(I realize it will take time to read and reflect upon this, but it could save your life!)
There are close to 100 parishes throughout our diocese (the pastoral region of both San Diego and Imperial counties) serving over a million Catholics. In our long history in this area, going back to 1769, the local parish church became the visual and practical point of reference for the ministry and mission of generations of Catholics. Today’s landscape has completely changed. Some church buildings are empty. Some are locked. Some parishes offer Mass inside for small groups or outside for as many as they can.
But what about the devotional life of the parish church that we were so used to - the candlelight processions, the hymns, the incense, and the reverence that often accompanied our liturgical and ritual prayer as a parish community? In short, are we having an identity crisis?
Consider first the reason the Church exists. Eight years ago, Pope Benedict summarized it perfectly.
“In every time and place, evangelization always has as its starting and finishing points Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” He then added, “The Church exists to evangelize. Faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ’s command, his disciples went out to the whole world to announce the Good News, spreading Christian communities everywhere. With time, these became well-organized churches with many faithful.”
First comes Christ and His Gospel announcing to the world, the Kingdom of God. The organization of parishes came much, much later.
In short, it always begins with Christ saying, “Come follow me”. In doing so, we listen and learn from Him so that we can enter into communion with Him, particularly through the Eucharist. But it does not end there. Christ tells all those who are united to Him, “Go ye therefore”. Evangelization means literally “sharing good news”, the good news about Jesus Christ, His life and teachings, His saving sacrifice and death, His physical and glorious resurrection from the dead and that He still accompanies us in every aspect of our lives on earth, still offering Himself to our Heavenly Father on our behalf.
Incredibly, even now, I continue to meet individuals who are seeking God, some for the first time, others returning to Him after a long time away, and still some who, although culturally religious, are searching for the personal God often hidden behind the signs, images, crowds and uncertainties we all witness around us at this time.
As “first responders”, we don’t hand out parish registration forms or give instructions on when to sit, stand or kneel during Mass. Nor do we hand out rosary beads or prayer cards. All that can come later. The first response is an invitation to know Jesus Christ, to listen to Him, to have faith in Him and humbly walk behind Him. Doing so, we discover that God is not only personal, but also powerful, even in the midst of so great a storm. Only then will sacraments fully make sense and a family of Christian disciples can grow into a visible and viable community united in and accountable to a common faith and witness of life.
Of course, this doesn’t happen naturally. It always begins and ends with the supernatural - through Him, with Him and in Him. Easily said, you might say. But who is He? One might respond by having someone simply read the Bible or attend Mass. but it’s not that simple. The Bible wasn't written to be read from cover to cover like a history book or as a script for a 10 part mini series as interesting or entertaining it might be. And as I often remark, “you can spend an hour sitting inside a garage every Sunday but that won’t change you into a car!”
Instead, I believe that, because much of our external Catholic life has been stripped of its public expression, we have now been given by God a unique, maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity, to revisit and to get to know Jesus Christ in all His originality, uniqueness and power. He has allowed Himself to be stripped down and exposed in all His nakedness on the Cross. He has also torn through and cast aside the burial cloths we wrapped Him up with in the tomb. Whether we recognize Him or not, He walks the same road we are now on.
Using this moment of grace, I offer you the same two helpful resources and guides that I first recommend to anyone who wants to know Christ better, to learn from Him and love Him for Who He is. Understandably, the links will send you to Amazon, but feel free to copy and paste the suggestions into any search engine.
Christ in the Gospel, is a unique pocket sized reprint of taking “weaving together” the four different gospel accounts of Our Lord’s life and mission into one complete and continuous account, marked out to read and reflect upon one day at a time. (Incidentally, I still use the one my grandmother gave me forty years ago!)
To Know Christ Jesus, by Frank Sheed. This great Catholic author retells the life of Christ by inviting us into the landscape, politics, culture and people of His day. We get to see how God breaks into our human history and how the drama of our salvation is shaped and challenged by the environment it faces.
As a pastor and priest, I offer both these tested resources, even only as a reminder to us all, that amid all the challenges we face right now - religious, political, medical and social, we can not allow ourselves to be distracted from the unique friendship Christ continuously offers each of us. It is Him alone who will save anyone and everyone who wants to know Him better and love Him more both now and forever. Seek Him out again in the context of the Good News of His Kingdom, as if for the first time and everything (including parish life), in time, will fall into its proper place.
Father Cávana Wallace
Pastor and Parish Priest