-Fr. John Roche, SDB
It has been quite some time since I have stopped to offer some reflections in this column and it has been humbling to discover that many people have kept an eye out for it! I am grateful to all the readers who have encouraged this effort and grateful for the opportunity to share faith and hope with so many.
I must say that a change has taken place within me. I used to have very little tolerance for people who, in my estimation, seemed to long for a different Church or to hang on with a fierce nostalgia to a Church of long ago.
Particularly difficult for me were those persons and groups bent on finding what is wrong with the Church, with young people or with society, and who would renounce quite easily anyone in disagreement with their experience or opinion.
In fact, I encountered a man some years ago who would picket in front of a parish where one of my brothers was pastor. Anything this man found uncomfortable became the stuff of public rants in newspapers and public protest at the parish. As the director of this community entrusted with the parish, I decided to talk directly with this passionate parishioner. When we finally met in the parish office one day, I politely began my remarks with a qualifying statement.
I said, “I find it hard to speak with you today because no matter what your issues may be, you have resorted to bully tactics and public denunciations and I find that behavior to be contrary to the Gospel.” Befuddled, this man looked intensely at me but did not know where to start. He explained that there were many things he felt were going wrong with the Church in general and he was determined to not sit back and allow the degeneration to continue. I listened as carefully and as openly as I could. I found it possible to empathize with some of his discomfort, but I continued to insist that his chosen way of handling his disappointment was completely uncharitable and, therefore, both scandalous and divisive. Neither reflected a prayerful connection with Jesus.
The man went away disappointed that I was not riding in on a white horse ready to slay the dragons eating away at his experience of Church.
But, I must admit, I am changing. I still believe that charity comes first. I still believe our defense of faith or whatever issue we hold strongly must always be couched by the non-violence and non-judgment of the Gospel. We must be led by love in every confrontation in which we choose to become involved.
Where I have changed, though, is in coming to understand some of the alienation some people across generations have experienced for a myriad of personal and public reasons. And it seems to me that much of the hue and cry I have heard — and quite often quickly dismissed — is deeply connected to a profound longing for something that many have found wanting in their experience of Church, faith and community worship.
Many are longing — deeply longing — for a sense of the sacred. This longing has, in many cases, led to polarizations in the faith community and this is always very sad.
It is not long ago that some youth movements marked their degree of success on the number of young people who would participate in Eucharistic Adoration, for example. And while I would prefer that young people are carefully raised to understand the celebration of the Eucharist and the power of the community gathered at the altar, there is inside of this behavior that same longing. This is, actually, good news.
For some, the deep longing for the sacred invites a retreat to the past. For some it is satisfied with Latin hymns, liturgies celebrated in Latin, the wearing of traditional and formal attire as appropriate signs of reverence or perhaps the return to incense and chimes.
For others, it may represent a longing for deeper involvement in the faith community. It may surface as a longing to be educated in scripture, in liturgy or in a deeper understanding of the history of Church.
And for some, the longing is a response to a deeper sense that the world is running quickly away from all that is spiritual and holy. Buried in an explosion of technologies and information, it seems that there are no rules or guidelines through this chaotic experience of life.
I used to think that the camps were clearly and cleanly divided much the way our culture divides the conservatives and the liberals, the red and the blue states. But I don’t think that way anymore. Again — I am changing. I am changing and beginning to believe that we all hunger for a profound connection to the sacred where there is, we hope, an anchor that will never move.
We long for God in the deepest part of our being. All of us. Every generation. In fact, St. Augustine was right: our hearts are restless until we rest in God.
So how do we open up the dialogue in this shared experience of longing? I believe it must begin by a radical return to charity and trust. Instead of labeling either side or drawing lines for our position, we must discover the common ground we all share: our longing for the holy and the sacred.
We betray that hunger if it becomes the stuff of division. The greatest defense is emptying ourselves of our own opinions and sincerely seeking to understand the other. The longing is not a longing to be right but a longing to know and meet the living God. And God may remain hidden among the very people against whom we have drawn our safe boundaries.
There is good news in all of this. It is precisely this: that it is God who has planted this longing within us because God also longs to be one with each one of us.
Let us resolve to put no stumbling block in anyone’s path by holding onto what we believe as the only way to pray, to worship or to be “Catholic.” Let us resolve to find the longing in those around us and seek ways to connect that longing to the One who longs for us.
And that path is always — without exception — paved in love, openness and forgiveness. Let us all “seek the Lord while he may be found!”