The Fifth Sunday of Easter
2018 – Cycle B
This is Part IV and the conclusion of a series reflecting on John 20:19-31 begun on the Second Sunday of Easter.
“Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.”
The Gospel is silent as to why Thomas was not present on Easter Sunday evening. As we have reflected over the last three Sundays why many of our young people are absent and intentionally leaving the Catholic Church we have discovered there is no single answer. Maybe that is why the Gospel is silent about Thomas. Where his reasons many and complex?
We considered the consumerization of contemporary life including religion, which has resulted in Catholicism being seen as only one option among many. In this religious consumeristic world there is no absolute truths. The emergence of science and the scientific method has displaced poetry, metaphor and story resulting in the exile of transcendence and mystery as problems to be solved or discarded. Individual autonomy and personal choice have superseded any sense of community. But this autonomy has not succeeded in producing the happiness the Enlightenment promised. And when this unfulfilled promise is confronted by evil and suffering there has intensified within us the greatest affliction of our age, anxiety. This deep restlessness within us that life might be meaningless. We reflected on the experience of prayer and when it is countered with divine silence. In rejecting prayer, there is no room for sin and guilt. They are simply psychoses. And psychoses have no need for redemption and salvation and therefore there is no need for a Saviour, particularly a crucified Saviour. Family in all its wonder is also an abode of brokenness. Inauthenticity, hypocrisy, a lack of welcome, and inconsistency, mark the church, our communities and our birth families.
Can we understand why many people throughout our culture are escaping into virtual realities, drowning in the purchase of material goods, anesthetizing themselves through drugs, sex, technology and all sorts of media? Was T. S. Eliot correct when in Four Quartets – Burnt Norton he wrote, “humankind cannot bear very much reality”? Consider the fear engendered by the possibility of meaninglessness.
We have been reflecting on the results of the study, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics. A difficulty with any study is that there is no opportunity for dialogue with the participants; to question what is meant by the terms they use or to delve more deeply so as to understand their personal experiences. Since there is always a danger in presumption, I will therefore tread carefully in making some observations and posing questions for the future of our Catholic Church.
- What I observed in the responses of the young people, and this is true of many Catholics, is biblical illiteracy. This had been clear to me for years following the late night talk show host Jay Leno’s, Jay Walks or the quiz show, Jeopardy, when ‘The Bible’ is a category. People no longer know the basic Jewish – Christian story or its deep underlying meaning for the spiritual life. Reading the bible is only a beginning. Do you pause and contemplate what you hear spoken to your heart? Do you discuss what you heard as a family or as parishioners? Do you use a commentary to better understand the ancient stories of our people?
- The responses exhibit a great confusion among Catholics about science and the bible. They are not in conflict with each other but rather two distinct ways of exploring and expressing the mystery of life and our relationships with each other, creation and God. Science uses observation and proofs; the bible uses story, metaphor, poetry and myth. The Big Bang and Genesis are not opposed to each but rather complement each other.
- Prayer is gravely misunderstood among young people. Prayer is not a transaction but a relationship.
- Our young members are not alone in questioning the experience of suffering, especially innocent suffering, and the presence of evil in our world. But Christianity offers a unique perspective to suffering as we proclaim and contemplate a God who suffers with us, the Crucified One. We confront evil in the heart of the human being by acknowledging our sin, exposing it under the light of Christ and offering a remedy through our moral teachings and the sacramental life of the Church.
- For our young people, personal experience, not church teaching is the default of meaning and truth. Thus young people, as many of us, often feel a dissonance between contemporary life and church teachings. Yet our nuanced moral, sexual and ethical teachings and our understanding of social justice issues is first of all centered on the sacredness and experience of the human being. The bridges between experience and truth are there in our tradition but will not necessarily conform to the mores of contemporary society. Jesus teaches we are called to be in the world but not of the world. [See John 17:14ff] We are to be the yeast that transforms society. This does not mean the Church should not dialogue with society but the church is not to be equated with society. Thus Paul writes, “we proclaim Christ crucified…[we proclaim] foolishness…[but] the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom…” [See 1 Corinthians 1:23-25]
Biblical illiteracy, a misunderstanding of prayer and its depths, a lack of reflection on the cross, the appropriation of the sciences as a pathway to God and the challenge of the Gospel are much of what I heard in the responses of our young people. In response I offer some ideas for consideration as a way forward…
- We need to strengthen family life. But only families can tell the body of the church what they need to be the rich soil that faith can take root and mature. We need to become a listening church.
- At this time in our culture, might we reconsider and reclaim baptizing adults rather than infants so that people can choose to respond to the call of Christ? This would recognize our Enlightenment roots of autonomy and choice and our Christian freedom in Jesus Christ. This would not be an innovation but rather a return to our earliest practice of the Sacrament.
- If truth and meaning are found through experience, what new and experiential ways do we need to conceive of so as to form people in the faith for the next generation? Like Jesus, might we consider teaching adults with children in our midst? In this light should we not discard the classroom model as a primary method of faith formation for all ages?
- Are we willing to let our children wander, search, even walk away, like the rich, young man, while we accompany them by living out our committed Catholic Christian faith? Are we willing, like Jesus, who caught up to the two disciple’s returning to Emmaus to first listen, continue to walk with them and share a meal and then speak?
- Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II strove to reestablish and reinvigorate a dialogue between the Church and the sciences and arts. The dialogue is necessary for the Church and the world. How can we participate in this dialogue at the local levels of Church life?
The Gospel is silent as to why Thomas was not present on Easter Sunday evening. It is just as silent as to why he returned the following week. Who or what caused Thomas to reconsider his absence from the community?
Pope Francis, recently speaking to young people in Rome said, the Catholic Church wants to listen to young people and know where they are coming from, their hopes, dreams, fears and concerns. Is that true? Do you and I, the Catholic Church, want to listen to our young people and to their experiences? The pope continued, but young Catholics must be ready to listen to Jesus and discover where he wants to lead them. Conversely, are young people willing to listen to the experience of those of us who have been on the spiritual journey for a while? This dialogue can only happen when we gather together where Jesus is present and the Holy Spirit guides.
Consider that Thomas will not believe except through observable proofs while he is separated from the community. Also consider it is when he rejoins the disciples the following week, where Jesus is present, that Thomas never does probe the wounds of Jesus but he does make an act of faith, “My Lord and my God!” No one can profess that claim in Jesus alone. Thus Francis tells us, “when I say, ‘truly listen [to Jesus],’ I also mean the willingness to change something, to walk together, to share dreams…”
It is hoped young people can help the church change so that it can better carry out its mission, but young people as they mature also must listen and be willing to change. Francis is calling for a dialogue between generations and experiences. It is in the exchange that truth, insight and meaning will be found. Young people are hungry for meaning, purpose and connections. I expect we all are.
[Information, passages and quotes are from Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, A Study by Saint Mary’s Press of Minnesota, Inc., Winona, MN. In collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., September 2017.]