Saturday, May 5, 2012

A distracted and scattered flock is a reflection of the spiritual state of its shepherd: Reform of the church begins with reform of the spiritual life of its priests.

A priest friend, a fellow university professor, sent me an email earlier, bewailing the fact that more and more Catholics he's encountering seem less and less knowledgeable about their religion, less inclined to participate fully in the life of the Church, less interested in faith as a whole. And he blamed the usual boogeymen we love to blame: secularism, relativism, subjectivism, the permissiveness of society and culture in general, and so on. "The flock seems so distracted", he said, "scattered". 

But can we really blame them? Ask lay people and they'll tell you, they rarely feel "fed". They leave our Masses and liturgies "hungry". They listen to our homilies and feel "empty". And it's not just their minds that are starving; its their hearts and their souls. Why? We might be tempted to give a well-crafted and thoroughly researched response. I think the answer's quite simple, and has been staring us in the face for a long time now.

Frankly, we Catholic priests should be asking ourselves a serious question, How many of us actually, honestly, and earnestly spend an hour a day in personal prayer, spiritual reading and meditation? How many of us actually faithfully pray our Breviary - something we promised to do at Ordination, diligently read the Scriptures, pray the Rosary, spend time with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament? 

Or have we become so jaded and cynical that we've learned to "theologize" even our excuses? Shall we now think naive, maybe even impractical for such busy men, the suggestion that we once again take up what we did faithfully as seminarians, what we were taught a true disciple of Christ will need to do for the rest of his life? A priest who has lost touch with the spiritual life might as well have lost his soul.

The rallying cry of the reforming fathers of the Council of Trent remains true to this day:
"Reform of the Church begins with reform of the clergy". We keep talking about how our lay people no longer have a profoundly personal relationship with Christ; but honestly, how many of us priests do? 

It's something we don't like to talk about; yet until bishops, and priests themselves, begin addressing the profound spiritual lacunae in the lives of all of us, there is no way we'll begin "attracting" people, no matter how many New Evangelization programs we begin. We'll only be shouting ourselves hoarse.

The problem is not simply a lack of religious knowledge or even commitment on the part of Christ's flock; the problem is often the profound lack of spirituality on the part of the shepherds themselves, a spirituality which ought to be at the heart of a religion that will attract and bring people to God, and keep them tethered to Him.

I had a conversation with a very good student just recently. He mentioned how a friend of his told him he didn't feel interested in "organized" or "institutional" religion anymore, that he felt he was - like many today - "spiritual and not religious". "Are they wrong, father?" he asked. 

Wasn't there a young man who recently posted that video of himself talking about how Jesus "hated religion"? The uproar from religious individuals was understandable; but it was largely misplaced. Those of us who are religious, often mistake such ideas as an affront to, even an attack on religion. Well, maybe it isn't. Perhaps it's a plea, and one we should be listening to, attentively. 

For at its heart is not merely a criticism of religion; it's a plea to us, we who so identify ourselves as religious, and yet are the very ones who too often  lose sight of what true religion is about: a binding of our interior life to God who judges the heart. It's a plea to us, those called "shepherds", to remember that what the flock hungers and thirsts for is substance, spirit, that which lies intimeor intimo meo (to borrow Augustine's words), that which is "more intimate to me than my most intimate thought" - not externals that may feed the senses but starve the soul.

Noli foras ire. In te redi; in interiore homine habitat veritas. "Do not go outside yourself, " says Augustine. "Go within. Truth dwells in the inner man". It would be wise for us to remember the counsel of the wise bishop of Hippo. A religion that has forgotten its interiority and has gotten lost in the welter of external trappings, be it ritual, rule, or dogma, is no better than a religion of "whitewashed tombs". (Do we feel offended? So did the Scribes and Pharisees.)

It's not that people mistakenly create a gulf between "religion" and "spirituality", then dismiss the former and identify with the latter. It's that we who should know better have often squeezed the very spirit, out of true religion itself, dichotomized between the two, and think that religion is all about ideas. In fact, we often reduce faith itself to that - ideas, thoughts, concepts we hold and profess. In doing so, we are the ones who give religion a bad name, just as the Pharisees did. And didn't Jesus pronounce woe upon woe on them? That young man who posted that video had a point. He wasn't completely right; but neither was he totally wrong.

Faith isn't about what we know; faith is about what makes us leap into the unknown, in confidence, trust, and hope. Faith is what makes us fall in love. It is what feeds our soul. Knowledge alone will neither feed nor satisfy, no matter how profoundly erudite it is. Orthodox theology, vital as it may be, has never converted anyone; it's prayer that moves mountains, and it's the heart that has been led to fall in love with Christ that will remain faithful to his Church.

The Church today doesn't need philosophers and theologians; it needs saints. It doesn't need liturgists, canonists, dogmatists; what it needs are genuinely spiritual men. What it needs are priests that have "fallen in love" completely with Christ. Faith begins, not with the certainty of the mind, but with a tug on the heart. Augustine is right, unless the heart leads, the mind will not follow. And we priests aren't leading peoples' hearts, because our hearts, too often, are themselves unled.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)