Navigating church complications

Most who have read this monthly column over the past 20 years know a bit about my background: a North Dakota boy who was fortunate enough to be born into a devout Catholic family, gravitated through the Catholic educational system and eventually found himself in the religious life of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

I have very little experience in the chaotic worlds of business, economics or politics except what I learn from reading about them in the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Life in a religious congregation devoted to education seemed more peaceful and predictable to me until one day I was asked by my provincial superior to be a pastor in a large inner-city parish in Colorado. It was here that the ways reserved to the secular world suddenly crashed in upon me: budgets, job descriptions, finance reports, endless parish council meetings, keeping peace among diverse factions and many other responsibilities. It was here too that I discovered that life in the church was no more peaceful than that in the rest of the world; I longed, once again, for the academic life of the classroom.

After some time, however, I learned that life in the world and life in the church are not all that dissimilar. In both settings ordinary people try to make sense out of disorder, problems, uncertainties, relationships, responsibilities and so forth. In most instances, people of good sense seem to insist on reasonable debate, peaceful conversation and respectful listening.

Having read or heard the Scriptures for this fifth Sunday in Easter season, you may have noticed that our earliest Christian brothers and sisters experienced many of the same institutional problems we do today.

In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, they learn that “running a church” was already becoming a bit complicated: How should they cope with the increasing numbers? How could they smooth out frayed relations between people of different ethnic backgrounds of Jew and Greek, now all worshipping together in the same church? How should they make sure that the poor were not overlooked? It was in such a context that collaboration emerged in the early church. The Twelve called the community together and invited everyone to be heard until problems were resolved.

The passage in the Gospel of Saint John provides another example of ecclesiastical discord even before the church had come into existence. Jesus’ disciples were already concerned about whether there would be enough room for everybody in the kingdom of his father. “Not a problem,” Jesus says, “have faith in me; I have reserved rooms for all of you in my father’s house.” In other words, for Jesus, this was not even a problem or cause for worry. There is plenty of room for those who want in. Period!

Obviously, the problems of that age do not compare easily with those in the church today. We live in a world of uncountable varieties of faith and forms of Christian life and worship. All the same, however, the solution to our differences is still much the same today: Everybody counts, everybody has a voice, everybody gets to talk. There is room for everybody. We must learn to first ask the big questions. From there, everything else will gradually fall into place.

May 14 Scriptures

Acts 6: 1-7

1 Peter 2: 4-9

John 14: 1-12

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese. He now lives in Notre Dame, Ind.

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