Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fire And The Seeds of Faith

I spent the past ten days visiting Yellowstone National Park with some friends of mine.  We saw buffalo, grizzly bear, elk, bald eagles, coyotes, and all sorts of wildlife amidst some extraordinary scenery.  As the days went on, we were struck by the amount of dead trees throughout the park.  We learned that these scorched remnants are the result of the great fire of 1988 that swept through Yellowstone and burned almost 800,000 acres.  To those of us who don't know much about the ecosystem, a fire in a forest seems to be something that must be avoided at all costs.  It would be the ultimate tragedy.  To my surprise, however, I learned that fire is a necessary part of the life of Yellowstone.

Amidst the fallen trees, new pines "Lodgepole Pines" have begun to grow.  They are growing not despite the fires, but because of them.  I found this fascinating.  The Lodgepole pines have pinecones that are sealed tightly by resin.  They almost never release their seeds.  But, when these pinecones are introduced to the heat of fire, the resin melts, and the seeds issue forth.  The forest is repopulated with new trees as a result of the fire.  How cool is that?!

This wonderment of nature provides some helpful insight on the mystery of the Church--planted by the Lord in the midst of the world.  In the United States, the Church has become, at times, so beholden to the money of the wealthy and the influence of the politically powerful, that we have become indistinguishable from the predominant culture.  While the money of the wealthy and the influence of the politically powerful sometimes advance the work of the Gospel, there is a built-in danger.  Over the course of time, if we become more dependent upon money and power than we do upon faith and charity, the Church withers and the brilliance of the Gospel is hidden under a bushel basket.  Remember, the Lodgepole pines do not replenish simply by withering to death.  Similarly, the Church doesn't advance the Kingdom by becoming muted and cowardly. 

For decades, we've avoided the fire of controversy by not challenging the predominant culture.  Instead of becoming increasingly dependent upon faith, we've become dependent upon money and power.  But where has this gotten us?  Has the Church become more effective?  Has it increased in growth?  Has it converted large numbers of persons to the Truth about marriage?  Life?  Human Sexuality?  Salvation?  It seems to me that we've been outwitted when it comes to the politcal gamesmanship.  This is not to disparage diplomacy and dialogue.  Nor is this to suggest that ecclesiastical authorities ought to shun good relations with civil authorities and with the wealthy and powerful.  But, the Church would be on far better footing if it approached these relationships and dialogues with a truer sense of faith.

Moses was able to go and speak with Pharaoh.  In this way, we can see that there was at least some civil dialogue taking place.  Pharaoh had wealth, chariots, charioteers, and a vast army.  They all wound up at the bottom of the Red Sea.  Moses had faith and obedience and led the Hebrew people to the promised land.  We who are shepherds of the Church have to approach those in power with a respect for their station in life, but we also have to arrive as men who know that we are sent from God and carry-albeit in very earthen vessels--a treasure whose power is not of human origin but is rather Divine.  Every time that Moses went to Pharaoh, things got worse for the Hebrew people.  But Moses was faithful.  In the end, it was God who made the Egyptians amenable to the requests of the Hebrews for gold and silver.  It was not the result of Moses' skills.  The Glory belongs to God.  Some argue that the Church has to become much more silent because of the scandals of the past decade.  That argument would perhaps be true if we were preaching ourselves and our "views."  But we are preaching the Divine Word of God and it is by his authority and power that we preach.  We should be even bolder now in our proclamation.  If we were, God would produce great fruits and it would become even clearer how we are the earthen vessels of a Divine Treasure.

Sadly, many of the most influential Catholics in academics, politics, and the business world oppose the Church in so many fundamental ways.  They oppose the Church and the Gospel on human life issues, marriage issues, and on religious freedom issues.  This opposition to the Gospel is not the result of poor diplomatic skills on the part of the Church's pastors.  This opposition is a problem of Faith.  We should all be able to admit at this point that the approach of avoiding confrontation has been an abysmal failure.  Failing to challenge academics has only produced more widespread ignorance and hatred for (or ambivalence towards) the Faith.  Failing to challenge Catholic politicians has only led to a greater entrenchment in relativism.  And fear of challenging the wealthy has led us to being comfortable with the status quo--except the status quo is not being maintained because we are losing people every day.

The Martydom of St. Polycarp
In the midst of this situation, two events have coincided.  The first is the Obama Administration's mandate that individual Catholics and Catholic institutions be compelled to violate their consciences.  The second is Pope Benedict's call for a Year of Faith.  We are the Lodgepole Pine Cones.  The President's mandate--along with a thousand other cultural and political issues (abortion, same sex marriage, Physician Prescribed Suicide etc) are the flames of persecution.  If we avoid the flames, the seeds of faith will remain entombed in us.  The forest of the Church in the United States will continue to wither and disappear.  If we are willing to be tried and tested and allow ourselves to be singed by the flames of confrontation, the Lord will produce new life.

If Moses had allowed his fear of Pharaoh to guide his decisions, the Hebrew people would still be lugging Pharaoh's bricks.  Moses trusted in God's power more than in Pharaoh's.  If the martyrs of the early Church had trusted the Emperor's promises to treat them well if only they'd do the diplomatic thing and offer just a small sacrifice to the gods, the Church would have stagnated.  Instead, those martyrs placed themselves like pinecones upon the flames of persecution and from them came the seeds of the Church's growth.

Truth to be told, I'd much prefer to get along with the Emperor.  I'd prefer to receive big checks from wealthy donors and pats on the back from the powerful.  And, if those things work and the Kingdom is growing, then that's what we should do.  But, we've arrived at a moment in time where it is clear that those things are not working and only the most obstinate would not admit to that.  Sometimes, wealth and power can become like the resin that seals in the seeds of faith.  So what are we to do?

Pope Benedict has, I think, provided to us what is necessary.  The Year of Faith is given to us so that when the fires come and all of our protective resins are melted away, there are in fact seeds of faith insides of us.  All of us--the wealthy, the poor, the politician, the voter, the priest, and the layperson--need renewal in the Faith.  We need strengthening in the foundations of who we are as a people.  Money is a means to an end.  Influence is a means to an end.  Politics and diplomacy are a means to an end.  We who have been entrusted with the growth of the forest have one question before us: In the end, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?  The answer, I think, depends on two factors.  Do we ourselves have Faith and are we willing to follow the Lord into the flames?

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