Many of us bemoan the great number of our family members and friends who don’t attend church anymore. Seems none of our nieces and nephews have been baptized, our grandchildren are not being raised in a church community, and its almost impossible to find a sponsor for our teens preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation who is a solid “practicing” Catholic anymore, right? Though I understand the sadness this brings, I also think we all recognize and understand that we, as church, in many ways have earned this exodus. I also suspect we may be mourning for the wrong thing. A story to illustrate…
One morning a few years back on my way to work, I was on the service drive of I-75 because there was a mess of construction and traffic on the expressway.  I was passing through a very over developed area; there wasn’t a park or even a significant bunch of trees around within miles – it was all strip malls and asphalt. While painfully creeping in traffic I noticed out of my passenger window , standing elegantly, not even 20 feet from the street, next to an over-filled dumpster in the parking lot of a convenience store was this beautiful deer, breathing in the fumes from all the traffic and eating the little tuffs of dusty grass that were struggling to break through the cracks in the concrete.
The vision of this deer arrested me. I did a little double-take because it was so out of place. I thought to myself, “I bet that deer doesn’t have long to live before she runs into traffic or simply gets sick from the limited, dirty food and stress she is enduring due to living in such an urban area.” The deer was surviving, but not living the life for which she was created. She was not living the optimal life of a deer. Not living as God intended.
So it is I think sometimes with us. We are not living optimally as human beings. We are surviving but not living as we were designed to live. And, like that deer, we are relatively unaware of how deprived we really are;  we don’t really see how our choices and culture sometimes rob us of the rich life that God has intended for each of us.
One of our foundational teachings for our kids back in the atrium invites us to believe that “In the mind of God there has always been a plan to bring all of life to fulfillment.” That throughout the long 14-billion-year-plus history of our universe, God “created the heaven and the earth” and has been ever so slowly guiding the growth of creation – dividing the water and the land, carefully placing each mineral, plant and animal, preparing each one for their special role in this plan of God – so that eventually, when this creative work of love is complete, at the Parousia, “God will be all in all.”
This teaching, rooted in our scriptures, says that we humans are distinguished from all the other creatures on the earth in that we have the ability to look around us and wonder “who made all this? And what is my place in this creation?” Only recently have we humans arrived on this beautiful blue planet – like guests at a banquet – with everything that we could ever need – or even dream of – prepared for us.
The lesson goes on to say that without humanity, creation would still have been amazing and wonderful, but it would have been incomplete. For in this great plan of God is built in a unique role for the work of the human hand guided by love and intelligence…that somehow, through the work of OUR hands, creation is to be brought to its fullest potential.
And yet, Jonas Salk, a medical researcher most famous for developing the very first successful polio vaccine, once noted “If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. BUT if all human being disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.” What does this tell us? Are we really living the life we are called to live by God? Are our hands bringing creation to its greatest fulfillment through love or are we pushing and grabbing in greed and fear – bringing destruction?
Jesus never said “worship me” or “give assent to this and that doctrine” but rather he said “follow me.” In other words BE like me, apprentice under me, behave like me, love like me, show reverence and gratitude for the all the gifts that God has prepared for us – including one another. How are we doing with that? Maybe our friends and relatives who are fleeing the church truly find Jesus’ message compelling – they sense that Jesus indeed “has the goods” so to speak – but they also sense that we, as church, are not living or modeling all that Jesus hoped or intended for us. Honestly, do any of us even recognize the Jesus we see represented in our contemporary culture and politics these days? Yet, we Catholics can’t deny our contributions to this gross misrepresentation of the person and mission of Jesus. 
If we believe as our Catholic doctrine states that Jesus was perfectly human as well as divine, perhaps we need to seriously rethink and contemplate what living as a human being is supposed to look like – by God’s design. Was Jesus sent to us, planted like a seed in our very own history, to show us the way? To demonstrate the great power we wield when we love without judgement? To show us that this unconditional, boundless love is the only power with the ability to bring about lasting change in our world gone wonky? Might Jesus need a new PR team? Are we up for that important work? 
In the book Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam states that social bonds are by far the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction and a surprising predictor of personal health. If you both smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a close call as to which is the riskier behavior! He goes on to note the fact that there are more bowlers today, but fewer bowling leagues, because everybody is bowling alone. 
Putnam asserts that we are paying a heavy price for the loss of what he calls “social capital” which is the life-giving product of communal activity and sharing. Clinically measured depression has increased ten-fold in our country over the past 50 years, and although the origins of this epidemic are not yet clear, the prime candidate is social isolation, and Covid and all the political division around it undoubtly exacerbated this situation. The loss of social capital is reflected in higher crime rates, a weakened democracy, lower educational performance, more teen pregnancies, and incidents of suicide. We live so alone today. We have taken individualism to such an extreme, we hardly know how to see ourselves as parts of something larger any more; the collective that is humanity. As St. Paul says “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” right? And if one part suffers we all suffer. 
So, perhaps Jesus understood our nature better than we do and that is why He prayed “that we may be one” knowing our tendency to isolate in the face of inevitable conflict and established as our central defining ritual a dinner party – a gathering in his name each week for a shared meal…for reconciliation…for mutual support…to nourish one another and truely BE the hands and feet, and hugs and encouragement, of Christ. Maybe He knew that the greatest remedy for our suffering is togetherness. In other words, the balm for our wounds is the act of gathering to “BE church.” Maybe our family members are leaving our Catholic community because they just don’t see this life within us anymore; they don’t see us living as Jesus wishes us to live. 
We Catholics define “sin” as anything that distances us from God’s love and mercy and separates us from one another.  In a word, sin is alienation. God does not indiscriminately declare ‘this and that’ as a sin in an effort to limit our freedom, to exercise control over us or test our fidelity. Rather sin is simply what is bad for US. Like any good parent, God wishes for us to have life to the full. But, maybe our fierce individualism, even in our spiritual lives, is simply not good for us. It is not the life for which we were designed.  A possibility to consider…

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