‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin* of God’s creation:
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’
If you were to ask the Church of Laodicea for a self evaluation, I am sure they would have spoke well of themselves and how they lived the gospel of Christ. In fact, it would seem that they have become quite self satisfied with their efforts. My guess, though, is that there would have been little empirical evidence to back this claim up or very little growth. They had a spiritual apathy, a comfort with the status quo. However, we know that the status quo is the first step to concreting apathy which eventually leads to atrophy. Where there is no will to rise to challenges or even to acknowledge challenges, there the proclamation of the Gospel will become tepid and eventually dead. Where other churches in Revelations are fighting persecution from outside, the church of Laodicea is rotting from within; they are in greater danger of collapse than the others.
Let us look at the church in the diocese. Like most dioceses, we are seeing a steep decline in people who go to Mass, who get married in the Church, who get baptized, who get confirmed, who have their children educated in Catholic schools, who go into the seminary, who go into the religious life, who get ordained, who contribute, and so on. Were this any other institution, heads would be rolling for such slides. We would be demanding better leadership. But, where apathy prevails, one will also find a heart of timidity.
Too many times, when we are presented with such scenarios the answer becomes, "Well, let's loosen the rules; let's make it easier," Despite the fact that this never works, we keep going back. This quickest way for people to not take something seriously is by watering down or compromising. Most of the people who wander away don't simply fall off the face of the planet, they continue searching. That they believe that the Catholic Church isn't where fulfillment is found is not their failure...it is ours. Who is the 'our'? The clergy. Those who have been charged with the proclamation of the Gospel. Those who were supposed to teach and preach the Good News. We grew lukewarm. As the old Greek saying goes, "The fish rots at the head first!" This is nothing new. We cannot lay our problems on the papacy; the popes of this age have been godly men who were oftentimes the voice of one crying out in the desert. It is what happens locally. This is what needs to change.
One of the central messages of the new pope, Francis, is that we clerics must engage our flock and those called to be a part of the flock. We cannot be prisoners of our rectories or chanceries. Engaging the flock is the totality of our call. Relationship is at the center of what we are called to do! That relationship is likened to a familial bond not as a business relationship. We, as clerics, as not businessmen. We need to quit acting like we are. We are called 'Father', a title of relationship. This title defines our role within the Church. We model that fatherhood on the Fatherhood of God, the fatherhood of St Joseph, and the best examples of good dads. A good dad is engaged in the life of his children. He actively watches out for their good, their safety, and their future. He has that divine responsibility as his children belong to God before they belong to him. A good dad recognizes that and acts accordingly. By the same token, we are assigned a portion of the flock that belongs to Christ. Our parishioners belong to Him. We have the duty of providing and protecting with the same love that Jesus has for them.
It is these thoughts that spur me. Believe me, there are days when being a prisoner of the rectory sounds good; it sounds safe. There are times I get overwhelmed and wonder if anyone is listening. But our call is not towards being safe or being numb. I look at it this way: a good baseball batter will get a hit 1 out of every 3 times. He puts himself in the path of a ball that can reach over 100 MPH. Inevitably he will get hit by that ball. Yet, a good batter, keeps going back into the batter's box, even if he is in a dry spell. I know that being a minister of Christ does not mean I will succeed every time. I won't. In fact, some of my tries will fail miserably. But, God doesn't ask me to be successful, He asks me to engage. It means overcoming fears.
It means stepping outside of my comfort zones. Some I have conquered, some I still have to conquer. I have come to the conclusion that apathy is nothing more that a practiced fear of trying.
If we expect to see things turn around, it will by engaging people with the truth of the Gospel. Not because it feels good. Many times it won't...especially if we are doing it right. It means taking highly unpopular stands. However, I would imagine more people drift away from the Church because of a lack of engagement than leave out of anger at a teaching. I am not comfortable around teenagers. Nothing against them. It is not my strong suit. Yet, if there be any group that is in danger of being swallowed whole by the errors of our society, it is them. A good dad does not sit back and watch the wolves devour his children! The truth, not pablum nor falsehoods, must pour from us like a mighty river. We must be willing to put our ourselves between those God has placed in our care and those who would dis-spoil them. We must risk not being liked. There is not a good dad alive who has not seen a child of his give him a white hot look of hatred for being told they couldn't do something they wanted or had to do something they didn't want to do. There is not a good dad who hasn't been accused of being unfair, unreasonable, and sucking the fun out of life. How can we as priests think we should be exempt? Christ Himself was not exempt from these feelings and accusations. Yet he perseveres and so should we.
I am still a work in progress and know there are more things I must cooperate with the grace of God to become better at doing and better at being. But I know any attachment to the status quo must be driven far away. None us can stay in Laodicea nor encourage others to do so. Apathy is not our friend, it is our enemy. As assuredly as Christ drove the money changers out of the temple, so must we drive apathy out of our parishes and diocese. We must leave Laodicea and buy the gold refined by fire; that is, allowed ourselves to be purified by God's grace and learn to engage. The people we lead need as much.