Around the time he declared his candidacy for President, Mayor Pete Buttigieg described this particular time in American history as the blank page between two chapters in a book. This image really appealed to me, because it captures that sense of unease and anxiety we all feel as we see certain traditional ways of doing and seeing things collapsing (in some cases, good riddance, but not in all) and the ways of doing and seeing that will replace them not at all clear. Yet unlike President Trump’s “American carnage” narrative, which reeks of cynicism, self-centeredness, faithlessness and rage, Mayor Pete’s image is infused by a subtle but palpable Faith. While we may not know where the author of the book is going to take us in the next chapter, we read on expectantly knowing that whatever happens it will advance the overall story. In the case of America, our core story is the attempt to ensure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for more and more of our citizens and, in whatever ways we are able, the citizens of the world.
I think that Mayor Pete’s image applies to more than just the United States of America, however. It’s not a bad way of understanding where we are as a Church in the very early years of the third millennium. The narrative of the first thousand years of Christian history was the story of the steady expansion of the Institutional church until it became the most powerful secular force in the world. The narrative of the second thousand years of Christian history was the story of the Body of Christ struggling mightily to divest itself of this secular scaffolding so that we might become free to be a spiritual light and guide for the world in the way that Jesus intended.
And, one thousand years from now, what will be the narrative of the third millennium of Church history? That there will be a narrative, and that it will have meaning, I have no doubt. Jesus promised us that the gates of Hell would never prevail against us. (Though he never promised we wouldn’t have much heartbreak along the way.) At the moment, it’s not possible to answer that question. That’s what living in the blank page is all about.
If you’re looking for hopeful signs, however, here’s a couple:
1)At the conclusion of the Vatican II Council, expressing his delight and hope concerning all that had been accomplished, Cardinal Suenens commented that he felt, within a hundred years, the Church would be very young. Perhaps that’s one way of understanding the rot and collapse all around us as the Institutional church is faced with a stark choice that can no longer be avoided: Radical reform or Irrelevancy. You have to take out the dead trees before the new ones have the light and nutrients they need to grow.
2) There was an article in the New York Times recently about the “nuns” and the “nones”. Briefly stated, there is a movement afoot in which sisters who are members of religious orders that are dying out are forming relationships with members of the Millennials (a generation whose members increasingly are identifying themselves in surveys that ask for religious affiliation as “none of the above”) who are seeking to express their deeply felt spiritual experiences in ways that are more communal and which incorporate in some way sacramental ritual. I have no idea how far this lovely partnership will go, but I catch a whiff of the future in it.
From the point of view of this Baby Boomer, who came of age and who came alive in the Church in the years immediately following the Council, I feel like I imagine St. Paul must have felt as he began to realize that the belief in a crucified Messiah was never going to find a home in the mainstream of his Jewish faith. It’s hard not to give in to a sense of disappointment over the refusal of the Institutional church -and more discouragingly, so many of the laity-to hear the call of the Spirit.
What I will not do, with the help and grace of the Holy Spirit, is give in to the dark and desperate narrative of “Ecclesial carnage”- the fear based proclamation which states that the Church is dying because (according to Conservatives) the modern world has no place in the Church or (according to Progressives) the Church has no place in the modern world. I will pray for the grace to live fully in the blank page, to trust that the Author of the Book is advancing the story, and to do all that I can to witness to the presence of the risen Christ amidst the ambiguity of our times to help prepare the way for the glorious and wondrous day when our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren enter into the promised land of the Next Chapter.