We are who we are because of the radical gift of God’s love as revealed in faith. Our identity as Catholic Christians can only be understood in the context of this gift. Everything else is ancillary.
As Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium,
The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift. God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him. He sends his Spirit into our hearts to make us his children, transforming us and enabling us to respond to his love by our lives. The Church is sent by Jesus Christ as the sacrament of the salvation offered by God. (112)
If this is the case, then the experience of being a Catholic must itself be understood as gift. “We love because God first loved us,” as we are told in the First Letter of John (1 Jn 4:19). That’s the essence of Christianity, expressed in its fullness in the Catholic Church where God’s greatest gift to humanity is offered to us daily in the Eucharist.
The place where this is expressed is the parish, where the love of God is made incarnate within the local community, with all its uniqueness and personal character. Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration.” (27)
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if our experience of parish life is not one of “receiving a great gift,” or being a “sacrament of salvation” as Pope Francis writes, then we have failed. Francis has consistently reminded us of the habits that lead us astray. Getting to the root of the problem, he describes the “fossilization” of our Church, in which preservation of our structures and decisions motivated by “social and political gain” (EG 95) can thwart the work of the Spirit.
Sadly, recent news in the Church points to the challenges the Church faces in sharing the faith as a “gift.” For example, there is the case of Father Matthew Hood of the Archdiocese of Detroit, who discovered upon watching an old family video that he was invalidly baptized. This, of course, set off among Catholics on social media a cascade of worries about invalid sacraments. Many began to wonder which sacraments they had really received and which ones they only thought they had received.
I have been thinking lately about the many Catholics who are hanging on for dear life to a bruised or wounded faith—nurtured perhaps through habits of prayer, a daily devotional email, Bible reading, or nothing but the kindness of those around them. These Catholics have persevered through the abuse scandal—intensified by recent revelations of evils done by incompetent or malevolent bishops. They have suffered through the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps scraping by on crumbs of virtual pastoral care from their local parishes and dioceses. At the same time, during this election year, many established Catholic organizations and public figures have shown themselves to be enamored by political parties and candidates while ignoring or dismissing the social injustices they support.
And now, in the midst of all this, we have learned that quite a number of Catholics from Detroit may not have received the sacraments at all, at least not really. An investigation has been launched to uncover the extent of the damage, and some Catholics have been told to assume their Baptisms were invalid. Imagine thinking that all that perseverance, pain, and suffering was built on a lie and for a lie. Whatever they thought they had received from the Church, they may never have had.
Is the parish a gift? Or is it a source of pain and anxiety?
There are broader concerns. In its recent instruction, “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church,” the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy admitted in plain language that the parish has become insignificant, stating, “With the Parish no longer being the primary gathering and social centre, as in former days, it is thus necessary to find new forms of accompaniment and closeness” (14). In this increasingly virtual world, a vibrant, close-knit, and supportive local community centered around the Eucharist is simply no longer the reality. The greatest gift that the Church has had to offer is apparently obsolete due to our increasing virtualization, only made worse by the pandemic.
The document proposes a number of potential solutions and structures to better minister to people today, in recognition of trends that the Church has been powerless to stop—the decline in Mass attendance, the lack of rootedness in many families, and the increased irrelevance of geographic parish boundaries. The document is, in many ways, tragic. It can only observe and propose. Whatever they are, the true and lasting solutions to counter the crisis in the Church still escape us. We have clearly been unable to effectively express our faith to others in a tangible way. We have largely failed to communicate the message of “gift” that lies at the heart of Catholicism.
As Pope Francis suggests, the sad fact is that we often like it this way. After all, if we made it through the abuse scandal, the bishops’ loss of credibility (let alone prophetic witness), the rise of the “nones” and the decline of religious practice in this country, and even this recent concern over sacramental validity, we can rest assured and tell ourselves that those of us who are left are “true” Catholics. There’s a certain camaraderie knowing that the people with us at Mass are those who really want to be there. But we’ll certainly keep the doors open in case anyone else figures it out, too.
Having been “outside” the Church for six months, self-isolating due to concerns over the coronavirus, I can tell you that this approach absolutely will not work. The Church will grow smaller and smaller until finally those who are left will look around and wonder where all the people went. They’ll blame modernity. They’ll blame liberalism. They’ll blame their pastor, the teachings of the Church, the bishops (a favorite target). The last they will blame is themselves. They will say, “But we were always generous and charitable.” True, they were. They will say, “But we prayed and kept the commandments.” True, they did.
We always try to remain Christian on our own terms. That’s comfortable and familiar. And guess what? Those who are “outside” the Church are doing the same thing. They find a way to do what they’ve always done and do it in comfort and familiarity. The Church is dying because we like it the way it is (or was) and we like who we are, wherever we find ourselves.
It is necessary to rethink what Catholicism means to everyday Catholics. To be a gift is to hand ourselves over and make ourselves vulnerable in communion with another. First and foremost, a “gift” cannot be understood as something in opposition to anything—not Protestantism nor liberalism nor anything else. Being a Catholic comes with obligations, but a gift is given freely. Being a Catholic comes with traditions, but a gift is something new. Being a Catholic means receiving the Sacraments, but first comes the work of God in the hearts of each of us.
To be Catholic is to have received a great gift, one that is unsurpassable and without equal. The “Joy of the Gospel,” (not coincidentally, the title of Francis’s first Exhortation), is a way to express this reality. This is the joy of having received a great gift that impels us to go out into the world to be a gift to others, and the parish is meant to be the mutual and perpetual exchange of gift.
We fail badly quite often—as individuals and parishes—to be God’s gift to others. But no matter how many times we miss the mark, the opportunity to renew the Church always remains the same. Nurtured by God in prayer, the love of God becomes in us a simple invitation, an act of vulnerability, a powerful witness. This is what it is to be a gift. This is what will revive this dying Church.