“Christianity is not a do-it-yourself project.”
“… He who does not gather with me scatters.” —Mt 12:30
A strange phenomenon is taking place in American society. More and more of our institutions are experiencing diminishment because there is a trend to “go it alone.” This can be seen in the drastic drop in the number of Americans getting married. In fact, the number of marriages has plummeted since the early 1970s. It can be seen in the difficulty experienced by both religious and secular organizations in getting and retaining members. Researchers have indicated that one of the traits of younger Americans is that they are not “joiners.” Even in our Catholic Church across America, the statistics related to the youngest adults indicates that many of them are aloof when it comes to Church membership.
All sorts of sociological theories could be put forward as to why this is happening. It could be related to the widespread breakdown of marriage and family life; it could be due to the effects of technology which gives the false illusion of being connected while eliminating the occasions for real human interaction; it could be the result of the deep influence of the radical individualism so pervasive in secular culture. It could be any one of these, and a number of other factors, or it could be a combination of all of the above. Whatever the reason, the trend is sure to have serious negative consequences.
We need other people
Human beings are social by nature. We need others physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Researchers have shown how infants who do not have the regularity of a human embrace, the sound of a human voice, the warmth of a smile and look on a human face, are seriously harmed. Human beings are best brought into the world and raised in a communion of persons called the family. God, in gathering scattered humanity to himself, does so through a “people,” his family, which we call the Church. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said at the beginning of creation (Gen 2:18). And yet, many men and women are deliberately choosing to be alone by foregoing not only marriage, but also other forms of community and belonging. Many, for instance, indicate that they have faith but no need for a church. This is often captured by the phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” In effect, there are many people today who make up a church in which they are the only member.
No Christ without the Church
This trend presents new challenges and opportunities for Christianity and evangelization, but these will only be effective if we are more intentional about being the community of faith and love that Christ intends. If the Church does not “walk the walk” so to speak, it creates a kind of scandal. If Christians live and act no differently than the world, then it will be difficult to convince others of the beauty and truth of Christ. We must be intent on giving ourselves for the good of others.
Christianity is not a do-it-yourself project. The sacraments by their nature are ordered toward joining us more intimately with Christ and those who belong to him. I cannot love Christ without also loving his body, the Church. We must be more knowledgeable about explaining the necessity of the Church in the Christian life and one’s salvation. The Church is not an optional part of Christianity. There is no Christianity without the Church. Christ now identifies himself with the Church as he did when he asked Saul on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).
An often-overlooked effect of the Holy Spirit’s action at Pentecost was the undoing of the division and scattered-ness experienced by the human race. This was evidenced by the miracle of everyone hearing the apostles in their own language—an undoing of the events at the Tower of Babel! The work of the Holy Spirit to gather scattered humanity, begun at Pentecost, continues today in the Church.
In my last column, I remarked on Pope Benedict’s observation that hell is absolute, total, and eternal isolation. God in his very nature is not alone. He has revealed a truth about himself, that he is a mystery of communion among three divine persons, and is One. We are mysteriously made in his image. God’s revealed desire for every person is communion, a being with; communion with himself and those who love him and wish to be with him eternally. What could be better? That is a big part of the good news we have to deliver to those who mistakenly think they can be happy going it alone.