“Why do we need the Church? Why should we even look to the Church to end racism when we can find other, better spaces to do that?”
The question came from a college student during a recent lecture given by Fr. Bryan Massingale, a Milwaukee priest and prominent Catholic voice for racial justice.
His response to the young woman? He was grateful for the question, he said, because it was both an indictment and a challenge. We as people of faith should be leading the charge of justice, but we are not. We are squandering the precious gift of faith that we should be passing on, and so young people are finding the Church irrelevant.
The student's questions are the same ones I have struggled with throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. I, too, have had moments when I asked myself whether I could stay in a Church that often felt irrelevant, hypocritical, and exclusive. Obviously, I decided to stay… and not only to stay, but to begin the path of becoming a vowed member of a religious community. Why? Because I believe in the power of showing up.
Showing up. It’s a theme that has come up over and over throughout my novitiate year. My spiritual director has talked with me about the importance “just showing up” when it comes to prayer. There are days that I would rather not show up, when I don’t feel like praying, or when my prayer feels fruitless. But prayer is a relationship with God, and because I value it I’ve gotta keep showing up, even when it’s hard. This challenge extends to my life in the Church.
There’s an episode of the West Wing in which President Bartlet is asked a question about young people and their involvement in politics. The older generation and the younger generation each blame one another for failures in the political process, the president says. Older people think the young folks are lazy, young folks think the older generation has failed them. “So are we failing you, or are you failing us?” he asks. “A little of both. Decisions are made by those who show up.”
I think the same happens in the “Church as institution” vs. “Church as people” dynamic. Is Church leadership responsible for making audible, visible, and tangible ALL the beliefs we profess (not just a selective few), and challenging members to live them out? Yes. Are parish communities responsible for creating vibrant, welcoming, relevant communities who live out these beliefs and even allow spaces to question them? Yes. And are we, regardless of age, responsible for showing up, speaking up, and being the Church we want to see? Yes. We are ALL responsible for being, creating, and living the Church.
To paraphrase the message of President Bartlet, are we failing the (institutional) Church or is the Church failing us? A little of both. When it comes to racism, we can’t get over what we haven’t confronted. And we can’t be a part of change if we don’t show up.