Imagine a young orphan, living in destitute poverty. This infant is taken in, loved with great tenderness and when old enough, is enrolled into an elite boarding school. This school is home to the brightest minds in the known world, most of whom are also extremely kind and wise. Every opportunity is provided this child, completely free of charge.
At first the child loves the school, reveling in learning the ABC’s and soon fascinated by his own ability to read words, and then sentences. He loves the lessons on nature and science, math and music. As he grows older, however, the child becomes a teenager, then a young adult. In this process of high school and college, the young man develops some boredom with the school which soon develops into complete apathy. Perhaps there were some difficulties with lessons for which he did not seek adequate help. Perhaps he resented having to sit in the classroom on a nice day. Maybe he grew weary of the effort good education exacted from him. Whatever the reason, he begins to routinely skip class. When he does occupy the chair, has not done his homework, and therefore cannot participate or contribute to the discussion. This feeds his indifference and contempt.
Slowly he has convinced himself that the school is not all he thought it was as a naive child, and part of the way through college, he drops out completely. Since he has rejected the education offered him, he returns to the kind of depraved existence he was rescued from as a baby. He still considers himself an alumni of the school, but often refers to it with sarcasm. The school which offered him every opportunity has become the butt of his most vicious jokes.
A sad story to be sure. Not only for the young man, but for the benefactor who paid his tuition all those years. Even if you figure on the low side of $10,000 per year for 12 years, you are looking at a $120,000 pricetag. That is a lot of money spend gratuititously by a stranger, rejected and scorned.
In this parable, the young man is all of us, in varying degrees. And the school is the Church. Let me explain.
The Church is the means by which Jesus desires to save all men. It is not an add-on, a place to come “do” Christianity or a set of artificial beaurocracy set in place by white-bearded old celebates. She is a living, growing organism. So much so that we call her the Body of Christ. This is a metaphor in a certain sense, but is more literal than we give it credit for. We are all part of Jesus himself when we are in the Church. That whole thing Jesus told Peter about the gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church and sin being bound and loosed? As Catholics, we believe it. The Church is a gratuititously free gift from Jesus to us, an ark which brings us aboard out of our sin and depravity through our Baptism.
So, like the young man, we are saved through Baptism, snatched from poverty and nurtured with Sanctifying grace. But she does not stop there. The Church is the meeting place, over two millenia, of the best and brightest minds of civilization. The saints nurture us in our understanding of Truth, and through their holiness invite us to delve deeper into the mysteries of God. It must not be forgotten that all these brilliant folk are not moved on their own power, but by the Holy Spirit who guides and inspires their thought and virtue. Perhaps most importantly, what they teach us is not primarily academic. They teach us about what it means to be human, how to live in right relationships and most importantly, what is our final end. They lived the drama of human existence with heroic virtue and offer to tangibly help us along our own path.
These same saints paid for this education of ours with their suffering. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. This is not exactly the same reality as would be seen by a country’s military, however. We owe our existence as a free nation Washington’s men, and our continued unity to Lincoln’s, and our freedom from Nazi’s to the brave men of World War II. Christian martyrs, on the other hand conquered only themselves. They do not seem to be doing anything, really. The Romans were not immediately overthrown from the grace released by the Christians they burned as torches to light the outskirts of the city. Evil appeared to have triumphed. And so it is in every day and age that the workings of Christian martyrdom, bloody and unbloody, costs so much but pays out invisibly. This is precisely because it is offered in communion with the hidden sacrifice on Calvary.
This is the saddest part of our analogy. It could perhaps be conceivable to reject gifts and treasures of many faceless thousands of people (how easy is it to take advantage of the “government” or a “big corporation”?). But the primary donor that we reject when we treat the Church with contempt or indifference is Jesus Christ. A totally free gift, of tremendous magnitude, for our own salvation rejected, scorned, or perhaps just taken for granted.
So, how are we like the young man? Often as children we are open and excited about our faith. Perhaps that is what Jesus is getting at when he tells us we should all be like children! Often, though, when things get harder to understand we do not seek the answers to our doubts and questions as we should. Or perhaps we get “grass is always greener” syndrome, preferring to be more like our secularized peers who get to sleep in on Sunday mornings. Maybe we look as what is asked of us as Christians and find it too hard. Whatever the reason, our indifference begins to feed itself. If we are not continuing our religious education after Confirmation classes, we will not understand what is going on at Mass or why the Church teaches what she does on tough topics. Armed with misunderstandings and diminshed actual graces, it gets easier to “tune out” the faith. Some of us stay in this place, knowing there is good yet in the Church, but frozen against growing in virtue and love for God. Others will, like the young man, completely check out.
So what to do? First, we need to take stock, looking at ourselves in light of this story. What is it that gets you “stuck”? Sin? Confusion? Boredom? Those are fairly easily remedied through Confession, Eucharist and study. I can’t speak for everyone in parish ministry, but I know that I would much rather spend all day in dialogue with someone having difficulty with Church teaching than one minute handling registration forms! Seek out help in your parish if it is your questions that are keeping you away! Some of us are in the ark, in good standing with the Church, but just need an extra dose of gratitude for the great gift she is. In my theological study, I have found that every time I delve deeper into the mysteries of our faith, I marvel at it more deeply.
As we enter the back-to-school season, preparing our new clothes and supply lists and writing seemingly endless numbers of checks, let us step back and remember the great School we were enrolled in from our Baptism, and give thanks for that great gift.