Back in 1855, German physician Rudolf Virchow coined a fundamental phrase in modern medicine: omnis cellula e cellula, Latin for “every cell stems from another cell.”
In the process, Virchow (who was only 34 at the time) redefined our understanding of disease. Rather than a collection of symptoms, he argued, illness is the result of changes in normal cells — changes that could be observed, identified and more precisely treated. The founder of cellular pathology, Virchow urged his students to use microscopes in their research, and to “think microscopically.”
As we look to heal our wounded church, we would do well to heed Virchow’s advice. In our diagnosis, it’s easy to invoke broad terms like “clerical sexual abuse,” “secularization,” “anti-authoritarianism” and “social fragmentation” — they cover a lot of ground and seem to account for all the reasons that Mass attendance, belief in the Real Presence and parish life in general are in decline in much of the United States.
But we humans aren’t all that good at grasping big, sweeping phenomena. As creatures bounded by time and space, we don’t comprehend history and culture as realities in and of themselves. We experience war as the loved one who doesn’t return from combat, freedom as the chance to play with our kids in the park, security as a steady paycheck. Even with all of our technological advancements, we still participate in life one moment at a time in our small corner of the planet.
That’s why we need to examine, through the microscope of self-reflection, the cells that make up the body of Christ. Only through understanding exactly how they’ve become infected can we hope to restore them, through the grace of God, to health.
And just as the cells of our body can fall prey to disease in a very undramatic fashion — even as we go about our ordinary routines — so too can our spiritual life degrade quite quickly through the slightest neglect.
A missed Sunday Mass here and there gradually becomes a habit, especially if teens and young adults lose interest in attending, and weary parents give up coaxing and pleading.
Or perhaps we find ourselves “parish shopping,” choosing liturgies and churches that fit our schedule, without ever investing ourselves fully in our local faith community.
Maybe we’ve stopped talking to God in prayer, filling every spare moment with digital distractions and diving into dinner (and every other meal) without a thought of thanks.
Our Bibles gather dust; months, even years pass without our spending time reading the word of God and, like Mary, pondering it deep within our hearts.
Our closets and cupboards are full to overflowing while millions lack basic shelter, sanitation, clean water and food. We don’t even need to look away from the homeless on the sidewalk; we stopped seeing them long ago.
We don’t forgive, whether our grudge is against the driver who cut us off this morning or the family member we haven’t talked to in years.
We try to live as “comfortable Christians,” with just enough of Jesus to avoid hell, and not enough to enflesh him anew in a world that needs him more than ever.
Looking through a microscope can be frightening, and sometimes we’d rather not see the truth in such detail. But the Lord who knit our frames cell by cell wants to restore us as thoroughly as he created us, and if we’re willing to gaze more closely, we will behold the handiwork of our loving and mighty Healer.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com and host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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