Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, and hosts The Popecast, a podcast about papal history. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew, his wife, and their unborn child make their home in Spokane, Washington.
“There are lives literally hanging in the balance. Our effectiveness should be of the utmost importance.”
Those words came from a recent interview with Abby Johnson, a prominent pro-life advocate and subject of the movie Unplanned, and though she was speaking specifically about the pro-life movement and how they engage pregnant women entering abortion facilities, the quote holds an even greater truth for the wider Church – particularly our parishes & dioceses.
The Church at the local level, by and large, is in crisis mode. In case anyone’s been living under a rock since last June, the abuse scandal has risen up more fiercely than it did nearly 20 years ago, those inside the Church are shouting loudly until they receive some real answers, and several state attorneys general are now out for blood, to boot.
As a result, not only are diocesan offices girding their loins for new legal battles, but virtually every leader throughout the Church is worried about the impact these things will have on their day-to-day lives. Will people stop coming? Will we have to lay off staff? Will we be able to keep the lights on?
The abuse scandal has rightfully been called one of the worst things the Church, in her 2,000 year history, has ever had to endure – and there have been some doozies.
But Scripture, as it always does, holds the (startlingly simple) answers.
For starters, some version of “Be not afraid” appears nearly 200 times in the Bible – it’s as if the Lord is reminding us that if we do anything, we’d do well to remember Whose Church this is in the first place.
Second, the idea of “going in haste” is a crucial – though easily missed – detail of several popular Gospel stories. In the Visitation we read that Mary “went in haste to the hill country of Judea” (Luke 1:39). The same phrase is used when Jesus speaks to Zaccheus, the diminutive tax collector who’d climbed a tree to see over the crowds. Calling to Zacchaeus, Jesus says:
“...make haste and come down; for this day I must abide in thy house. And he made haste and came down; and received him with joy.”
When the Lord calls, he expects us not just to move, but to move quickly and decisively.
But why is it that the words “quickly and decisively” don’t come to mind when thinking of the day-to-day operations of so many parishes and dioceses?
Why is it that fear – of the department budget shrinking next year, of being replaced as music director of what “everyone knows” to be a mediocre choir, or of someone not liking homilies on sensitive moral issues – seems to be far more common than courage, creativity, or obedience to what God and the Church demand? Of serving the mission first, and myself second?
The short answer, of course, is sin.
The not-as-short answer, though, was summed up nicely in Fr. Mike Schmitz’ keynote at the the 2017 SEEK Conference.
At the end of his talk, Fr. Mike noted that every 400 or 500 years, the Church gets “comfortable, and bloated, and lazy,” and that God raises up great saints to renew the Church – saints like Augustine, Benedict, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Borromeo, Teresa of Avila, and others – and remind the Church of her missionary purpose.
He went on:
“The Church gets renewed from the inside, because there’s people in the Church who say ENOUGH. Who say ‘I have courage. I’m not going to be like everyone else. I’m going to be like Him, to renew the world.’ And here we are ... the Church is bloated, and it is comfortable, and the Church is falling into disrepair. And God will do what he always does. Let’s get to work.”
Granted, the Church certainly needs good human formation, good catechesis, solid liturgy, and strong marriages & families.
But what the Church needs even more desperately is sound leadership, people who make parish or chancery offices operate like a new, hungry startup founded in the CEO’s garage – who know their effort is the difference between survival and failure – and less like a government body.
Without sound leadership, all the rest is made substantially more difficult – if not virtually snuffed out altogether.
Those in charge of every office in every parish and every diocese should be people willing to not just hold staff accountable to perform well at the jobs for which they were hired, but also to regularly pray together and to always keep the mission in mind.
The people responsible for running the Body of Christ should be about more than punching the clock. It should be about more than just endless committees, white-knuckling it until the weekend, and doing things “because we’ve always done it this way.”
If Catholicism holds the fullness of the truth, then it damn well ought to have the best websites, the best media design, the smoothest-running teams, the best work-life balance, the most competitive and fair salaries, and the highest employee morale.
But we don’t.
If we have the best “big thing”, why on earth shouldn’t we be the best at all the little things?
Lest anyone think this is a trivial topic, and not worthy of serious discussion, consider this: Jesus promised to Peter in Matthew 16 that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against the Church, but He made no stipulations about the survival of any particular local corner of the Church.
That means a parish – and even a diocese – can and may cease to exist. Unless we’re willing to do something about it.
Thankfully, that “something” begins with simply seeking virtue and opposing vice. If we agree that sin is the cause of any decay in the life of the Church, then we agree that surrender to the Lord’s will through a growth in virtue and holiness is the antidote.
Fear is fought with courage and trust in the Lord.
Indecision is fought with diligence.
And together courage, trust, and diligence will ensure the local Church’s survival.
So let us pray for an end to “death by committee” and help the Church begin to “make haste” in her mission to evangelize the world. Lives are literally hanging in the balance.