During my years in the seminary, the faculty warned us against cherishing “a myopic nostalgia for a church you did not know.” To a seminarian in the 80s, “a church we did not know” referred to the church before theSecond Vatican Council. For young men who grew up in the turbulence of the late 60s and early 70s with its liturgical and catechetical experimentation, the pre-conciliar church seemed like a simpler, more certain time. Every parish had a pastor, two curates, a convent, and a school. The surrounding culture supported church attendance and teaching. When conflict arose, it could always be settled by reference to the Summa. As far as seminary formation was concerned, it seemed that candidates to the priesthood needed only to learn Latin and familiarize themselves with the manuals to master each theological discipline. In a society and church that was changing, it could be tempting for us to fantasize about turning the clock back to life before priests exchanged their cassocks for ponchos and their tonsures for long sideburns.
It did not take me long to realize that it is not only seminarians who longed for a return to the Church’s “golden age.” Some Catholics pine for the centuries before the Protestant Reformation when the Church appeared to control all aspects of civic life. Other Christians desire to go back even further still to Jesus and the apostles before, in their minds, the influence of Greek culture obfuscated the simple Gospel message. It may be a common temptation for all of us to romanticize a “church we did not know” when Christianity seemed purer.
Of course, we know that no era of Christianity was free from conflict and division. Even in those first years after Pentecost when St. Luke boasts of a community in which “believers were of one heart and one mind keeping all things in common” (Acts 4:32), division soon flared up between Hebrew and Greek widows (Acts 6:1). In this Sunday’s first reading, we learn about the Church’s first heresy—that believers needed to be circumcised and to follow the law of Moses to attain salvation. These believers, commonly known as the Judaizers, probably looked back with nostalgia at the security and clarity of life under the law. Whatever the case, they wielded great influence even over Saint Peter who stopped eating with Gentiles to appease them, earning a stern rebuke from St. Paul (Gal 2:11-14). The early church leaders, rather than allowing the divisions to fester, gathered together in Jerusalem to make plain the teaching of salvation in Jesus Christ apart from the law. At the same time, they responded pastorally, making allowances for the dietary scruples of Jewish Christians. In such a way, they were able to hold fast to their teaching while taking into account the consciences of believers.
In this era of Christianity, we find ourselves in a similar circumstance as the apostles—seeking to proclaim the truth handed on to us by Jesus to a society in constant flux. In particular, we are experiencing this conflict in terms of the sanctity of marriage. How do we welcome those whose relationships and family circumstances fall short of the Gospel ideal? How do we bring healing into their relationships? How do we let them know that no matter what circumstances they find themselves in they can turn to us for help and not expect judgment or scolding? And how do we do all this without compromising Jesus’ teaching on the sanctity of marriage?
This Sunday’s first reading gives us some helpful clues. First of all, we get together and talk as the apostles did. This was Pope Francis’ hope for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which he called in 2014. As believers we have to be willing to dialogue with those who believe differently than we do or who find themselves in relationships that differ from the Church’s norms. Even more important than having a ready defense for Jesus’ teaching, we must have ears quick to listen to their anger, frustration, and hurt. When it becomes clear that we really care for them, then they may be open to listening to us.
Along with being willing to listen, we also must be willing to learn. Those who don’t go to church have much to teach us about how our society views marriage, family life, and relationships. Those insights can help us to understand our own convictions and to articulate them more convincingly. It can also help us to deal more pastorally with those who seek our help and to find creative ways to meet their spiritual needs.
Finally, we can trust that out of the conflict, the Holy Spirit will lead the Church to creative solutions, just as that first conflict between the Hebrew and Greek widows gave rise to the order of deacons. Before getting frustrated or falling back on nostalgia, suppose we first thank God for all the healing and wonders he will bring out of the present conflicts? Jesus promised in this Sunday’s Gospel, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit … will teach you everything” (Jn 14:26). So we can trust that, in the end, we will have an even deeper grasp of the mysteries we confess and even more gentle and compassionate ways of inviting our culture to live up to them.
For us living through the upheaval and confusion of the Church in the early twenty-first century, it may be hard to believe that future Christians will look back at us with nostalgia. However, if we yield to the Holy Spirit and seek his peace rather than the peace the world gives, which is the fruit of indifference, appeasement, and surrender, we can reach pastoral solutions to our present day crises that will make our ancestors proud and perhaps even those who come after us envious. There has been no golden age of the church nor will there be until God brings the heavenly Jerusalem described in this Sunday’s second reading to fulfillment.