The Danger of a Nice, Safe Sunday
Catholic Churches are among the safest places to hide on a Sunday in America (the church parking lot being another story).
While I certainly have encountered some notable exceptions, the Sunday Catholic experience for the most part is reasonably quiet and polite, with pleasant music and a one-hour time limit. People typically maintain a safe distance, and keep to themselves. The sign of peace is usually a quick, weak handshake with the person to the right and left – optional during flu season. The readings are often a sing-song blur, and the homily a mild to moderate scold on improving personal behavior. Congregations typically depart unchanged, unfazed and unthreatened.
It’s a far cry from the early Christian experience. In Sunday’s Gospel Luke places within Jesus’ mouth the experience of the gospel writer’s contemporary Christian community, as he describes the trials that will lead to the end times:
Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony.”
Despite the ubiquitous symbol of the cross and the undeniable message of the Scriptures, that’s not exactly Sunday morning in most of the Catholic churches I’ve attended. Still we do have it on paper.
I gave a little talk on Catholic Social Teaching today as part of a parish program on hunger and justice. In preparing, I was reminded again of how dangerous, countercultural and downright threatening are these ten or so concepts of current Catholic ecclesiology. Since Vatican II, the idea that social justice is an essential part of Catholic identity has been floating in a sea of episcopal documents.
In their 1993 document Communities of Salt and Light, for example, the US bishops wrote, “We cannot be called truly ‘Catholic’ unless we hear and heed the Church’s call to serve those in need and work for justice and peace.”
Put it into practice and that means that Catholic communities should be active and outspoken forces for protecting workers, ensuring that public policy do no harm to the poor, upholding the common good, safeguarding human and civil rights, stewarding natural resources, and standing in solidarity with the people whom society has rejected – the poor, the disabled, the aged and so on.
That would amount to a frontal assault on all that fuels our economy and our public policy right now. If we really made this a constitutive part of our Catholic identity – right up there with Scripture and Sacraments, and somewhere above Eucharistic adoration and saying the rosary – Sunday morning Catholicism would be dangerous indeed. We would feel the heat.
In the face of that sort of risk taking the Scriptures and the Sacraments would take on an undeniable and essential clarity and purposefulness. To live with the danger that would result from practicing our current social teaching, we would lean heavily on a community of supportive believers, and we would hunger for each story of perseverance in adversity; we would cling to that broken body made bread and lift our hands in the alleluia of resurrection.
We would not be bored. And we would not be safe.
But we would be faithful. And that would mean the end of something, you can be sure.