Back in our seminary, there was a magnificent stone stairway which went up five stories. I don’t like heights, and one night, my friend, Friar John Kramer, who had a very playful sense of humor, was up on the fourth floor near the library with me, right next to that stairway. He knew I didn’t like heights, and he suddenly went over to the railing, where you could look way down.
As he did so, he said, “Friedman, imagine when this railing wasn’t here!” And he began waving his arms as he leaned way over! Well, he didn’t fall, but I was paralyzed with fear that he would!
The description of the Ascension of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles shows the disciples looking up to heaven, watching Jesus depart. It reminds me of that moment at the railing of that high stairwell. There once was a time when the railing wasn’t there. And there once was a time when the Church wasn’t the large, worldwide institution it is today. No parishes, not much of a hierarchy, no written-out liturgical books, no canon law, no catechism. Just the disciples, looking up to heaven, perhaps wondering, “What next?”
Maybe some were paralyzed by fear at the thought of doing it without Jesus! The heavenly messengers urged them not to stand there, looking up. Jesus would come again. Meanwhile, there was a mission. They were to go and wait for the Spirit, who would help them take the next steps.
We are living through frustrating times in the Church. It’s nothing new! Ages past have seen struggles, upheavals, and divisions. There have been fierce—even violent—disagreements over doctrine. Once there were three competing popes. There have been breaks in the unity of the Church, and times of great corruption.
As a Catholic raised in the 1950s, and ordained after Vatican II, I’ve lived through some exciting times and some disappointments. Lately, I’ve found myself troubled by the polarization the Church. People who disagree are sometimes very unkind in their disagreements.
I’m saddened to find—even among the hierarchy—disturbing examples of uncivil, un-pastoral behavior.
Also disturbing is the paralyzing fear that seems to affect some Catholics, including the hierarchy. They seem to fear risk, change, even dialogue. Instead there are one-sided decisions, uncivil comments from the pulpit, and judgments with little or no conversation.
It’s very much like my fearful reaction when my friend stood on the edge of the stairwell and imagined a time when there was no railing! Perhaps some in the Church today have forgotten a time when there was little structure, very little “spelled out,” not much more than the memory of Jesus and his promise to be with them.
Maybe some have forgotten how to do a playful dance and allow the Spirit to work!
In the Creed we profess our belief in the Church using four adjectives: one, holy, catholic, apostolic. There’s much theology behind these words, but here is my pastoral take on these traditional “marks of the Church.”
In a book aptly titled Tell the Next Generation, a wise Jesuit teacher and preacher Father Walter Burghardt shares how he sees the Church and makes what he calls “an uncommonly honest confession.” I found the quote years ago and used it in a book I wrote at the time, titled Why Bother with Church? Fr. Burghardt says it better than I can!
In the course of a half century, I have seen more Catholic corruption than you have read of. I have tasted it. I have been reasonably corrupt myself. And yet I find joy in this Church. Why? For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love.
For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason. For all the individual repressions, I breathe an air of freedom. In an age so inhuman, I touch here the tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and laughter. In the midst of death, I hear here an incomparable stress on life. For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ.