When the sun was up early and the weather was nice, I loved to take the ‘country road’ drive to my farthest-distance parish of St. Paul in Electra using State Highway 240. As soon as I passed the small town of Clara, there are miles and miles of tall, giant electrical towers.
They reminded me of the communal and life-giving image of the Church, connected to one another and sharing the energy received from the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Source of power. We are all connected to Christ and also to one another. When one tower is affected, all are affected. It was a powerful reminder for me, especially in my hardest trials, that we are in this together and that we are never alone!
Oftentimes, when we are facing hardships, we often think that we are abandoned and rejected by God and forgotten by others. Nonetheless, at times like those, there was always an indescribable, but always present, source of energy that helped us to move forward or able to overcome the obstacles. I truly believe those moments were not of chance nor self-will efforts.
We could be lifted up by someone who is across the world… By the grace of God, we are strengthened by the someone’s sacrifices, one person who is offering their sufferings for someone who is in need, someone in the hospital who offers their struggles and loneliness, a child who prays for others from the purity of his or her heart. I know that I would not be here today if it was not for the prayers of those who lifted me up and interceded for me in times of need. We are lifted by one another’s prayers and sacrifices. In the same way, our prayers help, by the grace of God, someone who perhaps has nothing else to turn to when things are tough.
We are the Church because we are united with one another in Christ Jesus. This is not simply a union of like-minded people or a for-profit organization. We do not come together because we like each other or because we look alike and have something in common. As a matter of fact, many of us are different in many, and oftentimes strong and unwilling, ways! That is why when we forget who lovingly called us together and lost focus on our common mission, division, envy, jealousy, and the likes begin to creep in. The Church is the Church because it is the Lord who feeds us with His divine words, as well as His Body and Blood. The Church exists because of His love for us. We exist to perpetuate His redemptive and salvific sacrifice in an unbloodied manner at each Mass, preach the Gospel, and make disciples of all nations.
Jesus Christ is our secret consolation, strength, and power. He was the reason why past Christians were joyful in the midst of many persecutions, trials, and hardships. They knew that everything was going through was worth it because they had one another and they recognized the presence of the Lord in their midst! They lived this reality in both words and actions — with convictions. This was why their zeal and joy were so contagious!
When the Catholic faith came to Viet Nam, the locals did not have a name for the religion nor know how to call believers yet. They simply called early Catholics people who belonged to the “religion of love,” because of how the Church cared for the poor and one another. This, for me, is an important lesson to be learned and reminded of often.
The Church is growing exponentially at places where believers are willingly taking on the mission to evangelize, catechize, and care for the least of our brethren. However, the Church is dying in places where believers are only cultural Catholics, those who say that they were baptized or raised Catholics but are now too busy with their own lives, plans, and agendas. As a matter of fact, many international students and recent immigrants told me many times how they do not understand the Church in America. They often said, “It’s so dead and lifeless at times, Father!” According to them, they do not see the joy in worship because people want to leave right away and no one wants to do anything in comparison to the life of the Church where they came from, which is oftentimes the center of people’s lives. They often label the Church in America as “vanilla flavor” — sweet but boring — with no real life. Many often struggle to fit in or try to feel belong to something that they so dearly love but cannot find it here.
It is important for us to remember that we are all in this together! We are the Church! Therefore, if we are not committed, the Church will be dead. She will be dead in places where we are too worried about protecting the institution than becoming zealous and loving with our Christ-given mission. She is much more than a beautiful facade or set of buildings to behold and treated as trophies in the case. The age of (assumed) cultural Catholicism is dead! Many have made their choices to stop believing altogether, or only by words but no personalized responses and actions. We need intentional disciples who will choose to let faith be the center of their lives by daring to truly love, care, and be in communion with one another. Just like Christ who is the cornerstone that the builders rejected, we are living stones of His Church that the world will often time dislike or reject. However, nothing in this world can ever rob His joy from us!
We have to choose not just to go to church but to actually be the Church! Do not just say that this used to be the parish where my parents or grandparents used to love, but this IS where I want to belong. Do not just say, “This was how things used to be!” We have to organically mature like a tree, deeply rooted in Christ Jesus but flexible enough to grow and respond to the needs of this present age. The Acts of the Apostles reminds us of how the believers responded to persecutions: “The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 13:52) Can we say the same? Are we filled with joy and the Holy Spirit as to endure all things and make the Church‘s mission ours with personal conviction and zeal? I hope and pray that we do if we truly understand that we are the Church.