I didn’t sleep well this week. My heart aches.
I had dinner with some dear friends, the conversation light, the perch dusted and tender, and served up. Then, our hosts unexpectedly announced they were no longer Catholics. They were raised in the Church, raised their children in the Church, and were practicing Catholics who now practiced no more.
I asked the reason for this dramatic change. The husband announced he could no longer belong to an organization that made him feel as if he needed to vote for a certain candidate over a single-issue concern. It was a bridge too far for him. I thought this was hyperbolic and inaccurate and I told him so: The Church does not endorse candidates and only provides guidance on moral issues on the ballot. The wife joined the fray, saying they had other reasons to leave: the Church’s stance on divorce, on LGBTQ issues, the litany sadly familiar and growing: “Our children have gay friends … I guess we’re agnostics or atheists but not Catholics.”
Wrestling with and struggling to understand Church teaching makes sense to me, but abandoning Jesus and his Eucharistic presence is nearly impossible to wrap my mind around. I struggled to keep a lid on my frustration.
It would be easy to create a strawman of this couple’s list and knock it down with a smug dismissal. But my friends are telling a truth that is much broader than many suspect. They aren’t stupid; they’re not craven in some particular way other humans are not. Something has become more significant than Jesus for so many, something more relevant for their lives than the narrow road he bids us to trod or the salvation he offers, more bracing than conformation to his person and mission.
What so many have lost is a broad vision and narrative for all humanity; what they’ve lost is faith in Jesus Christ and confidence in his Father’s plan. The faith that built the Church and must re-build the Church is a faith that sustains in famine and drought, in disease and war, in suffering and death. It is a faith that meets eternity with anticipation and says with St. Paul, “Death, where is your victory, your sting?” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:55). We can and must ask repeatedly for this same gift of faith for ourselves, for our children, for our neighbors.
My friends don’t challenge the Church and her teaching, so much as they challenge Christ, and the truth of his identity and ours in him. This is what Peter and the Ten bear witness to, and what you and I must, too: That Jesus is Risen, that he is Lord. The truth of this must be manifest in our flesh, must give silent witness to our neighbors in how we live and how we love.
Salvation will not be found in party politics or partisan affiliation. It comes in the name of a man who looks into our hearts and says to us as he said to Peter: "Who do you say I am?"
Salvation will not be found in party politics or partisan affiliation. It comes in the name of a man who looks into our hearts and says to us as he said to Peter: "Who do you say I am?" I’m increasingly convinced that we’ve lost the narrative that helps us integrate our lives, that helps us negotiate the roiled waters of our age. The answer for ourselves and those around us is the same for everyone all time: Jesus. Let his name be our refuge, his Precious Blood our shield, his cross our standard and the reason for our hope. Let us not be too bereft by those who inevitably wander. Our job is to be witnesses; his, the salvation of all creation.
I’m sad for my friends and for all of us who share in the pain of our dear ones who walk away. Our response is not to become bereft. Our response is to double down, to use a gambling metaphor. As St. Paul tells the Church at Rome: "Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer" (Romans 12:12). Never give up in praying for your family and friends. It ain’t over until it’s over, to quote a famous coach.
We live in a time when all that we counted on is seemingly passing away, so it’s good to remember once again that Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (cf. Hebrews 13:8). Consider that we may be the one thing in the lives of our friends and family whose intercession may change everything! How many husbands, wives, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, and friends are saved because of the prayers of a pious friend? How many souls are in heaven because a wife or mother just wouldn’t give up? That husband, wife, father or mother, sister or brother, friend, and neighbor might just be you.
It’s not time to sound the alarm; that time has passed. It’s time for bishops, priests, clergy and religious, laymen and laywomen, all putative disciples, to make a decision: Will we sanctify, teach, and govern as believers, or will we continue to travel down the road of lukewarmness, indifference and futility — the road which surely can be called, we used to be Catholics? Let’s not be sad; let’s double down, remembering we’ve got a winning hand because our ace in the hole is Jesus. Our job is to be witnesses, and Jesus’ job is salvation.
Auxiliary Bishop Gerard W. Battersby is the episcopal moderator for the Archdiocese of Detroit's South Region, and chairman of the archdiocese's Unleash the Gospel Council.