Often I sense that some of the persons who approach me around the city and elsewhere do not go to church and therefore are not part of any parish community. But they pray. If any of these folks were asked to define prayer, maybe they would be hesitant to do so, but they could. They may not be able to recite the age-old definition of prayer that some of us learned from the Baltimore Catechism, “The lifting of one’s heart and mind to God”, but using their own words, this description would most likely depict their time spent in prayer with the one who created them in love.
Recently, I’ve been wondering about these meaningful encounters and on a statement that I have been hearing and reading about, which is, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I am not completely sure of what they mean, but I sense it conveys, in their own way, on their own terms, for their own reasons, people are connecting with God without belonging to a worshipping community. This leaves me wondering….
How can I learn about God by myself? How can I come to understand anything about the very nature and essence of God’s action in history and in my own story apart from a faith community? How can I truly grow in my own spirituality and in intimacy with God without guidance?
The fact that we are by nature social beings seems to me fundamental in how we grow in relationship with God, others and ourselves; human growth and development happens in and through relationships that are both earthly and heavenly, and are reflective of both spirituality and religion. And so, I think spirituality and religion are not either/or realities, but essential components of a rich and growing faith life.
Religion is usually understood as a community of believers who gather and support common doctrine, teaching and tradition. Rooted in the testimony of those who, in the case of Catholicism, were witnesses of God’s loving revelation through the person of Jesus and to His resurrection, and the teachings and traditions of centuries past, members stand together to worship God and share their lives and resources one with the other in countless different ways.
Religion nurtures and shapes spirituality, and gives us the moral compass by which we can navigate ourselves personally and as a faith community, so that we may live fuller, meaningful, faith-filled, faithful lives. We are bonded to one another as children of God and as members of the Body of Christ and have a responsibility for one another that extends beyond those belonging to our own denomination. Religion challenges us to live moral, virtuous lives based on truth and not convenience.
And yet, there are fewer people going to Church in these times than in years past. There are lots of reasons for this, some of which truly give pause. I have profound empathy with the countless who have “Problems with the Church!” because these are really difficult times. I would not belittle or deny the troubles of this era. However, while my faith in all of us who “run” the Catholic Church may be shaken, my faith in the Church is not dimmed. For me to put aside my faith because of the difficulties of these times seems absurd. My faith sustains me in good times and in hard times.
God’s love for all of us is infinite—made present in Jesus and all that the Son of God taught and did in His brief life with us. The Church is the central act of Jesus by which you and I can know Him, and can find peace and hope. Praying within the Church completes us—brings us back to who we are and connects us to who we will always be. Praying for the Church and for ourselves, that we may embody the values and behaviors we long for in our Church, humbly recognizes the essentialness of calling on God’s grace to guide us in ways that are not self-serving.
The Church is never perfect because she is comprised of human beings. In the 13th century, Jesus called Saint Francis of Assisi to help rebuild His Church. Today we are called to do the same, rebuild, restructure, re-energize and be the Church we long for. In the prayer we know so well, The Our Father, we pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in Heaven”. When we offer this prayer, let’s believe God can do just that, and cooperate to make it happen.
Rev. James Ronan