Catholicism is a treasure map: It may be old, but it still leads to treasure. Let's rediscover it together, and help others to do the same.
Imagine this. You're driving home from work next Monday after a long day. You turn on your radio and you hear a brief report about a small village in India where some people have suddenly died, strangely, of a flu that has never been seen before. It's not influenza, but four people are dead, so the Centers for Disease Control is sending some doctors to India to investigate.
You don't think too much about it — people die every day — but coming home from church the following Sunday you hear another report on the radio, only now they say it's not four people who have died, but thirty thousand, in the back hills of India. Whole villages have been wiped out and experts confirm this flu is a strain that has never been seen before.
By the time you get up Monday morning, it's the lead story. The disease is spreading. It's not just India that is affected. Now it has spread to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and northern Africa, but it still seems far away. Before you know it, you're hearing this story everywhere. The media have now coined it "the mystery flu." The President has announced that he and his family are praying for the victims and their families, and are hoping for the situation to be resolved quickly. But everyone is wondering how we are ever going to contain it.
That's when the President of France makes an announcement that shocks Europe: He is closing the French borders. No one can enter the country, and that's why that night you're watching a little bit of CNN before going to bed. Your jaw hits your chest when a weeping woman's words are translated into English from a French news program: There's a man lying in a hospital in Paris dying of the mystery flu. It has come to Europe.
Panic strikes. As best they can tell, after contracting the disease, you have it for a week before you even know it, then you have four days of unbelievable symptoms, and then you die.
The British close their borders, but it's too late. The disease breaks out in Southampton, Liverpool, and London, and on Tuesday morning the President of the United States makes the following announcement: "Due to a national security risk, all flights to and from the United States have been canceled. If your loved ones are overseas, I'm sorry. They cannot come home until we find a cure for this horrific disease."
Within four days, America is plunged into an unbelievable fear. People are wondering, What if it comes to this country? Preachers on television are saying it's the scourge of God. Then on Tuesday night you are at church for Bible study, when somebody runs in from the parking lot and yells, "Turn on a radio!" And while everyone listens to a small radio, the announcement is made: Two women are lying in a hospital in New York City dying of the mystery flu. It has come to America.
Within hours the disease envelops the country. People are working around the clock, trying to find an antidote, but nothing is working. The disease breaks out in California, Oregon, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts. It's as though it's just sweeping in from the borders.
Then suddenly the news comes out: The code has been broken. A cure has been found. A vaccine can be made. But it's going to take the blood of somebody who hasn't been infected. So you and I are asked to do just one thing: Go to the nearest hospital and have our blood tested. When we hear the sirens go off in our neighborhood, we are to make our way quickly, quietly, and safely to the hospital.
Sure enough, by the time you and your family get to the hospital it's late Friday night. There are long lines of people and a constant rush of doctors and nurses taking blood and putting labels on it. Finally, it is your turn. You go first, then your spouse and children follow, and once the doctors have taken your blood they say to you, "Wait here in the parking lot for your name to be called." You stand around with your family and neighbors, scared, waiting, wondering. Wondering quietly to yourself, What on earth is going on here? Is this the end of the world? How did it ever come to this?
Nobody seems to have had their name called; the doctors just keep taking people's blood. But then suddenly a young man comes running out of the hospital, screaming. He's yelling a name and waving a clipboard. You don't hear him at first. "What's he saying?" someone asks. The young man screams the name again as he and a team of medical staff run in your direction, but again you cannot hear him. But then your son tugs on your jacket and says, "Daddy, that's me. That's my name they're calling." Before you know it, they have grabbed your boy. "Wait a minute. Hold on!" you say, running after them. "That's my son."
"It's okay," they reply. "We think he has the right blood type. We just need to check one more time to make sure he doesn't have the disease."
Five tense minutes later, out come the doctors and nurses, crying and hugging each another; some of them are even laughing. It's the first time you have seen anybody laugh in a week. An old doctor walks up to you and your spouse and says, "Thank you. Your son's blood is perfect. It's clean, it's pure, he doesn't have the disease, and we can use it to make the vaccine."
As the news begins to spread across the parking lot, people scream and pray and laugh and cry. You can hear the crowd erupting in the background as the gray-haired doctor pulls you and your spouse aside to say, "I need to talk to you. We didn't realize that the donor would be a minor and we . . . we need you to sign a consent form."
