Just before Thanksgiving, on the busiest travel day of the year, I was at Liberty International Airport in Newark, NJ, to catch a flight to Louisville, KY. My hope was to spend the Thanksgiving holidays with my parents. Intent on getting home, I tuned out most of the noise and confusion all around me. But one public announcement received my undivided attention: "Continental Flight #1187 to Louisville has been cancelled." I heard that one announcement over all the others because it affected me. It was about my flight and my destination. So I paid attention.
The Church is something like a public address system in a bustling airport. Its principal role is to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ to busy, distracted people living in a frenetic world. If the Church presents herself merely as a venerable institution doing a lot of good work, it will attract only a limited amount of attention. But if people perceive that the Church's message has something to do with their own lives and destinies, then they are more likely to pay attention to the Gospel of Christ.
A dinner conversation I recently had with a parishioner from Fairfield County leads to the same conclusion. I was describing for this individual the various efforts under way to continue improving the effectiveness of diocesan administration.
He listened politely and agreed with the steps I was describing. But then he added, "Bishop, that is the easy part. The hard part is winning the minds and hearts of your people. That's where the Church needs to do a better job."
I confess to nearly choking on my salad when he said this. But, of course, he was right.
To some, perhaps to many, the Church is baffling. People may or may not be aware of the Church's tremendous success in providing a sound education to the young and social services to the needy. All they see is a very large institution with a lot of rules. And the Church's rules do not appear to be the rules they are used to.
As a result, they may not give the Church's message much of a hearing.
Like every other organization, the Church has rules and these play a necessary role in the Church's life. There is Church law (known as Canon Law), liturgical law, diocesan policies, and regulations. To some, even the Church's moral teaching may seem like a mere set of arbitrary rules designed to limit one's freedom of choice.
But rules aren't the place to begin in trying to understand the Church. If that's where we start our quest to understand the Church, we'll end up seeing it as a sort of spiritual regulatory agency. The rules only really make sense after the Church's essential message of salvation in Christ has overtaken our minds and hearts with its truth, beauty, and goodness, and its power to save us.
Consider this example. Suppose you are learning to play golf. It's a game that has a lot of rules. But if your instructor begins your lessons with a detailed explanation of the rules, you might consider asking for a refund. The pro's principal job is to help you learn how to swing a golf club, to help you internalize in your mind and body the right moves, so that the club solidly addresses the ball. One you've been thrilled by your first 225-yard tee shot that lands in the middle of the fairway or a chip shot that comes close to the pin, you won't mind the rules of golf at all. In fact, you'll study them carefully in the hope of becoming a better golfer.
In other words, once you love the game, you'll love the rules.
The Church's message is more than a game. It is a message personally addressed to you and me. It is about us and our salvation. Saint Paul proclaims in his letter to the Galatians: "I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given Himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20).
Winning the hearts and minds of both the churched and the un-churched is not a matter of winning an argument so much as witnessing to the love of Christ who, like a good shepherd, has gone in search of us and laid down His life for us so that we might be freed from our sins and be united with God our Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The message of Christ must be experienced as personal liberation in the circumstances of one's life. This is the starting point of evangelization. Again Saint Paul says: "For freedom Christ has set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).
Christian freedom, however, is not mere freedom of choice. It does not mean the unfettered ability to do what one wants or to pursue one's personal goals. A man who had achieved great success once said to his parish priest, "Father, all my dreams have come true . . . and I'm miserable." We can fulfill every one of our goals and still not fill the hole in the middle of our existence. There is another type of freedom for which we yearn.
One author refers to true Christian freedom as "freedom for excellence." But by the term "excellence" this author means more than professional competence. He means that in the power of the Holy Spirit our desires are ordered and disciplined so that it becomes possible for us to choose what is truly good and life-giving. The more we choose the good, the easier it is to do so. The more deeply we participate in God's own life and love, the more our wills are in harmony with His.
This is the excellence that brings us joy. Once we experience the joy of oneness with God and oneness with those who share God's life in Christ, our eyes are opened to the wisdom embodied in the Church's moral teaching. And even the rules that are part and parcel of the Church's organizational life make a lot more sense to those who have opened their hearts to Christ.
The Beatitudes describe what we would be like if our lives were characterized by "freedom for excellence." They are the portrait of one who loves what Jesus loved on the Cross and rejects what Jesus rejected on the Cross.
Jesus tells us we are happy if we are not attached to those things that undercut our infinite desire for God. We are happy if we are not addicted to money, possessions, good feelings, and the approval of others. Rather, we are happy when, in our daily lives, the peace of Christ reigns because we have allowed the water and blood flowing from His wounded side to wash away even our greatest sins and failings. This is the peace of Christ we need to offer one another in the life of the Church.
The task of winning minds and hearts for Christ has been entrusted not only to bishops, priests, and deacons, but to every baptized member of the Church. As we look to the future, we will need to explore ways in which we, as a diocesan family of faith and as members of parish communities, can evangelize more effectively.
We need to continue this conversation, and we will. In the meantime, I wish one and all a restful, enriching, and safe summer!
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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