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A New Springtime in the Church

Is there anything like a First Holy Communion in the family? There’s nothing more beautiful than helping a child discover the mystery and joy of receiving the Lord in full—his body, blood, soul, and divinity—his greatest gift. It seems to leave a mark on your own soul to stand with that child as they experience the sacrament for the first time. It’s the pearl of great price—faith, hope and love all wrapped up into one beautiful Mass. You might easily die a happy and holy death then and there, if it weren’t so important for you to “go in peace,” get back to the house, and set out lunch for all of the guests. You’re Mary and Martha all at once, and you want the day to last as long as it can. Oh, you wish you could stay in that glow with your child, your grandchild, your godchild, forever.

But time plows forward, and of course, “you” is really, me, and now my little angels are all grown, or nearly so. And for some, there have been questions asked and resistance to going to Mass at all. Now has come the difficult realization that the mystery of the altar has become mysteriously unbelievable to some of the children who once kept careful count of every time they received the Eucharist, far into their first beautiful spring with Jesus. “This is my 3rd Holy Communion…this is my 7th Holy Communion….this is my 11th Holy Communion!”

But then, Adolescence, dread reaper, arrived to assault my good counsel and careful teaching, and throw them all to the four winds. And I wanted so badly to succumb to fear or self-pity, anger or despondency. How could there be a menu of so many bad spiritual options, when, hope the one choice I knew I should opt for, seemed too impossibly good to even hold onto?

What choice do you have when your kids drift away? Well, none, of course. You must accept, with humility, all that is. And, no kidding, that’s a good thing. Each time you receive now, you offer your communion for your wayward loved ones. You pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness. You pray that the scales will drop from the eyes of those who don’t see, and that they will behold the God who is truly there. And you begin to realize that you are praying for yourself, just as you pray for them. You begin to understand that this is your own very long Lenten journey.

For parents and grandparents, this suffering seems uniquely terrible, this letting go of a child so that God can find him. Maybe it is, but I have no interest in gauging such a thing. I only find it helpful to know that with suffering, as we can see in the first chapter of  St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, it is possible, even expedient, that we rejoice in our “suffering for the sake of others.” What a pitiful waste if we choose not to. We do not have to remain alone, either in our suffering or in the very act of offering it back to God. This pain, however it’s measured, need not go to waste.

When I can manage to wrap my mind around this, I hear words from St. Faustina, not audibly, to be sure, but nonetheless printed indelibly in my own heart: “Jesus, I trust in you.” That wisdom from a nun cloistered from the outside world. How timely for us, in these days of quarantine.

And that might be the only lesson that’s necessary for a lot of us in this time of global pandemic. In place of uncertainty and fear, sickness and death, I’m choosing to lean into trust. So simple that, for some of us, it’s hard to believe that could even be a viable plan for anyone under the age of 99. We might want to think that it’s more pragmatic to focus on political parties and placing blame, or just making worry our daily bread.  But instinctively, a lot of us know that, if you’ve lost your job, or even worse, loved ones, none of that is helpful right now. And for some of us, there’s the frantic new reality of keeping shelves full at the few remaining stores, or taking care of the sick and dying. These folks don’t have time or energy to read blogs or even keep up with the news. They are in the eye of the maelstrom that is today’s news. This is not optional: we must all gird them with our prayers.

It’s been pointed out that this crisis may not be the Apocalypse, but it is, in fact, an apocalypse, an unveiling that reveals who we are, and how close we are as a culture to falling from grace. We’ve lost our way, and though we barely know it, we are desperate to be found.

I heard from a friend today whose millennial son lives in a major city nearby. He’s working from home, and his job in a professional firm seems secure; he’s healthy and safe. This mom has so much to be thankful for, and she knows it. But still, my friend is a little melancholy, because her son isn’t concerned about people dying alone. He thinks it’s right and appropriate to keep the clergy out of hospitals. They’re not, as he sees it, “essential personnel.” It’s okay that they die without spiritual comfort, because, he’s “pretty sure that God knows how to fill in the gaps, even from a distance.”

Point missed entirely. It’s not God who needs comforting, or the saving grace of the sacraments, but the sick and the dying do. For this mom, it’s a sad revelation, an alarming unveiling, to recognize that her son, raised Catholic, has such a limited understanding of who we really are as human beings. She fears that, at twenty-six, he doesn’t perceive that our lives have a purpose beyond the material world. But he did when he was eight years old. A lot of the world wouldn’t recognize in the story the makings of a tragedy. But this mom, does. She knows that her biggest task now is to trust, even though there don’t seem to be a lot of tangible reasons for her to do just that.

This could all go in a bad direction, if we religious believers aren’t intentional about holding on to our values. I fear that, in a post-pandemic reality that is to come, we could witness the reveal of a Brave New World where faith in God is considered non-essential, one where those who “practice religion”  have become unwelcome outsiders. And we may have to grapple with the scope of the twin tragedy that is now part of our lives: the widespread loss of faith throughout our culture, alongside its necessary corollary— most of our children are unfazed by the loss. It’s a world that’s ordered, they will say, just as it should be.

We can help make sure that’s not our new world, by becoming the Church as we know it should be. So when we’re finally able to receive the sacraments again, when this long difficult Lent is finally over, maybe a good start would be if we each resolved to renew our faith like a second grader. What If we Catholics saw each chance to receive the Eucharist as a miraculous new first, or second or third Holy Communion? What if we began to see our life in the Church as the most important part of our lives, something we could not imagine living or dying without?

What a surprise we would be to the world, if when we all re-emerged from this Great Hibernation, we were to find ourselves in the springtime of the Church that St. John Paul II wrote about?  What if, God-willing, on Easter Sunday of 2021, when I go forward to receive, I’m able to say with great joy in my heart, “This is my 1001st Holy Communion.”

 I can almost, almost see it.

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