Well, the Convocation of Catholic Leaders is over, and those participants who did not remain in Orlando in order to take in the amusement parks and make a stop at the Waffle House have likely returned to their regularly-scheduled lives.
For those who were not paying close attention, here or here, or who have not yet availed themselves of the collected videos and speeches at the USCCB website – or, really for those with short attention spans who would like to get the gist of it in one blog post, here is what it boils down to:
We are about to become missionaries.
Yep. That’s it, in a nutshell: You and I, and the people in our parishes, and the whole church, are about to become new missionaries in a new land — in the vast, untamed and often faithless jungle where “live streams” leave no room for casting out into the deep, and bear no relation to living waters. In the neighborhoods, towns and cities where people have been so long subjected to relativistic engagement, that almost everything has become unfamiliar and strange to them.
Taking our cue from the Incarnate Word — who chose not simply to preach to us about right and wrong, but to live among us, and know us in the fullness of our humanity before he saved us — we are going to purposely push past where we are now, out of our bubbles and our safe-feeling familiarities, to meet others where they are.
For too many, the web and social media (and their delivery systems) have become the places where we truly “live and move and have our being,” to the detriment of how we understand the world, each other, or the constant Reality of Christ.
A life in Christ, after all, cannot live, or move, or have “being” while ensconced within polarized dens of fast validation, among agreeable, unmet “friends” whose reliable society prevents us from ever having to encounter an inconvenient “other” — in person or perspective — and see them not as a unit of sin, not as a model of oddity, but as a simple/complex human being, beloved of God.
And so, after Orlando*, we are – with the encouragement of our bishops — going to eschew what polarizes; we are going to spend less time arguing about what constitutes perfection, in order to celebrate the good, even as we still seek the ideals. We are going to encounter the human people who are at varying stages of a journey, and we’re going to be with them, accompanying them. And while we do that, we’re going to show by the way we live our own lives (and how we treat others) that there is a true depth of joy, true breadth of authentic freedom, in living a faith that is fully integrated into our lives. We’ll model this in how we receive good or bad news; in how we deal with our families, friends and strangers; in how we continue to grow as we enter, every day, into the great mystery of our own redemption.
The world has divided into tribes — the internet has become primarily tribal. Early missionaries approached tribes in the same way that Jesus encountered humanity, not living “near,” but “with” — teaching, laughing, eating, mourning, sharing stories with the people they served for Christ’s sake.
Among people who had no real acquaintance with Christ or his Church, the first faith-engagements must have presented such missionaries with odd, bizarre, even unsettling moments of seeming irreverence. But amid people without understanding, there is no irreverence, only the action of a moment, born of taking notice of something, in wonder.
“Wonder,” wrote Saint Gregory of Nyssa, “leads to knowing.”
I once heard a young religious sister, one whose community sports a habit, tell about how she was waiting with her family to be seated at a restaurant, and how a little boy — about 6 years old — hovered around her, entranced by the rosary dangling from her belt. Finally, he reached out and grabbed it, holding it to his cheek. “What is it?” he asked her with urgency. She spent the rest of her wait time talking to the little boy, and his awkwardly surprised parents, giving gentle witness simply by answering questions and allowing a little boy to examine those beads as she talked.
Who knows what the Holy Spirit eventually brought about from that “action of a moment”?
Such action, such small wonder, is the first step in missional engagement. It demonstrates that attention has been paid, and that is a good thing, because — as our dear Pope Benedict XVI seemed to understand — you cannot bring Christ to people who are not even paying attention, and can you only model the gift of faith (and the hope of redemption) in a way that inspires others to ask for that same gift, or seek that same hope, if you are willing to first see the person before you as a potential saint, and treat them accordingly.
After all, good missionaries do not demand holiness of people before they are allowed to meet Jesus; rather, they allow people to meet Christ Jesus, and he fosters within them a desire to become holy.
Pope Francis has called for the church to come outside of itself and encounter those wounded who need the medicine of Jesus Christ but are so sickly frail that they can accept only the small dose until they get stronger; to mission to the tribes who are bitter and scarred from decades of paying obeisance to idols of intellect or ego, or ideology, and may be ready – even if they do not currently know it – to finally “fall into the hands of a living god”. That wonderful, terrible, glorious thing.
*I was there in spirit!