Institution vs. Faith

He is a writer, a journalist grappling with an investigation of the Roman Catholic Church and the cover-ups and scandals especially in Pennsylvania.  His frustration and anger was palpable, and there were echoes of that everywhere he investigated.  He said he could not find other voices, other perspectives.  A friend gave him my number.

And so we spoke.  He asked about faith, about communication with Catholics leaving the church.  He listened with an artful silence.

It is true that this is a time of controversy in the world and  in the church.  For me, that lies in the reality of social institutions and historical context, the reality of dominant norms in various time periods.  It does not diminish the frustration or anger, but it structures the reality for me in a comprehensible way.   And there is a second truth:  every institution is made of flawed and broken human beings.  This has always been true, and yet somehow at times, there is an expectation that religious persons or the ordained have some additional power or responsibility, some way to avoid being human.
Tempered by age, I have learned from Life that this is an unrealistic expectation; as much as I would like that to be different, the fact of humanity and its limitations remains the same even among the highly esteemed and  the ordained.

Eventually. he asked about faith, that intangible which exists as a gift and is founded on the indefinable.  He wondered what I would say in a conversation with a very angry Catholic or former Catholic.   What can be said in the face of such pain, such suffering or grief?  How can conversation find words in the face of fury?  I slipped back in time to words once spoken to me.  Maybe, I thought, perhaps, if there were any words at all, it would be “God weeps with us in suffering.”

I found myself describing the moments of inspiration that arrive in unexpected encounters.  The student with a t-shirt listing the names Jeanne, Theresa, Clare….a souvenir from a youth conference in Steubenville, OH, and a testimony to her faith.  I spoke about the young woman looking for a community of other young women to share her faith, about the men and women who kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and seek a moment’s clarity.

He spoke about the seeming comfort of faith, but I thought about the challenge of it.  Faith is what invites me to strive to be a better person, more reflective, more conscious of others, more purposeful in choices and more deliberate in commitments.  Faith invites me to acknowledge my smallness and to envision the vastness of the human life, to practice kindness and to try to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Faith reminds me that I am a flawed and broken person, but one among many, one that can grow and change.  Faith animates human life and enables, even empowers, new possibilities.  Faith is to be nurtured, explored, discovered.  There are moments of comfort, but faith as a challenge is a possibility for all.

Faith, after all, does not depend on the institution itself, on the hierarchy or simply the ordained.  Faith belongs to each of us. to be welcomed or ignored, embraced or rejected.  The institutional church can help, can mediate, can provide resources.  But faith depends not on the institution or its strictures.  Faith depends on the heart and hands; it is reflected in Teresa of Avila’s view that we are the hands and heart of Christ.  This time of scandal and suffering can lead to revitalization and reform in the Church.  The task of the faithful is to demand that change, to trust that direction, to believe in something greater than self.

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