Complaining has been fashionable since we managed to get ourselves evicted from the garden of Eden. For thousands of years, we’ve been voicing our discontent with everything from death to dinner, and we’re pretty good at it by now.
In fact, along the way we’ve even elevated our griping to an art form: complaints make up a major portion of medieval English literature, for example. Corrupt rulers, immoral clergy, economic inequality, unrequited love and the French all came under fire in this particular genre of grumbling. We’re still exploring these same subjects in our current carping.
With the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, we’ve been able to develop a wider audience for our whining. Oddly, though, sounding off to the millions who inhabit cyberspace doesn’t seem to give us much relief.
If anything, we end up magnifying our misfortunes, much as the ancient Israelites did when they indulged in an epic pity party upon learning that entering the Promised Land required a bit of work on their part (Numbers 13, 14).
The Lord directed Moses to send 12 scouts to suss out Canaan, and although the team conceded the land was indeed everything God had promised and more, they claimed that the current inhabitants were just too big and too strong for them to handle: “In our own eyes we seemed like mere grasshoppers, and so we must have seemed to them” (Num 13:33).
Only two of the 12, Caleb and Joshua, had the presence of mind — and spirit — to file a minority report: “We ought to go up and seize the land, for we can certainly prevail over it” (Num 13:30).
Nonetheless, the rueful refrain spread, and pretty soon the whole nation was wailing, weeping and packing up to head back to Egypt (Num 14:1-4). Angered, the Lord struck down the 10 fearful scouts, and decreed that the generation of grumblers would die in the wilderness.
For their unreserved trust, Joshua and Caleb were spared this fate, and God permitted the children of those cursed to enter Canaan — but only after first wandering for 40 years, to ensure they had been purified of their parents’ disbelief (Num 14:10-38).
You could say that the Lord takes complaining quite seriously.
That’s why, amid the very real problems the church now faces, we must be extremely careful not to succumb to the pessimism that poisons so much of the news about Catholicism these days.
The church is not our project, but the divine vision of a Lord who declares the end from the beginning (Is 46:10), and who is not surprised by anything in between — including our sinful natures.
Now, I am in no way trying to diminish the grave wounds of the clerical abuse crisis, or to dismiss the damage wrought by our flirtation, even at times outright romance, with a secularized culture — an entanglement that surely has contributed to a shocking lack of belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith.
But what I am saying is that it’s not the whole story.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing dozens of the faithful — clergy, religious and lay; young, old and middle-aged; from a rainbow of race and language.
I’ve talked with high school students who spend hours each week before the Blessed Sacrament, oblivious to their cell phones as they sit in silent prayer.
I’ve watched staff from our various Catholic Human Services outreaches feed, clothe and care for the most vulnerable among us, healing wounded, traumatized spirits through steady and selfless ministry.
I’ve seen priests, nuns and friars bring the light of Christ to the darkest corners of this city, where used needles and “useless” human beings have both been discarded — even risking their lives for such a mission, and counting it all joy.
I’ve met parents who diligently instruct their children in the faith year after year, instilling in them something, and Someone, this world cannot vanquish.
All of these people know well the scars and sins of the church they serve, and still they labor.
They see the gaps in the pews at Mass, and still they come.
They read the headlines, and still they pray.
And through the witness of their lives, they concede the final say on the church to the true Word, the One who will fit this broken but beautiful bride for an everlasting marriage.
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