Last Sunday I read an article titled “Is the Catholic Church irredeemable?” I thought maybe I would write something on the topic, but then there was another article to read, this time about abusive nuns, then about hypocritical priests, then about bishops who failed to protect children, then about closing parishes, and then there was work to be done of my own.
I read those articles because I feel I should. I should know what has happened, and what others think about it. And then I put the articles aside because there’s work to be done, and I have long ago learned the lessons that they have to teach, and implementing those lessons – of care, justice, protection and accountability – are part of the work that remains.
But I kept thinking about how I might respond to the question posed about redemption: yet another explanation of how the Church is not just the men who lead it, or the buildings where we gather for prayer, or the worst sins we have committed. I’m tired of saying it. No one wants to hear it.
So then the next Sunday came, and at evening mass we had the rite of welcoming for our RCIA candidates. Five people are entering the Church this Easter at my parish, and it broke me. People still want to join the Church. Though I read the articles and put them aside and get on with the work, I must internalize the shame. Otherwise why would I have been so shocked and humbled to see those candidates professing their desire to join the Church?
I teared up thinking about their commitment, and above all I was grateful. Grateful to the candidates who are joining the Church, that the Church can grow – is growing – and I get to be a part of it rather than solely responsible for it. The explanation I give for how the Church will survive must be true: the Spirit of God continues to draw us into communion.
As the communion line processed, we sang “I am the bread of life”, and I saw the mouths moving of parishioners who rarely pick up their hymnals, who look at me skeptically when I invite the congregation to join in singing. Those words, “I am the bread of life, you who come to me shall not hunger” are written on their hearts, and they sang.
Later that evening I went to a chapel where I haven’t been for Sunday night mass since I was a freshman in college nearly two decades ago. I felt the length of the years and also how filled those years have been with joy, a joy that I cannot separate from my faith.
I don’t get to choose how many years I get, or which years those are. My time on earth as a Catholic might be years of shame and embarrassment. They might be years of decline. They might be years when we have to work hard to undo damage that we didn’t do.
The Church is redeemable because God endures and continues to call out to our hearts and to meet us in the sacraments. It is redeemable because our Redeemer lives, because our God is beauty ever ancient, ever new. It is redeemable because it is made up of people who have good in them, who long for goodness, who defy evil, who sing an unlikely faith. None of this negates the work we still have to do, or the sins of the past. But they give me reason to persist in hope.