Have you ever experienced a certain awkwardness when trying to become reacquainted with someone after a long break? Let’s say you were once close with that other person. Let’s say you used to interact with that person fairly regularly through the course of daily life. How would you approach the issue of reacquaintance?
I know that sounds like a vague question, but I ask it because that’s the issue facing the Church today. That’s the dynamic between the Church, as an institution, and the laity. For months during the pandemic, we were prohibited from being together as a community of believers. Today, while we can be together, we’re not required to be. In fact, in the Diocese of Honolulu, the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass has been extended until Ash Wednesday of next year. That’s where we’re at right now.
But even prior to the pandemic, the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States are the, “nones,” not referring to religious sisters, but to those who checked the box, “none,” when asked about their religious affiliation in various demographic studies and censuses.
That demographic isn’t growing due to organized atheism. It’s being filled by those who are simply walking away from the faith that they were raised in. The pandemic has merely accelerated that process. I know there can be a fear out there among religious leaders that many of the former faithful may not come back, when this pandemic is truly behind us.
And so, I ask you again: how would you approach the issue of becoming reacquainted with someone after a long separation?—after a long physical separation, which may have come after an even longer emotional or spiritual separation?
This isn’t a trick question. This isn’t a homily where I tell you the answer to a rhetorical question I myself have asked. This is an issue that the diocese is wrestling with. In Honolulu, the last diocesan pastoral plan, “Stewards of the Gospel,” ran from 2015 – 2020. Our diocese is now reflecting on what our next approach should look like, especially given our current situation.
Assuming we have the greatest message the world has ever heard, and we’re entrusted with the greatest treasure ever given to mankind, how should we approach the question of re-evangelizing God’s chosen people, or evangelizing the world a first time? I’d rather we take the time to wrestle with this question, rather than rush forward any sort of gimmicky approach.
I don’t have an answer myself; not an answer that truly acknowledges the reality of a long separation. I feel the answer is one we’ll discern together as a community of believers, as time goes on, from the bishop on down to each one of us. I feel the answer will be something along the lines of learning to fall in love again. It reminds me of that song by Journey: "And being apart ain’t easy on this love affair; two strangers learn to fall in love again; I get the joy of rediscovering you."
While I don’t know the answer, the upcoming season of Christmas is a timely one. It reveals to us God’s approach. He chose to begin again, almost as if starting from zero.
After Israel had abandoned the covenant, time and again, the Lord re-established his relationship to them by sending them his Son. He was born into the human race, and raised by humble and faithful parents. He came to us in the vulnerability of an infant. In his adulthood, he ministered in the small and rural region of Galilee. He died according to the prophecies, and rose again on the third day. He then appeared to his closest followers, and then to many at once. Before ascending back into heaven, he commissioned his disciples to preach the good news until the end of the age. We are their legacy. And now, we await Christ's glorious return at the Resurrection of the Dead on the Last Day.
What I just told you is a basic form of the Kerygma. That word, "Kerygma," means, “proclamation”. I feel the most we can do—perhaps the best we can do—is simply give witness to what we ourselves believe. That’s the kind of witness we hear from John the Baptist in our gospel passage today: He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. When was the last time we testified to Jesus Christ? I don’t mean as a Church. I mean, you and I individually. If you and I do not testify to Jesus Christ, how can others believe?
Until clearer answers are given to us, this may be all we can do for now: to testify to our belief in Jesus Christ to every single person whom we meet; trusting that the Lord will do the rest. He will increase, while we ourselves decrease. Through the grace of the Mass, may God give us the courage to give witness to him.