As it becomes possible gradually to resume our accustomed Catholic practices, it will be important again to make the effort to be there.
“It is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” Caiaphas did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God (John 11:47-52).
In the unfolding of the human drama leading to the Passion, John recalls Caiaphas’ prophecy that the death of Jesus would benefit the people. His own vision was short-sighted, seeing a political opportunity to rid himself of this troublesome rabbi and placate the Romans by restoring order once the people’s messianic fervor was quieted with Jesus gone.
But as John notes, Caiaphas was unintentionally correct. Writing straight with crooked lines, God used this cynical high priest’s ploy to fulfill the divine purpose of reuniting the children of God by the free sacrifice of the true High Priest on the cross.
How well we have known the dispersion of the children of God in these past months. COVID restrictions, the suspension of public Masses for a time that arrived last Lent, the political and social tensions that have long simmered and reached boiling points in recent months — there is much that has divided and dispersed us. We need to be gathered up, gathered in, reunited, by Jesus.
The term “Church” comes from the Hebrew “qahal,” through Greek’s “ekklesia” and Latin’s similar “ecclesia.” The word ultimately means assembly or a gathering of people. It finds its fullest meaning in the Exodus, when God gathers his people, freeing them from slavery and leading them to the land of promise. God assembles them to hear the Torah and reestablish the covenant. For the Jewish people, and for us, faith implies belonging to a people gathered by God.
Catholic faith always presents a healthy tension between individual and community, between “I believe” and “we believe,” between each person’s experience of God and God’s will to gather us all into one communion of love. We can say that faith is always personal but never merely individual. That is, as persons, we are made in the image of God, who is a communion of three Persons. The faith we receive precedes us and shapes us, making us part of something greater than ourselves and our own ideas.
Thus, authentic Catholic faith will always bring us into relationship with others. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it eloquently: “Those who recognize Jesus in the sacred Host, recognize him in their suffering brother or sister” (Homily for Corpus Christi, 2011).
The salvation of humanity that Jesus accomplished at Golgotha is a gift to be accepted by each of us, but never in isolation. Opening our lives to receive God’s mercy comforts us, and yet inherently demands that we also share that mercy with others. This was St. Paul’s two-stage conversion: Christ overwhelmed him and blinded him on the road to Damascus and restored his sight with a new vision of undeserved mercy and grace.
That gave Paul deep joy and assurance. But accepting Christ also meant accepting the Body of Christ — those people who at times frustrated, annoyed, misunderstood and even opposed him. That gave Paul much sorrow and woe. Yet, he only fully embraced the Lord when he began to love all whom Jesus had died to save. His life as a missionary disciple was an indispensable consequence of the Gospel: If Jesus came to gather into one the dispersed children of God, then so must his followers.
I have been moved by the creativity, dedication, flexibility and charity shown by so many in these past months, making the Mass and devotions and education and parish life available “virtually” by means of technology. Our ancestors who suffered through past pandemics, times of persecution and the upheavals caused by wars and violence did not have this advantage.
Those human separations can never overcome the unity of faith: as St. Athanasius said it: “God gives us the joy of salvation as he brings us together to form one assembly, uniting us all in spirit in every place, allowing us to pray together and to offer common thanksgiving. Such is the wonder of his love: he gathers those who are far apart, and brings together in unity of faith those who may be physically separated from each other” (Easter letter, c. 340).
At the same time, the virtual experience of Christian community can never substitute for gathering as God’s people in prayer, fellowship, service and simple human presence to one another. Please understand: I agree with the adaptations we have made in our parishes, schools and institutions for the safety and health of one another. That concern for the common good is itself part of our teaching and a work of mercy. Those who continue to participate remotely due to health concerns have my sincere respect and support.
However, as it becomes possible gradually to resume our accustomed Catholic practices, it will be important again to make the effort to be there. Our faith is incarnational, sacramental, rooted in the daily realities we experience. Virtual community has been an adaptation out of necessity and cannot become an alternative out of convenience.
Ahead of us lies the work of revitalizing our parish communities with one another in person. We will need you to succeed. While virtual outreach has allowed us to evangelize and reach many with hope and healing in a time of uncertainty, the ultimate goal of that evangelization leads to being with one another in faith. Or, in John’s words, to share the work of Jesus, who died to gather into one the dispersed children of God.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.
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