This past Saturday on the Catholic Weekend show, we had an engaging discussion with “Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious” author Pat Gohn, who in a recent blog post over on Patheos gave some of her own reflections on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Lumen Fidei. As Pat writes, “To assist me in not failing, Jesus has given me brothers and sisters in the church, along with the graces of the sacraments, to insure it.” I was similarly struck by the cooperative, community effort which Pope Francis was pointing to, which stands in stark contrast to many aspects of contemporary American experience.
One of the threads running through “The Light of Faith” is the embrace of the idea of the Church being a living, vibrant community. It is through this active practice of one’s faith, and not simply through the development of individual personal relationships with Christ, whereby one comes to truly be a part of the Church. In order to do so however, there needs to be a bit of death of the old self, a putting away of things which we like but which in many cases cannot be turned to good ends. And for contemporary Americans in particular, one of the most difficult aspects of this is the idea that physical objects are not actually going to help us build up the kind of Church which Christ is calling us to.
Sublimation of the self in order to be more fully a part of the whole is something which may seem at odds with the American experience, or rather, what Americans believe their experience to be. We like to think of ourselves as people who could go it alone if need be, in the spirit of explorers and pioneers seeking new frontiers. However more often than not we are glad to give over control of our lives to businesses and organizations whose ultimate goals are not salvation, but profit, where the ends of profitability justify the means of parting the fool from his money. Like in all wealthy civilizations everywhere, Americans tend to enslave themselves to whatever their personal object of lust or gluttony happens to be. And being Americans, we do so on a simply massive scale. For surely there has never been so acquisitive a nation in the history of the world as this one, not just among elites but across all levels of society.
In building our communities around things, rather than around people, we measure ourselves so cheaply as to link our personal value to products made out of molded petroleum products or pressed earth. In truth, by doing so all we have done in creating communities centered around materialism is to provide further evidence that Madison Avenue has a greater hold on the American psyche than we care to admit. And we revel in the self-perpetuating ignorance we have created, without even realizing we have done so. I am reminded of a television news presenter who, shortly after Pope Francis was elected, held an online poll asking, essentially, whether Christians ought to proselytize. It betrayed a stunningly embarrassing ignorance of basic Christianity which, unfortunately, has seeped into the culture.
In contrast to this, Pope Francis puts the community of believers squarely out in front, in defiance of those who say that Christians ought to keep their Christianity to themselves. “Faith,” he writes, “is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed.” Much of America and indeed the world today would say otherwise, putting comfort ahead of sacrifice and damning the consequences, without realizing that those consequences may very well damn us, in return.
The community to which the Christian belongs must be something more than a cultural institution, if the word “Church” is to have some meaning beyond a place where Christians assemble. If “Church” is nothing more than a building where a group of people like to get together and sing the same songs and listen to motivational speakers telling them what nice people they are, one can hardly call that a “Church”. It is more like a social club, where a rather flat and blurry facsimile of the Jesus from the Gospels is the topic, instead of football, or politics, or comic books.
The challenge of being part of the Church, in a truly Christian community, is the challenge of losing the self in order to gain the other. It does not mean that we never argue, for even the Apostles did that, both when Jesus was with them and even after His Death and Resurrection. However they learned over time to work together to build their community and keep it together, without compromising the truth. A community based solely on material gains and the enthronement of personal pleasures is little more than a mutual admiration society, and one which is destined to fail us all.