The doctor presents the form and you quickly begin to sign it, but then your eye catches something. The box for the number of pints of blood to be taken is empty.
"How many pints?" you ask. That is when the old doctor's smile fades, and he says, "We had no idea it would be a child. We weren't prepared for that."
You ask him again, "How many pints?" The old doctor looks away and says regretfully, "We are going to need it all!"
"But I don't understand. What do you mean you need it all? He's my only son!"
The doctor grabs you by the shoulders, pulls you close, looks you straight in the eyes, and says, "We are talking about the whole world here. Do you understand? The whole world. Please, sign the form. We need to hurry!"
"But can't you give him a transfusion?" you plead.
"If we had clean blood we would, but we don't. Please, will you sign the form?"
I have spent hundreds of hours reflecting on where we are in our journey as a Church, and one thing that has become startlingly clear is that we have forgotten our story.
What would you do?
In numb silence you sign the form because you know it's the only thing to do. Then the doctor says to you, "Would you like to have a moment with your son before we get started?"
Could you walk into that hospital room where your son sits on a table saying, "Daddy? Mommy? What's going on?" Could you tell your son you love him? And when the doctors and nurses come back in and say, "I'm sorry, we've got to get started now; people all over the world are dying," could you leave? Could you walk out while your son is crying out to you, "Mom? Dad? What's going on? Where are you going? Why are you leaving? Why have you abandoned me?"
The following week, they hold a ceremony to honor your son for his phenomenal contribution to humanity … but some people sleep through it, others don't even bother to come because they have better things to do, and some people come with a pretentious smile and pretend to care, while others sit around and say, "This is boring!" Wouldn't you want to stand up and say, "Excuse me! I'm not sure if you are aware of it or not, but the amazing life you have, my son died so that you could have that life. My son died so that you could live. He died for you. Does it mean nothing to you?"
Perhaps that is what God wants to say.
Father, seeing it from your eyes should break our hearts. Maybe now we can begin to comprehend the great love you have for us.
Where to from Here?
The past several years have been a tough time to be Catholic in America. In many ways this is a time of tragedy for the Church. The abuse of our children is a tragedy. The scandal of the cover-up is a tragedy. The fact that the entire priesthood has been tarnished by a small group of troubled priests is a tragedy. The absence of bold and authentic leadership is a tragedy. Morale is low and the number of Catholics leaving the Church is higher than ever before. The effects of all these tragedies are far reaching. They have left society at large with a very low opinion of Catholicism and caused many Catholics to be ashamed of the Church.
I have spent hundreds of hours reflecting on where we are in our journey as a Church, and one thing that has become startlingly clear is that we have forgotten our story.
Catholicism is more than a handful of priests who don't know what it means to be a priest. There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. There are sixty-seven million Catholics in America — that's at least fifteen million more people than it takes to elect an American president. And every single day the Catholic Church feeds, houses, and clothes more people, takes care of more sick people, visits more prisoners, and educates more people than any other institution on the face of the earth could ever hope to.
Consider this question: When Jesus was alive, where were the sick people? Were they in hospitals? Of course not; there were no hospitals at the time of Christ. The sick were huddled at the side of the road and on the outskirts of town, and that is where Jesus cured them. They had been abandoned by family and friends who were afraid that they would also become sick.
The very essence of health care and caring for the sick emerged through the Church, through the religious orders, in direct response to the value and dignity that the Gospel assigns to each and every human life.
Allow me another question: How many people do you know who were born to nobility? Men and woman whose parents are kings, queens, dukes, earls, duchesses, knights, and so on? Not many, I suspect, and probably none. Well, that is the number of educated people you would know if the Catholic Church had not championed the cause to make education available to everyone. Prior to the Church's introduction of education for the common man, education was reserved only for the nobility. Almost the entire Western world is educated today because of the Church's pioneering role in universal education.
The global reach and contribution of the Church is enormous, but the national impact of the Church on every aspect of society is also impressive, though largely unknown. In the United States alone the Catholic Church educates 2.6 million students every day, at a cost of ten billion dollars a year to parents and parishes. If there were no Catholic schools these same students would have to be educated in public schools, which would cost eighteen billion dollars. The Catholic education system alone saves American taxpayers eighteen billion dollars a year.
