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Peter Stockland: With God in charge, we can’t go wrong

  • February 12, 2022

Writing last week in the Jesuit publication America, associate editor Jim McDermott posed a 30-word query that should become the reflection-starter of our time.

“Who said we had to be in charge in the first place, or to have all the answers?” McDermott asked. “Certainly not God. That is actually kind of His thing.”

He offered the ask-and-answer in relation to the way that some  Catholics regard members of our Holy Mother the Church who have “lapsed” or “fallen away” or resolutely stopped attending Mass and living the sacraments in their lives.

McDermott welcomes the approach of listening to our erstwhile sisters and brothers in faith to understand why they no longer welcome the Church in their day-to-day. He is distinctly chary about appearing to listen while the agenda in the back pocket is to persuade, entice or cajole those who’ve “lost the faith” back inside the diocesan door.

For starters, he argues, why assume that losing one’s way to the church steps inherently equates to loss of faith. In fact, he says, their faith in God might be undiminished. It might have even grown. What they’ve lost is trust in the clergy, in the institutional Church, even in one priest or bishop.

“While we call them ‘lapsed’ or frame them as having lost their home, many former Catholics have left the Church precisely because Church leaders refused to offer real care to them or others,” McDermott writes.

In Quebec, where I live, the concrete reality of his point was demonstrated several years ago by — get this — a Leger-Leger marketing study. It showed in hard statistics that many Catholics who’ve abandoned their former parish churches are regular visitors to the province’s key shrines. They are as devout as ever. Their devotion manifests freely in the independence afforded by the relative anonymity of the shrines, and freedom from what experience has convinced them are the unlivable strictures of the Church.

My natural response is to say they’re wrong, or at least they misunderstand the discipline the Church teaches and fosters. But that’s precisely where McDermott’s question becomes essential. What they believe is what they believe. If I approach their belief with the undeclared intention of proving how wrong their wrong really is, what presumption am I engaging? Surely an honest faith at the heart of an honest conversation requires listening.

“Put simply, many… might be happy to share what it was like being in the church and why they left,” he says.

He acknowledges that can be a challenge for those of us who stay within the Church through her manifold tribulations. More, he counsels that overcoming fear of hearing what challenges our foundational convictions is itself a compounding challenge. But seeing those challenges as gifts rather than threats can open a door, become a genuine welcome, to a deeper, more mature and enduring faith. He points to the Annunciation as a model to ponder in that regard. The Angel Gabriel bursts in on Mary unannounced and delivers earth-alerting news that leaves her  verklempt to say the least. But that sudden news becomes the Good News, which we as Christians believe is the greatest news the world ever heard.

So too, McDermott writes, difficult conversations patiently attended with open ears can produce the gifts of spirit when we let angelic messengers enter, regardless of any initially troubling form they take. That is, when we let go of having to “be in charge in the first place” and recall that God With Us is ever present to do His job.

“In the Church we sometimes characterize those who have left as disaffected or lost. But in fact, maybe they are the angels that God has sent to help us become what He wants us to be,” McDermott writes.

Surely the truth of that in our Catholic faith extends to other aspects of our lives whether personal, social, culture and perhaps most pertinently in these woefully polarized and tribal times, politically. To frame the question: What if we dumpstered our agendas and prayed for God’s guidance to truly listen?

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