A long-time parishioner recently found a note under her windshield wiper when she returned to her car parked onLocust Streetafter the 5:30 p.m. Sunday VigilMass. The note – unsigned, of course – read “You are no Catholic.” Presumably the note was prompted by the fact that her car had an “Obama” bumper sticker, while at the same time her dashboard had a permit saying “Attending services at Old St. Joseph’s Church.” She shared the note with me just as a point of information.
I assured her that pastors – this one, at least – receive such notes with some regularity. Sadly, they are never signed, and they never have a return address or contact information. (I suspect, by the way, that they often come from non-;parishioners, as may well have been the case with the note on the parishioner’s windshield…) Sometimes, they take the take the form of a clipped-out news article which espouses some ideological stance with certain sentences underlined or highlighted. Exclamation points are popular… By the way, these anonymous communications can range all across the ideological spectrum, although they seem more often to reflect what might be called a “conservative” or “traditionalist” stance vis-à-vis Church matters.
My sadness when I (or others) receive such “missives” is that they offer no opportunity for respectful dialogue. (I have had a number of painful but satisfying discussions with people who are both to the “left” and the “right” of me on controverted ecclesial matters. Such discussions have not always yielded agreement, but they have often led to deeper, richer reflection on both sides, as well as to increased mutual human respect. And I naturally have more respect for opinions, however different from my own, which come with a name and a face attached.
I am reminded of something which Archbishop Chaput said in his September 8 letter to the people of the Archdiocese. He wrote (reviewing his first year as our shepherd): “I’ve also heard clearly the confusion and anger of many of our people. I accept those feelings gratefully as well, because they’re honest, and they’re warranted.” As one of his e-correspondents said in a follow-up piece printed in the “Inquirer” on 9/13: “We may not always agree,… but he always explains his positions, and for that I am grateful.” The same “Inquirer” article also quoted the Archbishop’s e-reply to a missive which he found less than respectful: “I would be happy to receive good and professional advice, but not when it is delivered as cynically as you have done it…. Christians do not speak to others that way.”
Which is precisely the point, brothers and sisters. We live in a pluralistic and increasingly polarized world and Church. We also, as “first world” people – that is the larger, “royal” we – display distressing signs of declining civility. We have been encouraged, unfortunately, to process our deepest wounds on Oprah, and to send off our raw, unprocessed emotional reactions via e-mail, or Twitter, or Facebook. But as Christians, we must always remember the “great commandments” identified by Jesus: to love the Lord our God with our whole mind, our whole soul, our whole strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. That includes communicating with honesty and mutual respect.
There is more at stake here than the health of individual relationships in our local faith communities. It may not be hyperbole to say that the health and even survival of our civilization and our Church hang in the balance. Only patient, honest, and non-inflammatory communication will ever convey to ordinary people in the Middle East that a derogatory video posted randomly on You Tube by an American bigot does not speak for or represent the feelings of most of theU.S.population. And only honest communication within our Church will allow us to remain authentically and integrally “catholic.”
As Professor David O’Brien wrote in a recent “America” article (8/13/12): “[The Church] is a voluntary organization, as our children keep proving to us, that works through persuasion, not coercion. Many of our past problems came about because we did not trust each other. Restoring and preserving trust begins with simple encounters, like the ones used in the interfaith organizing process. Changing the church begins with getting to know each other well enough to work together to make our church, to make us, the presence of Christ. Our rootless young people have a deep hunger for friendship. It is a gift of grace in our churches, mosques and synagogues. As we work toward church reform, let us look for leaders who genuinely like people. As we do, we may witness a renaissance of pastoral life. All the rest will follow. In that spirit let us do the best we can to keep the faith and change our church.”
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.