We have just heard of Simon bar Jonah, to give his full name, professing his faith in Jesus as the ‘Son of the Living God’. This is then followed by Jesus giving Simon a new name – Peter, meaning ‘rock’ or ‘rocky’ in modern parlance – and explaining that on this belief the Church will be founded. Furthermore, Jesus will give him, Peter, the ‘keys’ or authority to be the Church’s leader or first Pope.
Peter’s declaration is that Jesus is not just a good or holy man, or an inspiring leader offering a set of values by which to live. He proclaims Jesus to be the ‘Son of the Living God’ i.e. as well as being an inspiring human leader, Jesus also is divine, sharing God’s divine nature as God’s Son.
It’s on this rock of Jesus as Son of God that the Church was founded and on this faith it continues today. So we might ask what does it mean, or should mean, in practical terms to belong to such a Church?
Here is the experience of Carol LaChapelle, a teacher and writer based in Chicago in the USA. I came upon her story three years ago and shared it then with the Holy Name congregation. Three years later it resonates with me all the more and I believe it is worth retelling.
At age 66, long divorced and childless, away from the church for almost 40 years, I was drawn to a Catholic parish just down the street in my Chicago neighbourhood.
This progressive parish was well-known throughout the city for its warm welcome of all kinds of Catholics: long-lapsed or lifelong practitioners; gay or straight; young and old; married or divorced; those with an unshakeable belief in God and those like myself who had never really known God. Or had known only the dark punishing God of their 1950s childhoods.
Starting in 2009 — and for the next three years — I grew to have faith in this particular church community, becoming an official parishioner, joining parish groups and committees, meeting some truly inspiring priests and laypeople. But my faith in the capital “C” Church didn’t come with it. Nor did I feel a deep understanding of, or connection to, God, Jesus or doctrine. Which is why when the recession forced a move to a more affordable part of the city, I gradually fell off the church wagon, and without missing a beat resumed my lapsed status. Then last year, on my 73rd birthday — All Saints’ Day, no less — I had a good old spiritual crisis. While wandering through a local nature preserve on that crisp November morning, I asked myself two pretty hard questions:
What’s your life been about so far? What’s it going to be about from this point on?
No images came to mind as I asked each question, just two pretty strong feelings: sharp regret on looking back, an empty vagueness looking forward. And so just three weeks later, I permanently ended my lapsed status and back to church I went, this time to a nearby parish known for its diversity and for being a little more traditional in its practices, and I went into the deep water.
This is where I am and this is what I’ve learned about growing old: Try as we might, most of us cannot avoid taking stock of our long-lived lives. We reflect on who we’ve been over the course of many decades: in our relationships, our work, and in the various communities that we both served and were served by.
For me, once back on my knees in church the first time, I finally realized how much I really needed a faith community, how lonely I’d felt over all those lapsed years without it. As if on my own I could be a more loving, patient, generous and forgiving person. As if on my own I could heal my own troubles and distresses, the innumerable losses and confusions.
More fundamentally, though, as I recently told a friend, I just did not want to be in charge of my life anymore, at least not solely in charge, especially of what’s left of it. Time to lay that burden down — or at least begin to share it. Or resume sharing it, as I’d begun doing in that first faith community eight years earlier.
This time, I needed to go even bigger, to reach beyond the welcoming embrace of the community and seek out the Source that inspires, guides and gives members their enduring values. I went looking for Jesus, the Source made flesh. Or as the hymn “All Are Welcome” has it, “Here the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space.”
The closure of our churches these past months has led many people to appreciate all the more what it means to belong to a welcoming, generous and supportive community, such as we have here at Holy Name. Without that sense of identifying, belonging and feeling wanted in such a community, the experience of being a Catholic in the universal Church would, I feel, be less meaningful or rewarding. Carol LaChapelle’s journey eventually led her to such a community. However, as we heard, she eventually found that participation in such a community was not enough – we need, she said, to ‘go even bigger, to reach beyond the welcoming embrace of the community and seek out the Source that inspires, guides and gives members their enduring values.’ This Source, as she names it, is what St Peter called the ’Christ, the Son of the Living God’ who is the Head of the Church and the Source of our life in it.
Holy Name, Jesmond
23 August 2020
For Pope Francis, successor to St. Peter, that the Holy Spirit will guide him in his ministry of renewal in the Church and inspiring us to greater love and service.
For migrants and refugees, especially those being accepted into our country, that God will help them to establish new lives and experience justice and respect in their new homeland.
For an end to the pandemic, that God will deliver the human race from the coronavirus, heal those who are ill, and inspire those who are developing cures or vaccines.
For all students adversely affected by the grading of their exams, that they may grow in wisdom and love, and that God will protect them from harm.
For all who are ill, including children receiving treatment in our hospitals, and for all who awaiting or recovering from treatment, that God will bring them healing, relief from pain, and sustain those who support and care for them.
For all who have lost their jobs and those facing financial difficulties, that God will give them hope, open new opportunities for them and guide them to the support they need.