that interesting and eventually, someday, I am going to run out of cute, folksy, interesting stories to share. Well, folks… that day has finally come. I’ve got nothing.
With the glow of Easter Season still upon us and in light of the record attendance at this past Easter’s Sunday Masses, it may seem a bit odd to even be considering the question that I am about to ask, however, nonetheless, here it comes; “Why are Catholics, especially young Catholics, leaving the Church?”
A recent study shows that 50% of young Americans who were raised Catholic no longer identify themselves as Catholic today. In addition, a 2015 Pew Research study reports for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church. To make that statistic a bit more personal, let’s consider the 19 people, both children and adults, who were initiated into our parish this past week. If the math holds true, then 114 people walked away from Pope St. John Paul II Catholic Community this past year… and haven’t come back.
If some of you sitting here are thinking to yourself, “good riddance!”, then you must know that you are a part of the problem. If some of you sitting here are thinking to yourself, “I don’t even know 114 Catholics”, then you too are a part of the problem. If some of you are sitting here and thinking, “we are in trouble!”, then we are in the same boat.
So, what do we do? What is the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t have one. Our church didn’t get here over night, and it isn’t just one issue.
Priests abusing children and the Bishops failure to protect the innocent is a significant cause, for sure. Sanitized religious education programs designed as sacramental funnels and parents prioritizing soccer/hockey/baseball schedules and family vacations over foundational encounters with Christ, are others. The Church’s teachings on human life & dignity, homosexuality, marriage and divorce stand resolutely against cultural norms. Combine that with the heretical idealization of political platforms… on both sides of the ballot… and the church is no longer a refuge, a place of healing for the marginalized, downtrodden, and afflicted. The rationalization, “Why go to a church that doesn’t even want me there?” has a bit more truth than most of us would care to admit.
However, with all that being said, I do believe that today’s Gospel, on this second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, provides a foundational truth from which the solutions to our problems can begin to take root.
The events described in this Gospel occurred during the evening of Resurrection Sunday where the disciples were gathered together in one place. Christ’s appearance to the disciples in the upper room behind the locked door was at the conclusion of a day in which Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb and to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
It is significant that Mary Magdalene and the other disciples who returned from the road to Emmaus were there. Though they each had a personal encounter with Jesus they were there sharing their experiences with the other disciples. Their personal encounters were not only for them individually but for the benefit of the whole community.
Also, it is important to note that the disciples weren’t gathered together because they were fearful. The door was locked because they were fearful. They were gathered together because that is what Jesus had instructed them to do at the Last Supper.
And, since we are talking about fear, notice that the Peace of Christ not only removed fear, but that His peace was inclusive. That frightened, confused, and befuddled group of believers gathered in that one room (dare I say Church) on that evening encountered the risen Christ and their fear was vanquished. Each had their own individual journey to that one room (dare I say Church) that day. Each in a different emotional, physical, and spiritual state. Peter was most likely struggling with guilt and shame. Mary Magdalene was probably both relieved and confused. The two disciples who returned from the road to Emmaus were feeling who knows what, yet the peace of Christ ministered to them all. Christ came to them, and he met them each individually in community.
Except, of course Thomas.
Thomas was not present on that first Easter Sunday. He had not gathered with the other disciples. He had separated himself from the community. His reason for being absent is not known to us, however he might have said, “I would rather be on the water, thinking about God, then in the Church thinking about the water.” I don’t know. However, what I do know is that he was there, in that one room (dare I day Church), the following week and that is where he encountered Jesus.
We all love our own personal Jesus. Whenever we encounter him on the mountains, valleys, rivers, and plains; or on our streets, in our homes, or at our private alters of prayer, we are often filled with awe and are inspired. I am not arguing against that. In fact, I too have had wonderful experiences of encountering Jesus in private and very personal ways and places. But these personal and private encounters of his majesty and beauty found in the magnificence of his creation; in the gentle whisper of the Holy spirit heard on the wind, or in the quiet rhythm of a mountain stream, or in the melody of a songbird are but a partial reflection of our Lord and our God. They are precious and formative indeed, but lack his fullness, his entirety, his completeness.
Christ revealed himself, fully God, fully man… Prophet, Priest, and King… completely and entirely in his Church. To seek Christ outside of his Church, is like searching for a buried treasure with only an X on an otherwise blank sheet of paper. We possess confirmation that there is indeed a treasure, but without context, direction, and help we will never find it.
The Church is not unaware of the problems. The scandals, the divisions, the cultural divides are real and present and have had a negative effect. Yet, just as the Apostle Thomas’ story did not end with his exaggerated demand for proof, we too must never abandon our faith and our hope that the solution to all the church’s problems and wrongs first start with encountering Christ… here in this place…. in front of this altar… in community with one another. Christ is here and he invites us to reach out and touch his wounds, and with and through his boundless mercy and love we to shall come to proclaim the profound statement of faith of the Apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”