Reflection on the Church for the Feast of the Ascension

Reflection on the Church for the Feast of the Ascension

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.

Frustrating Times

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.

Some Have Forgotten

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.”

  • There is one way for us to really know Jesus and what he is all about—in the Church. Jesus answered the disciples’ fears at the Last Supper with the assurance, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” In our common faith, in the sacraments and Church teachings, we discover that way, that truth, that life.
  • Church teaching is reliable because it is apostolic—connected to Jesus through his apostles and those who came after. They must have faced many fears. They also had violent disagreements. Read Galatians for the confrontation between Paul and Peter over the admission of Gentiles into the Church. Somehow, the Spirit was present; I suspect there was real dialogue in the process.
  • Being Catholic means Jesus is fully present in the Church and that it fulfills Jesus’ command to carry his message to the ends of the earth. And although clothed in different languages, and embodied in different cultures, the message of love and forgiveness remains constant. I believe our “catholicity” extends not just to cultures, but to genders and orientations. “Catholic” implies a worldwide tent, in which all may find a place. We need to learn from each other.
  • Sadly, in our time—as in times past—some may find it hard to call the Church holy, because of the failings of some. But the holiness of the Church is more about who we are together as the “Body of Christ.” We belong to the Church in order to become holy, to share the life of Jesus. It used to bother me when Catholics critical of the Church would say, “Father, why does the Church tell us…?” I knew they were referring to the Church’s leadership. The critics were angry at a part of the Church. But the Church is more than the hierarchy. The Church is all of us. In his most recent apostolic letter, the Holy Father said, “We believe….” Together we share our faith in Jesus, and together we seek forgiveness and the grace to grow in faith.

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.

Photo: Stuart/



About the Author

Fr. Greg Friedman, O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest who serves as creative director on the media production team at Franciscan Media, where he produces audio and video programs. He hosts American Catholic Radio, broadcast and streamed to over 70 Catholic radio stations and available on the Web at Fr. Greg is also pastor of St. Francis Seraph parish, a part of the Franciscans’ inner-city ministry in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine area.
  • Wbua

    Very well written.Yes,it’s very important to reminds us how the Church’s motherly
    wisdom begets us  homefelt felicity.Society has us all under water,blearing our
    vision.The Church is holy and has no catarrh.