In the field of secondary education the Church has more than 230 colleges and universities in the U.S., with an enrollment of seven hundred thousand students. And the Catholic and non-Catholic students educated in our schools and colleges go on to occupy many of the highest positions in any field. In terms of health care, the Catholic Church has a nonprofit hospital system comprising 637 hospitals, which treat one in five patients in the United States every day.
Beyond our national and global impact, the local contribution Catholics make in every community, on a daily basis, is nothing short of remarkable. Every city and town has its own stories, but allow me just one example to make my point. In Chicago there are hundreds of Catholic organizations that serve the needs of the people of that city. One of those organizations is Catholic Charities. This year the local chapter of Catholic Charities in Chicago will provide 2.2 million free meals to the hungry and the needy in that area. That's 6,027 meals a day — just one small example of our enormous contribution. Every city has a hundred stories like this one.
Our contribution on a local, national, and global scale remains phenomenal even in spite of our faults, inefficiencies, and recent scandals, and yet the Church is despised by millions of ordinary Americans, while most Catholics want to crawl under the table when people start talking about the Church in a social setting. We have forgotten our story and as a result we allow the anti-Catholic segments of the media to distort our story on a daily basis.
The tragedy continues on another level as well. It is disturbing that at a time when millions of Catholics are angry and disillusioned with the Church there has been no significant effort to remind Catholics of who we really are, no strategic effort to raise our morale among Catholics, no organized effort to remind the world that, for the past two thousand years, wherever you find Catholics, you find a group of people making enormous contributions to the local, national, and international community.
This book is the beginning of our attempt to raise morale among Catholics, remind ourselves that there is genius in Catholicism, and engage disengaged Catholics.
We have spent more than two billion dollars settling lawsuits, but we have not spent a single dime on any special initiative to encourage Catholics in America to continue to explore the beauty of their faith. We have not spent a dime reminding the culture at large of the enormous contributions we make to society as a Church. We have not spent a dime inspiring Catholics at a time when more are disillusioned about their faith and the Church than perhaps ever before. And that is a tragedy.
The book you are holding (and the campaign to provide free or low-cost copies to every Catholic in America) is the beginning of our attempt to raise morale among Catholics, remind ourselves that there is genius in Catholicism, and engage disengaged Catholics. In the future we hope to launch a series of billboards and television and radio commercials that remind people of the incredible impact the Church has had and that inspire Catholics to stay engaged.
Imagine a large billboard on any of Chicago's busy, backed-up freeways. No photos would be required, just this simple text: THIS YEAR CHARITIES WILL PROVIDE 2.2 MILLION FREE MEALS TO THE HUNGRY AND THE NEEDY OF CHICAGO. WE DON'T ASK THEM IF THEY ARE CATHOLIC — WE JUST ASK THEM IF THEY ARE HUNGRY. REDISCOVER CATHOLICISM.
The point is we have forgotten our story, and in doing so, we have allowed the world to forget it as well. We have allowed the anti-Catholic segments of the media to distort it on a daily basis. Our history is not without blemish; our future will not be without blemish. But our contribution is unmatched, and it's needed today more than ever before.
I admit that I have been as angry and frustrated as most people about what has happened, what is happening, and what is not happening in the Church. I suppose the question we should consider together is: What will we do with our frustration and our anger?
It seems many people have just stopped thinking about it. They have disengaged from the Church to one extent or another and are getting on with their lives. Some refuse to come to church anymore. A great many have stopped contributing financially. Others have left the Catholic Church for their local nondenominational church. And some have tried to ignore the fact that they are angry about what has happened.
None of these are suitable solutions for me. The past fifteen years on the road have convinced me of these things:
- There is genius in Catholicism, if we will just take the time and make the effort to humbly explore it.
- There is nothing wrong with Catholicism that can't be fixed by what is right with Catholicism.
- If you and I are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.
- If sixty-seven million Catholics in the United States stepped it up a notch, something incredible would happen.
So let's decide, here and now, today, to begin to explore the genius of our faith, to be part of the solution, and to step it up a notch.
It seems clear to even the most casual observer that something is missing. So where do we go from here?
