"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside,
but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth.
Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.”
These words come from Jesus himself in Gospel of Matthew, but unfortunately, they appear to be timeless. This denunciation of religious hypocrisy’s poisonous effects is uncomfortably relevant.
It’s challenging but hugely necessary to look at this passage in light of our own church’s struggles. Taking just a casual glance at any of the reports, from Ireland to Pennsylvania, of our institutional church’s hand in evildoing is not only shocking but nauseating. It’s disturbing to wonder whether our embattled, scandal-filled church looks more like wicked pharisees than emulators of Christ. Can it really be much of a mystery why religion has become anathema to so many?
It’s discouraging to see that for countless people religion isn’t the practice of spirituality as much as a vessel for exclusion and shame. I am going to go on a limb and assume that if you’re reading these Daily Passionist Reflections then religious faith plays an important part in your life. Like me, it might be a source of hope, of relief, of community, of truth and wisdom. But there is a dramatic gulf between this religion that so many of us are filled up by – a faith that inspires us to be fully alive and abide in the liberating love of God – and those who receive literally the opposite effect. I’m not speaking of just those who are unaware here, but also all the lapsed and disillusioned Christians who hold justified or unjustified resentment, who flee from what they see as clearly hollow righteousness and two-faced arrogance. This truth is heartbreaking but far from hopeless.
Now we can look at this gulf and act like the scribes and pharisees, gripping tighter to our church as the oasis for a few, clutching onto its external power and beauty while it rots and decays from within. It’s dangerously easy to dismiss prodigal sons and daughters as unworthy or as unwilling, or simply to avoid and silently ignore. Courage and Christ though would point to a different path.
WE are the church. WE are the redemption the church needs right now. The church has always been more than an institution, it’s you and it’s me and the countless others striving for communion. There are too many who feel our religious faith is a front for ignorance and prejudice, it’s on us – the living church – to demonstrate otherwise. There’s no need to wait for Vatican proclamations, the Kingdom of God is at hand right now.
It’s on us to fight the kind of clericalism, sexism, and toxic arrogance that can be so corrosive in our church. It’s on us to go out to the margins and be the vessels for God’s peace, to live out with dogmatic certainty that God is in every person’s life. It’s on us to personify the truth of our church’s radical empathy and countercultural generosity, to share with all people our belief that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Let’s remember, Catholicism literally means “universal.” The institution of the church is still in theory the widest connective tissue on the planet, binding together billions from all corners of the globe, all walks of life. But there’s always the danger of losing that universality. When the church ceases to be the vehicle for everyone to viscerally experience the love of God, then some core facet is lost and in need of repair.
This week let’s realize that WE play an essential role in that restoration. Let’s carry ourselves in this role with gratitude and purpose. The Holy Spirit has been given to us – let’s act like it!