In recent weeks, plans for school and parish reconfigurations have been disclosed in a number of dioceses. It is reality-check time across much of the Northeast, where changing demographics have occasioned these realignments. However poignant and evocative the stories of my grandmother was baptized there, was confirmed, made her first Communion, got married and was buried from there may be, the facts of 2006 can no longer be ignored. One cleric, on seeing a list, asserted that it was a no brainer.
Diminished attendance or enrollment, loss of revenue for expensive projects, aged or unsuitable buildings, decline in the numbers of clergy and religious are all part of the picture. And in the broad consultations that have been part of the process, all these factors have been taken into account. In addition, every effort has been made to insure that the people will still be served, though perhaps not so close to home as in the past.
Along with the bricks-and-mortar considerations, though, there are others that will play a role in describing what constitutes a viable parish in this century. Are vocations being fostered to the priesthood and religious life; what is the status of parish lay ministers; what kind of outreach programs are being conducted; how involved are the parishioners in the life of the parish; what is being done to foster the prayer life of the people; what is the status of moral instruction? There are many other questions; and in the shifting that is now necessary, the answers should not be lost in the shuffle.
Status of Christians
Until the International Religious Freedom Act (1998), it was almost impossible to get the U.S. government to include religious liberty on its human rights agenda. At the same time, in making their appeals on behalf of persecuted Christians, civil-society advocates sometimes displayed behaviors ranging from rash judgment to hysteria. Occasionally, too, one sniffed the scent of political vendetta. Once anti-Communist, the tone of their campaigns has grown anti-Islamic. No wonder diplomats are wary. Nonetheless, as recent issues of America have shown, persecution of minority Christians remains a problem, especially in Muslim countries.
In this highly contested field, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a force for sanity. It has insisted that government not only face up to problems of religious persecution, but that it do so with attention to the variety of social and political conditions in which persecution occurs. Bishop Thomas Wenski’s testimony on March 16 before a House subcommittee on the status of Christians in selected Islamic countries is a model of mature advocacy on a hot-button issue. (See Religious Freedom in the World’s Conflict Regions, Origins, 3/30).
Bishop Wenski assessed persecution in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Israel and Palestine, Egypt, Nigeria and Sudan. He counseled the committee that in the bishops’ experience, the victims of discrimination and persecution are often the best sources of information and the most reliable guides as to what should be done.... Among his own recommendations were U.S. engagement with religious communities and their leaders, support for interfaith dialogue, promotion of reciprocity in law and public policy and addressing the underlying factors, including abuses in the struggle with terrorism, that contribute to mistreatment of Christians.
On Easter Sunday millions of children around the country will awake from their beds knowing two things: that today they will be going to church, and that somewhere in their house a basket filled with candy has their name on it.
It is a strange combination. At church we will celebrate the essential promise of our faith fulfilledGod has saved Jesus and he will save us. At home, our children rejoice in mounds of chocolate and marshmallow left behind by an egg-laying, grinning, giant bunny.
For a story to draw attention away from Peeps and plastic grass toward the heart of our Easter joy, consider Margery Williams’ classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. Written in 1922, The Velveteen Rabbit is the tale of a stuffed doll who longs to become real. Living in a toy cupboard amid a bevy of the latest wind ’em ups, the rabbit worries that velveteen and sawdust are too ordinary to merit incarnation.
Yet as his friend the Skin Horse teaches him, being real is not about how you look. It is rather about giving yourself unreservedly to the needs of another, even allowing your own skin to be worn away in the service of that love. It doesn’t happen all at once, says the Skin Horse. You become.... Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.
At Easter we are invited into similar truths. Life eternal is not a function of appearances, expense accounts (or Cadbury eggs). We live with God insofar as we are worn away in a life of love.