Two thousand years ago, a small group of people captured the attention and intrigued the imagination of the entire Western world. At first, these people were thought to be of no consequence, the followers of a man most considered to be nothing more than an itinerant preacher. But when this man was put to death, a dozen of his followers rose up and began telling people about his life and teachings. They began telling the story of Jesus Christ. They were not the educated elite of their time, they had no political or social status, they were not wealthy, and they had no worldly authority, yet from the very beginning people were joining this quiet revolutionary group one hundred at a time.
As their popularity soared, the prevailing authorities grew fearful of their power, just as they had been afraid of their leader. In some places, the authorities tried to put an end to this new group by randomly killing some of its members. But those chosen considered it the highest honor to die for what they believed. This only intrigued the hearts and perplexed the minds of the people of their time even more.
This small group of people were the first Christians. They were the original followers of Jesus of Nazareth and the first members of what we know today as the Catholic Church.
As the centuries have passed, much has changed. Today, Catholicism is the largest faith community on earth. With more than a billion members across the globe, we are no longer the small minority group the first Christians were. Responsible for the birth of both the education and health care systems that stand as pillars in our modern society, we continue to lead with excellence in these areas. Throughout the centuries, the Church has also been the largest benefactor of the arts, nurturing the elements of cultural life that have the ability to elevate the human heart, mind, and spirit so effortlessly to the things of God. In these United States, where Catholics were once not permitted to apply for certain jobs, there are now more publicly elected officials who are Catholic than any other religious affiliation. The Church is one of the largest landowners in the world, holding property in almost every community, from the most remote rural locations to the most sophisticated cities. In this modern day and age, when the life and dignity of the human person is being threatened at almost every turn, the Catholic Church remains the world's premier institutional defender of human rights. The Church today is a global entity of considerable proportions.
We have come a long way from our humble beginnings. And yet, as great as our achievements may be, as great as our numbers are today, we seem unable to capture the attention and intrigue the imaginations of the people of our own time the way our spiritual ancestors did.
The story of Jesus Christ is the most powerful in history and has directly or indirectly influenced every noble aspect of modern civilization. But amid the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it is easy to become distracted and distance ourselves from this story. From time to time, someone comes along who reminds us of the spellbinding power the Gospel has when it is actually lived. Some of these men and women are the saints who have become household names; others are just ordinary people: parents and grandparents, nurses and schoolteachers, financial advisers and entrepreneurs.
We have become too comfortably a part of the modern secular culture, and this comfort has resulted in a dangerous complacency toward the life-giving words of the Gospel. Too often, we listen to these words but do not allow them to penetrate our hearts and transform our lives. There is something ultimately attractive about men and women striving to become all that God created them to be. It is this striving that we need to rediscover as a Church.
This striving that is so important to the life of the Church is not the human striving that says, "Let's come up with a plan and make things happen." Rather, it's the striving that relies upon the Spirit of God to illumine, instruct, and guide us at every turn. God doesn't want to control us, nor does he want us to ignore him. God yearns for a dynamic collaboration with each and every single one of us.
The first Christians were not perfect; nor were the saints. They lived in communities that were torn by strife in ways remarkably similar to what we are experiencing today, and they struggled with the brokenness of their own humanity in the same way you and I do. But they were dedicated to the basics.
Catholicism is not a football game, but Paul once compared the Christian life to athletics, and I would like to continue the analogy. Champion-ship winning teams are not necessarily those with the most talented players or the most ingenious new plays, nor are they necessarily the teams with the most resources or superior knowledge of the game. The very best coaches will tell you that teams that win championships are those that focus on the basics and master them together.
We need to get back to the basics.
I know this may sound cliché or trite, but when Catholics dedicate themselves to the basics of our rich and dynamic spirituality extraordinary things begin to happen.
The first Christians intrigued the people of their time. So did the saints, and so do ordinary people who embrace the Christian life today. In the great majority of cases they don't do anything spectacular. For the most part they commit themselves to doing simple things spectacularly well and with great love, and that intrigues people. We need to intrigue the people of our time in the same ways.
Whom does your life intrigue? Not with spectacular accomplishments, but simply by the way you live, love, and work.
If we live and love the way the Gospel invites us to, we will intrigue people. Respect and cherish your spouse and children, and people will be intrigued. Work hard and pay attention to the details of your work, and you will intrigue people. Go out of your way to help those in need, people will be intrigued. When we do what is right even if it comes at a great cost to ourselves, people are intrigued. Patience, kindness, humility, gratitude, thoughtfulness, generosity, courage and forgiveness are all intriguing.
