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Issue Date:  February 25, 2005

Practicing what we preach in the back of the boat


A friend said that she remains in the church because we who make up the church are different, but that she’s regularly tempted to leave the church because we aren’t different enough.

Amen, sister.

In the last couple of years every institution -- profit and not-for-profit -- was hit by what one of our auxiliary bishops called “the perfect storm.” Parishes and dioceses were no exception. Reduced investment results, rising insurance costs, increased unemployment, decreased offertory collections, the abuse scandal and a certain suspicion regarding church leaders as trustworthy stewards -- all this made for a lethal combination that threatened to capsize our little bark.

How did we respond? Were we different from any other business when the profit margin is threatened? Did we call on our faith in Jesus with whom there is always abundance? Did we remember the multiplication of the loaves and fishes?

I want my church to be different.

I want us to be living reminders to America that when we have a home, a bed, enough clothing to wear something different every day of the week and still have an annual parish rummage sale, access to a machine to wash those clothes, clean water, indoor plumbing, more food than is good for us and a place to prepare it, warmth in winter and cool in summer, and access to education, beauty, travel, great art and music -- that we can’t possibly be poor.

The feeling that we are poor when we are so well provided for is the devil’s own work. Those who feel poor fail to notice what they have and, instead of feeling grateful, they feel anxious. Such people will not respond generously to those who are seriously endangered by real poverty.

And the devil laughs.

It’s in the middle of a recession, or whatever the economists call it, that we have a great opportunity to be witnesses. We could show off that lilies of the field thing; be a living, breathing Sermon on the Mount.

How have we handled it so far? Too many parishes just started throwing folks overboard without regard for how they would fare in the storm. “Red ink will be cut” read the headline in one archdiocesan newspaper. Red ink?

And how did we make those cuts? Pretty much like the pagans -- from the top down, without consultation or collaboration, without creativity, without even simple kindness.

No matter how often the pastor is called a CEO, the church is not a corporation. One big difference is that there are no doors. You can’t walk church employees to the door and expect never to see them again. They show up in the pews, often with their families and friends who share their pain. If we must be compared to a business, it would be better to remember the Mom and Pop grocery store.

It’s hard to think in new ways until we remember that ours is not the new way. Enron is new. IBM is new.

We’re as old as that boat being tossed around on the waves, filled with panicked disciples. There is only one thing we need to remember: Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat. Maybe before we do anything, we ought to join him there, wake him up, and have a nice, friendly chat.

And if we’ve been wrong? It’s never too late to reverse course and cast out the lifeboats. There is no perfect storm Jesus can’t calm.

Paige Byrne Shortal writes from her home in rural Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2005

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