With the trial of Msgr. Lynn figuring prominently in the “Inquirer” on a daily basis, and with news of the Vatican’s recent rebuke of American women religious, it is a difficult time to be a priest and pastor in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Over recent weeks, I have had painful conversations with a number of agonized parishioners (and other Catholic friends) who are searching their souls about whether or not they can remain formally affiliated with the Catholic Church as an institution while still preserving some sense of their own integrity.
I have had no easy answer to make to them, because of course, it is a decision that each of them will finally need to resolve in her or his own conscience. But I have, at least, been able to share my own reasons for staying – not only as a Catholic, but as a religious and priest. It occurred to me that it might be timely to share those reasons with all of you here.
I stay first and foremost because the Church is my religious home and family. It has given me my faith, and it has shaped and nurtured me as a person of faith, for nearly 60 years. It is the faith of my mothers and fathers; and it is harder to walk away from that than one might think. Indeed, when I counsel people, I generally discourage complete separation from their biological families of origin, however dysfunctional, simply because I understand the terrible toll which such estrangement inevitably takes on a human being. (There are rare exceptions when a family is so toxic that any ongoing relationship becomes impossible – but gratefully, such cases are few…) Having talked to many “lapsed” or “bad” (their word) Catholics over the years, I have found that many of them remain more emotionally enmeshed with their “spiritual family of origin” – the Church they have “left behind” – that a lot of the current regular active attenders.
Part of the reason for that is that Catholicism really is its own cultural matrix. Having been formed and nurtured by the Catholic culture, it is difficult for me to imagine being any other brand of Christian. I am too thoroughly immersed in the sacramental system, and in the incarnational world-view which grounds that system, to belong comfortably anywhere else in the Christian family. My Jesuit (Ignatian) spirituality has only served to deepen and to reinforce my incarnational view of the world. I am entirely too used to “touching the risen Christ” (and therefore, God) in the sacramental signs of bread, wine, water, oil, to imagine doing without. Imagination, story, image, and symbol are too much a part of my prayer and my preaching for me to know how to do those things in any other way.
So here I stand; I can do no other. I am with best-selling Catholic author, Fr. Robert Barron, who argues in his book “Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith” that “THE great principle of Catholicism is the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God… I mean. THE WORD OF GOD – the mind by which the whole universe came to be – did not remain sequestered in heaven but rather entered into this ordinary world of bodies, this grubby arena of history, this compromised and tear-stained human condition of ours.” Even the world of scandalous trials, and of internal conflicts and tensions between good people? Yes. Yes. Yes. And because, in Jesus, God has taken on our human nature – because he walked for an earthly lifetime in our moccasins – our ongoing sinfulness certainly continues to pain and to sadden God, but it no longer shocks or surprises him.
You will read this on the 5th Sunday of Easter, when 16 young people will receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time here at OSJ at the 9:30 a.m. Mass. Just a few days afterward, I will mark the 53rd anniversary of my own First Communion. But I find that I still hunger for the Eucharist as much as do these newcomers to the Lord’s Table. In fact, I may hunger more for it these days, because I appreciate in ways I could not back in 1959 how much I need the intimate communion with the living Jesus and the spiritual sustenance which I derive from the Eucharist. So like Jesus and the Father, while I am saddened and aggrieved by the human failings of the institutional Church – as indeed, I am saddened and aggrieved by my own sins – I can’t walk away from my lifeblood. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words (and bread!) of everlasting life!”
One more thought. Curiously, I would have to say that I stay for the wounds. In the scripture readings over recent weeks, our attention has been directed repeatedly to the glorified wounds of the risen Jesus. Think about it. Amidst the joy of reunion, the discovery that the Master whom the disciples thought was dead is alive and gloriously transformed, Jesus remains very insistent about “showing them his hands and his side.” Jesus, the Incarnate God – even, as he now is, seated at the right hand of the Father and worshiped as Lord – knows well the vulnerability, the pain, and the cost of loving weak and sinful human beings. He bears the scars for all eternity. But in his resurrection, even the wounds – the wages and ravages of sin – are taken up and transformed.
As John reminded us last weekend in his First Letter: “We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” If the wounds of Christ’s passion could be glorified in his risen flesh, then I can hope – and believe – that the wounds of our weakness and sin in the living Body of Christ, the Church, can and will also one day be healed and transformed. Meanwhile, I let hope and faith sustain me, and I continue to feed my spiritual hunger at the table of the Lord, waiting in joyful hope and struggling to do my part to build the City ofGodon earth. I hope that most of you will continue to that with me…
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.