The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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June 8, 2001 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

Our most important task today

We can't lose Christ's spiritual message while speaking to a secular world

By Bishop Robert Banks

This column began several weeks ago when I was on a parish visitation to Phlox and Mattoon. At the town hall meeting that is a usual part of the visitation, a parishioner asked, "What do you think, Bishop, is the most important task of the Church today?"

I usually shy away from those questions, because it is so hard to get everyone to agree what is most important for the Church. But I answered, "The most important task is to deepen the faith of those who believe. And then for those believers to reach out and bring back to a more active faith the many Catholics who have lost interest in their religion and the many people who belong to no church."

Deepening the faith of our people is the main task because the major challenge of the Church is the secular culture in which we live. By secular culture, I mean that we live in a world that sees no need of God's involvement in daily life. Serious illness can bring us to prayer in an emergency, but generally we are confident that medical science will take care of most of our health problems. When it comes to social issues of peace and justice, we rely more on diplomats, political activists and social reformers to make the world a better place.

It is understood in our country that religion is not to be brought into any serious discussion about the new laws we might need. And the entertainment that is so important in shaping our culture seldom, if ever, shows religion as a valuable part of the ordinary person's life.

Our reaction as Church has been to stress those things in the Gospel message that would appeal to a secular culture. So we present Jesus as a teacher or social reformer. A recent religious book by a Catholic author is entitled Jesus the Rebel (by John Dear, Sheed and Ward Publications).

This kind of presentation of the Gospel makes sense in a secular culture and I try to use it myself, but it can mean that some important parts of the Gospel may be left out. A couple of years ago, I had some young Catholic adults to my home in order to find out what was on the mind of our young people. It was a very pleasant evening, and the young men and women were the cream of our Catholic crop: involved in the liturgy and active in service projects in poorer sections of the country.

At one point in the evening, as we were enjoying pizza, I asked, "What do you think about Jesus?" One of the young men answered, "He was a teacher and showed us the way we should live."

That was all that was said. There was nothing about Jesus as savior, redeemer or Lord. It might be that no one understood my question, but the lack of a fuller answer was perhaps indicative of what can happen when we shape the Gospel message to fit a secular culture.

Since that parishioner's question at the parish visitation, I have become more alert to the importance of a richer understanding of the Gospel message. For instance, whenever I talk for the first time to a large gathering of children, I ask one of them to stand by my side. Then I tell the story of how the apostles once asked Jesus if the children were getting in the way while he was talking to a crowd of people. Jesus' answer was to put his arm around the child and say, "This child is the most important person here." As I say that, in order to visualize the point, I put my arm around the child standing next to me.

Now that scene and teaching can appeal to a secular audience. It shows Jesus as kind to children. But a fuller understanding of the scene recognizes that the arm around that child belongs to the person who scattered the 200 billion galaxies throughout the universe.

In the same way, the scene of Jesus' crucifixion can be presented in a way that appeals to a secular culture. Jesus can be seen as a martyr for his truth, or as someone who has given his life for those he loves. Both ways of seeing the crucifixion can get a positive reaction from the secular mind. But a fuller understanding of the crucifixion believes that from the pierced heart of that person on the cross comes the love that forgives all the sins of humanity, including the incredible brutality of the Holocaust and the other unimaginable cruelties of the 20th century. Only a divine love could do that.

The love and forgiveness that come from the death and resurrection of Christ flow into the world through the sacraments, especially the celebration of the Eucharist. And this says something important about the priesthood.

If Jesus is seen simply as a teacher or social reformer, then the priest, who represents him in a special way, will also be seen as a teacher or reformer. But if Jesus is seen as the savior who has chosen the sacraments as a particularly important way for his love and forgiveness to heal the world, then the priest is more than a teacher or reformer. He certainly is not a savior, but the priest, by ordination, has been entrusted with serving the Church through the celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments.

We should not be surprised if a secular culture does not make much room for priests, since it sees little need of religion or salvation. We have to be careful, however, that our Church's presentation of the Gospel message these days includes even, or especially, those elements that fit less easily in a secular world.

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