I enjoy watching long-running TV series that plot the development of character in the story arcs of their main actors. It always takes a long time, a half dozen years, even a whole decade, to capture the dramatic evolution of a caricature of a role into a masterpiece of credible greatness—the unknown awkward sidekick who grows in stature and integrity despite difficult odds; the class clown who learns compassion through personal struggle and failure; the privileged bully who falls flat on their face and becomes a passionate advocate for the weak and exploited; the sad underdog whose humble perseverance earns them success and recognition; the hardened cynic whose eyes and heart are opened by the kindness of strangers. The development of character over time is evidence that people continue to learn as they grow, that they possess potential beyond first impressions, and that given the honest truth and opportunity they will rise to the occasion and prove their worth and make their parents and grade-school teachers proud. And by them, I mean us.
It often makes sense only in hindsight that we had it in us all along. In the face of our inexperience and the gravity of the challenges before us, we will feel miserably unprepared at times. We will swallow our tongue and trip on our feet and forget our training. But when we regain our wits and our footing, when we trust our instincts, and when whatever seemed insurmountable just moments before surprisingly clears up, the storm miraculously blows over and the sun breaks through the clouds and there is joy in Mudville once again. We might even surprise ourselves by how well things turn out that other people would think we faked our nervousness and lack of confidence. And we pick up and move on to the next impossible challenge. And when we collect a not so shabby string of once impossible challenges that makes us look not so inexperienced or unprepared, we gain even more confidence. Soon the challenges are less daunting, and we know better who we are and what we’re all about. And at the end of the day, we are exhausted but reassured that we are where we should be. It might take a while to get to that place of internal equilibrium, but it comes to us all one day. And when the sun rises in the morning we are energized, and the world is full of hope and possibility. Life can come at us with all kinds of challenges. We’ll be good and ready. Bring it on!
The community of Jesus’ disciples suffered a horrific ordeal when the Lord was arrested and put to a violent death. His followers included more than just the apostles. This we know because Matthias who was chosen by lot to take the place of Judas was among those who had been in their company from Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan till the day he was taken up to heaven. And those 40 days of grace in the company of the risen Jesus brought them much needed comfort. Life as they knew it was forever changed, but their darkest days were behind them. Then Jesus invited them to leave behind the quiet and security of the upper room and take the gospel to the whole world and to every creature. They reflected upon the journey they traveled together. Then they recalled his instructions. You did not choose me. I chose you to go and bear fruit that will last.
We can always look back to a time in our lives filled with grace and blessing, a time of great promise and marginal stress, when everyone we cared deeply about was content and close by, and most everything we needed or desired was reasonable and affordable and available with the least hassle or regret. And on those occasions our perfect pastoral scene is disrupted by people who make us anxious or ideas we don’t want to entertain or challenges we never imagined. We might be tempted to turn our backs and withdraw to a time and place in our past when people or ideas or challenges like these did not take away our peace. Unfortunately, life points us in another direction, forward through our trials to where we can achieve peaceful resolution and understanding and healthier life skills. We accomplish nothing constructive by burying our heads in the sand. Our problems don’t go away. And we get a head full of sand.
Communities of faith have watched church attendance decline steadily over the last few decades for one disturbing reason or another, from the clergy sex abuse scandal to the crisis of leadership and credibility, from the alarming rise of Christian relativism to the alarming rise of Christian fundamentalism. The global pandemic may just have tipped the balance affording many faithful Christians the reason they needed to justify staying home from church altogether. And as we emerge from its shadows, we wonder how we should go about bringing our people back. It appears simply telling them that the doors are open and that pandemic restrictions have been lifted and that we will continue observing reasonable health protocols won’t be enough.
Plus, we’ll be competing with the comfort and convenience of Sunday mass of their choosing from Rome to New York to Los Angeles to Waynesboro while dressed in their pajamas as they lounge on the living room couch with the pause and mute buttons within easy reach. We like to imagine people will prioritize what is important. But if they fall short of our standard, we blame it on them not truly knowing what they’re missing, because the beauty and meaning of the Eucharistic liturgy and God’s people gathered in one place has been reduced to just another commodity right up there with the latest craze in entertainment, fashion, and technology.
Unless our people feel strongly once again the need to gather in person and see each other after a year-long break and truly desire the experience of community life and to partake in the Eucharist, it’s going to be an uphill battle. It belongs therefore to those of us who know and appreciate the treasure we possess to show them what they’re missing. Unfortunately, we can be misled to think that circumstances beyond our control should dictate the joy we express in living our faith, the strength of our conviction, or the reach of our ministry to those in need. Instead, our joy, our conviction, and our ministry are for us to determine entirely if we believe we can draw others to the beauty and nourishment and mystery that feeds and ignites our lives.
Maybe having a beautiful new church will help us. But even that advantage will fade. We will have to dig deeper. Our joy and conviction and the reach of our ministry will have to be tangible and meaningful and believable. The Holy Spirit will show us a path, a variety of paths, and even open doors for us. But we will have to craft a message of welcome and inclusivity and compassion and reconciliation. You know when you move into a new house, you just don’t bring in all the junk from your old house. We have the chance for a fresh start. We are a family of Jesus’ disciples. It needs to show.
Rolo B Castillo © 2021