God always wants our future to be bigger than our past. Not equal to our past, but bigger, better, brighter, and more significant. God wants your future and my future, and the future of the Church, to be bigger than the past. It is this bigger future that we need to envision.
One of the most incredible abilities God has given the human person is the ability to dream. We are able to look into the future and imagine something better than today, and then return to the present and work to make that richly imagined future a reality. Who is doing this for the Church?
For many years I have been reflecting on a single verse from Proverbs. It never ceases to ignite my passion for the Church. "Where there is no vision, the people will perish." (Proverbs 29:18) I have found this to be true in every area of life. In a country where there is no vision, the people will perish. In a marriage where there is no vision, people will perish. In a business, a school, or a family where there is no vision, the people will perish.
And it is with a heavy heart that I acknowledge that it seems as a Church we are without a vision, and as a result people are perishing. We need a Catholic vision for this place and this time, something simple and yet profound. A vision to inspire and mobilize Catholics young and old. A vision that can be understood by a seven-year-old as easily as it can by someone with degrees in theology and philosophy.
Some people may take offense at my suggestion that we are without a vision. Others, I am certain, would consider this preposterous. But if you asked one hundred Catholics what the Church's vision is for our times, I suspect you would get one hundred different answers. Or possibly many would have no answer at all. So either we don't have a vision or Catholics don't know what it is, but regardless, the result is the same: People are perishing.
This Catholic vision we are in search of is not the sole responsibility of the Pope, or of the cardinals and bishops. Your priest is not solely responsible for your parish's vision. We each have a role to play in imagining and working toward a future for the Church that will confound the skeptics and inspire the masses.
Many are calling for a return to the past. These people are reactionaries, not visionaries. Too often their cries are driven by a fear of uncertainty and a grappling for stability. Rather than placing their trust in God and cooperating with his future, they allow their humanity to get the better of them as they try to control things beyond their control.
Now is the time for us to reimagine what incredible things are possible if we walk with God. Now is the time for Catholics to become a people of possibility.
God never goes back; he always moves forward. Adam and Eve were banished from the garden. God could have redeemed them and sent them back to the garden, but he didn't, for two reasons: God always wants our future to be bigger than our past, and God always moves forward.
So let us press on toward the future God has envisioned for us and for the Church. It is time for us to become a people of possibility again. Too much of what we do is governed by a very limited way of thinking. We gravitate toward what is manageable, rather than imagining what is possible. We have lost touch with best practices and settle for the way things have always been done. Now is the time for us to reimagine what incredible things are possible if we walk with God. Now is the time for Catholics to become a people of possibility. Imagine what sixty-seven million American Catholics are capable of. Imagine what more than a billion Catholics worldwide are capable of.
One thing is certain: Whatever we do or do not do will determine the future of humanity and the world.
All of this leads me to conclude that now is a time when we all need to rediscover Catholicism. I try to rediscover it every day, and when I seek in earnest to do so I am never disappointed. When I am able to set my ego and personal agenda aside, more often than not I am left in awe.
There are many, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who do not want to rediscover Catholicism. Others think religion, and Catholicism in particular, has no place in the modern context. I will admit that Catholicism is old. But let me ask you a question. If you had an ancient treasure map, would you throw it away just because it was old? No. The age of the map doesn't matter. What matters is whether or not it leads to treasure. Catholicism is a treasure map: It may be old, but it still leads to treasure. Let's rediscover it together, and help others to do the same.
Matthew Kelly. "Prologue: Imagine This" & "Introduction: Where to From Here?" from Rediscover Catholicism. (Erlanger, Kentucky: Beacon Publishing, 2010): 5-17.
Reprinted with permission.
Matthew Kelly was born in Sydney, Australia. He began speaking and writing in his late teens while he was attending business school. Since that time, more than four million people have attended his seminars and presentations in more than fifty countries. Raised Catholic, he has been saddened by the lack of engagement among Catholics and founded The Dynamic Catholic Institute to research why Catholics engage or disengage and explore what it will take to establish vibrant Catholic communities in the 21st Century. His personal interests include golf, piano, literature, spirituality, investing, and spending time with his wife Meggie and their children Walter, Isabel, and Harry. Among other books he is the author of Rediscover Catholicism and The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic.Copyright © 2015 Beacon Publishing
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