What a difference 230 miles makes.
In the first days of the New Year, the attention of Catholics in the United States shifted to the Midwest, and two very different events taking place there.
In the woodlands outside of Chicago, 250 American bishops gathered in prayer and reparation at the behest of Pope Francis himself. They were there to pray especially for their unity as a body of bishops, so that together they might work to root out the institutional failures which have shattered the faith of so many.
In Indianapolis, 17,000 people – the strong majority under 30 – gathered for the SEEK Conference organized by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
I had the privilege of attending the latter, and can testify to the energy that was present amid the chilly Midwestern air. The Masses were beautiful, with a well-executed and balanced repertoire of music.
Even more powerful was the sound of reverent silence in a room filled with 17,000 people. The joy and fervor of the FOCUS missionaries was contagious. Indeed, the charismatic dimension of the church was on display, charismatic not in the stereotypical way (think speaking in tongues and hot rooms), but in the simple reality of Christians embracing the call of baptism and confirmation to live the gifts (charisms!) given them by the Holy Spirit.
Those young people in many ways embody the Letter to Diognetus: they look, dress, and appear just like their contemporaries, but they seek after something permanent and more lasting.
We should not, however, draw too much of a dichotomy between the two events. It can be easy to lump the Church’s hierarchy into the category of “the problem” and to come back thinking FOCUS and similar initiatives alone to be “the solution.” It is helpful to recall, of course, that the growth of FOCUS and other similar initiatives had a strong assist from American bishops who supported these initiatives.
Therefore, while Newman was right to remark that the clergy would look quite ridiculous without the laity, he did not imply that such a statement did not cut both ways. The charisms of the laity, the creative initiatives which have blossomed in our day, should always be placed at the service of the whole Church.
It is the responsibility of the ordained – especially bishops – to discern this. So, in a sense, the two events 230 miles away are much more connected than we might believe at first.
There has been much talk of the church’s “credibility” in light of the recent scandals here in the United States and beyond. Pope Francis’ letter to the bishops on retreat even uses that word. Yet the credibility of the church does not, I must admit, seem to be a major concern to the young people who attended the SEEK Conference. Perhaps, one could argue, they are too engrossed in the typical concerns of college students (not to mention their iPhones) to notice the ongoing ecclesial conflagration.
But I’m not sure that’s entirely it. Maybe, just maybe, it is because they view Christ as the center of the church. It is he, first and foremost, who gives our ministry all the credibility we could ever need. That does not mean we should be anti-clericalists. I saw nothing of the sort at SEEK. But it means placing our faith not in the ambassadors, but the one they represent.
The dynamism of the 17,000 gathered in Indy tells us something else: despite all the failures – the big ones that make the papers and the small ones we inflict upon her each day – the church is still alive. Yes, the church is alive: not just in some far-flung country but here and now in the United States.
We cannot run to our fainting couches or hide away in our rooms. There is work to be done today. There is too much energy present right now among Catholics young and old to sit around waiting for more favorable winds.
On the last day of an undergraduate political science class, the professor looked around at her students and explained how the reform generations never get much ink in the textbooks. Everyone, she said, remembers the good results, but few remember the small contributions which laid the groundwork. And then she looked around and predicted that the students in the classroom would be members of the reform generation.
I know this, because I was sitting in the classroom. That was almost 10 years ago, but I remember that moment vividly. Those sentiments are almost perfectly transferable from civil to ecclesial life, except for one word. What we need in the church is not reform – Christ alone forms his church, and he did that once for all on the cross.
What we need is renewal. And yes, that absolutely involves canonical changes and implementation of best practices on the macro level. But the epicenter of renewal lies on the local level: in parishes filled with men and women committed to discipleship; in good men who seek to shepherd their dioceses and parishes with joy and with a desire to heal the wounds of our day; on college campuses filled with young people on fire for the Gospel; in families committed to being joyful witnesses of God’s love in the world.
May all of us, then, rely on the strong, driving wind which even today blows through the woods of Mundelein, the halls of the Indianapolis Convention Center, and everywhere else in between.
Father Eric J. Banecker is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in Broomall.
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