Sunday, April 12, 2015

In the Community

   Second Sunday of Easter - Divine Mercy   B 
Last summer marked 20 years
since I got involved with Camp Guggenheim
our diocesan youth camp on Lower Saranac Lake.
Every week, every year, it’s almost exactly the same:
on Sunday afternoon, 80 shy and awkward teenagers arrive,
not too sure about what’s coming;
on Friday afternoon, the same bunch of teenagers
are hugging and sobbing because the never want to leave.
Is it the place? 
Yes, it’s beautiful…but it doesn’t have any sort of magic.
Is it the staff?
Sure, they’re gifted…but this transformation isn't their doing, either.

Kids come to summer camp from every possible background:
boys and girls, from city and country, rich and poor,
in junior and senior high, many Catholic but not all.
Most of them have never met
prior to their being thrown together.
But over the course of five days—
whether on the beach, at Arts and Crafts, around the bonfire,
or during Mass and other moments of prayer—
they come to know themselves better,
and they come to know each other better,
and they come to know God better,
and so they come to truly care for one another.
This doesn’t happen to everyone, of course:
one or two get homesick and don’t make it through the week;
some have decided before they even arrive
that they’re just “too cool” for all of this;
a few break off into cliques and have a rather narrow experience.
But the vast majority discover something
they’ve rarely—if ever—encountered before:
what it’s like to be part of a community.
It might only be temporary, but it’s no less real or powerful.
Yes, these young people are given a safe place
to be good and do good,
and they have a great staff to support and encourage them,
but ultimately it’s their choice, their decision,
to let their differences dissolve
and something new and beautiful arise:
a community to which they’re rightly proud to belong.

Throughout these 50 days of the Easter season,
our first readings are taken from the Acts of the Apostles.
This Sunday, we hear a description of the first Christians in Jerusalem,
just a few months after the Resurrection of Jesus.
We’re told that they share everything with each other—
even their material possessions—
making sure nobody ever goes without.
We’re told that the believers were “of one heart and mind.”
In a pretty short time, like kids at summer camp,
they’ve formed a true community.

Is that your experience of the Church?

One of the great joys of being a Catholic
is that you can go to any Catholic Church in the whole world
and, even if you don’t speak the local language,
you can pretty much know what’s going on at Mass.
It really the planet’s only truly global network.
In a sense, wherever you are, you’re “home.”
But this reality also comes with a danger:
since we can “fit” just about anywhere,
it can give the impression that we Catholics
are only so many interchangeable parts.
Does anybody really notice if I’m there?
Does anybody really notice if I’m absent?

This is a particular problem here in the United States.
For one thing, American Catholicism
has become a lot like the rest of the nation:
divided into political factions.
Even here in Malone,
history has often led us to accentuate our differences:
making a bigger deal of whether we’re Irish or French,
from uptown, downtown, or out-of-town,
rather than that we’re all Roman Catholics.
And we Americans also like to think of ourselves
as rugged individualists—“lone ranger” types—
who, even spiritually, want to stand on our own two feet.
Settle into this sort of thinking,
and a parish becomes a disconnected group of individuals
who happen to come to pray at the same time in the same place,
but who could just as easily do so elsewhere.

For decades now, study after study has shown
that when Catholics leave—and many do—
it’s not generally because of a scandal
nor difficulties with doctrine nor a dispute with their parish priest,
but because they’ve found a stronger sense
of community and fellowship somewhere else.

I hear complaints and concerns in this department
from time to time—
that the parish isn’t as warm, welcoming, and friendly as it ought to be.
Unfortunately, this isn’t something I have the ability to fix,
other than giving encouragement, like I’m doing right now.
This is not a change that can be made from the pulpit;
it’s one that must come out of the pews.
It’s up to you!
Are you content to have a parish that works like a fill-up station,
where religious consumers come to get what they’re after, then go?
Or are you willing to make the effort to be a real family,
where members become companions who seek to give and to grow together?

he announced for the Diocese about a year ago,
Bishop LaValley made it quite clear
that he sees the Catholic Church in the North Country
not being built of bricks and lumber, but of living stones.
Toward that end,
he’s requiring every parish 
to take up a door-to-door census—
an initiative that I think is perfectly timed for us
still in our first year here at St. André’s.
We need to know who’s out there—
to learn their names and needs, to hear their concerns.
We need you to go out—
to have those conversations and make those connections.
Fr. Stitt tells me that in his little parishes
in Bombay and Fort Covington,
they’ve got more than 90 volunteers 
signed up as home visitors;
here, in the largest parish in the Diocese,
we’ve got less than 20 so far.
I’ve heard folks say,
“But people like to be personally invited,
they like to be asked…”
I understand.  So do I!
But that misses the point a bit, doesn’t it?
Your parish needs you to step forward, 
to make the first move.
Don’t wait!
See the insert in this Sunday’s bulletin for more information.

It’s quite hard—almost impossible—
to try and be a disciple all on your own.
Just look at the apostle Thomas:
when he’s away from the rest,
he’s plagued with serious doubts,
but when reunited with his brothers,
he meets the risen Jesus and comes to faith.

We rely on the steadfastness of the good Lord,
whose loving mercy is everlasting.
We’re touched by it in the Sacraments
We’re formed by it in the Church’s authentic teaching.
But we also ought to experience it
simply by being part of the community of believers—
by the genuine support, compassion, and concern we show each other.
Jesus’ Easter gift of the Holy Spirit is a bond of unity.
(That’s why the Spirit is the life-breath of forgiveness.)
The Holy Spirit is imparted
in order to draw us more intimately into relationship
with God and with our neighbor.
The Spirit has the power to unite us in true community…
…but he won’t ever force himself upon us.

What 80 kids a week experience each summer at Camp Guggenheim
isn’t meant for just a few;
it should be our common experience of the Church.
It’s not so much because of a special place.
It’s not even because of a gifted staff.
It’s because we’ve made a decision—every one of us—
to remain open:
open to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit
and all that he would teach us—about himself, about ourselves;
open to our neighbor—
taking the blessed risk to become one in heart and mind.

It’s happened before.
Let’s make it happen here!

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