Homily for the 7th Week of Easter, 2012
Yesterday you may have seen the article about religious practice in Maine in the Bangor daily news. Religious practice and affiliation in New England is lower than anywhere else in the country, the article reported, and by quite a bit. Among so many people, it seems that religion is seen as an imposition, a structure and even an obstacle to true and authentic spirituality. The attractiveness of religion, the blessing of religion, seems to be lost on the majority of people in Maine. And even among those who claim some religious affiliation, I wonder how many of them would speak of their religion is something that they tolerate. The less religion the better.
Now this loss of the religious in our culture is especially problematic for us Catholics. Because of all of the various religions that dot our theological landscape, the Catholic Church epitomizes, for better or for worse, religion. When someone is worried about demons in the basement, they call the priest. Even non-Catholics call the priest. They want an exorcism, not a meditation session. There is a reason that Dan Brown wrote his novels about mysterious and secret organizations within the Catholic Church, not the Unitarians. And there is a reason why the social teaching of our Church, and not some huge mega church, sets off such harsh response and condemnation. Our Catholic faith, our heritage, thoroughly and undeniably looks, smells, and sounds religious.
So in response to the rejection of religion what do we do? I suppose we could try to run away from our religious identity, trying to emphasize the ways that you can get away with being Catholic without being too religious, playing down the history of the Church, playing down the role of the magisterium, playing down the importance of the sacraments. But once gutted of its religious aspects, what remains? Just another human institution, another ideology, another form of entertainment. And not a very good one at that. The Catholic Church is only beautiful, only makes sense, as a religion.
And so at what point do we have to just come to terms with that:
yes, I am a part of a very old, very mysterious religion that is run by a bunch of old men who wear strange hats and who symbolically wash my feet each year as a sign of how they are to lead us. And yes, we do believe very odd things, ancient mysteries about God and about angels and saints that have been handed on to us for generations. And we don’t just have services, we come to Mass where we do all these ritual movements together, we sing strange songs and memorize and chant all of these rather cryptic prayers (especially after the new translation). I mean, if we take a step back and look at ourselves for a moment, look at what we are doing – even without the Latin, without the incense, it is very clear what we are doing here: we are being religious.
And that is not a liability, it is a gift. Because what is not always understood is that human beings are inherently religious. Watch a baseball game or a concert – look at the common ritual. Why all the movies with religious themes and symbols? We are made to do things together, and particularly, we are made to worship God together. And young people, even though they may have been told that they don’t need religion and that it is bad for them, are still attracted to it. To be a part of something bigger than yourself. To be united to others in meaningful activity.
And so in response to our current religious crisis, the Church, rather than denying its religious identity, needs to begin once more to show the beauty and blessing of being a part of this religion, of being a religious person, an active member of the Church. For decades now, the secular has been romanticized, it is time that we started to romanticize the religious.
To say things like “Why pray to God by yourself when you can do it with a bunch of other people in a beautiful place with beautiful music and using beautiful prayers that you didn’t even have to make up?”
Why settle for trite poems and country music songs at the funeral home, when your loved one could be prayed for and treated with the honor of a son or daughter of the living God at a funeral Mass?
Why the stress of wedding planners who want to make the perfect picture on some remote beach where you get sand in everything and no one can hear what you’re saying, when you can come to a church that was built by your ancestors to shelter you from the elements so that you can focus on the love that God is blessing between you on that day?
And furthermore, when did a walk in the woods ever help a poor person in need? When did being a good person ever build hospitals and schools and homeless shelters? And when did Jesus say that that’s what he wanted for us: to just be good people? No, he never said that. He said he wanted us to be one, one with each other and one with him, just as he is with the Father. Not one in some vague spiritual sensation of good feelings, but one in truth. That means one in action, one in thought, one in word, one in deed. United to the vine as branches, members of the flock he shepherds, stones in the building that he raises, sons and daughters in the family of believers. A religion, a beautiful religion – so human, and yet so yearning for the divine. Marked by the grittiness and earthiness of a lived tradition handed on by countless millions of real, human hands over two thousand years.
"Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.” Jesus wants us to be together – and not just as a penance. He wants us to find joy and meaning in worshiping him together, in praying together. He wants us to be able to share in the excitement of learning more about our faith, to encourage one another in deepening our knowledge of the divine. He wants us to reach out to help the suffering and the needy with others by our side, sharing in the blessings that come from caring from those who are less fortunate. To use the gifts that he has given us together, building upon one another as we are being built up into his body, the Church.
Can you be a good person and not be religious? I don’t know, perhaps. Can you be a good Christian and not be religious? No. You can’t baptize yourself. You can’t give yourself communion. You can’t write your own Bible. You can’t bury yourself. And thank God. We can do it together with him.