A lifelong commitment to following Christ does not guarantee a pristine, error-free life (nor, sorry to say, a pristine, error-free newspaper). It is a commitment that must be consciously renewed, over and over, in times of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. But it is also a commitment that has to start somewhere — and from my experience, it starts with a moment of transformation. The recent passing of Father Chuck Gallagher, the Jesuit priest who popularized the Marriage Encounter movement in the United States, recalled to mind a life-transforming moment that set into motion my own full, active and conscious (though far from perfect) commitment to Christ and Church.Father Gallagher also developed the Parish Renewal Experience, based on the Marriage Encounter model, and designed to encourage a deeper, longer-lasting commitment to faith and church — i.e., to serving one another, which is not what I signed up for when I participated in a Parish Renewal weekend in Lent 1984 at St. Didacus in Sylmar.The structure of the weekend would be familiar to anyone in Marriage Encounter: a series of reflections and presentations, followed by quiet individual reflection and writing, followed by sharing (with your spouse in Marriage Encounter, or in small groups in Parish Renewal). The process isn’t easy; serious and honest personal reflection — and a willingness to share just as honestly with others about the place, the depth and the effect of faith in our lives — is not how many of us care to spend our time.And, in fact, I had signed up the previous Advent with my wife for a Parish Renew weekend, only to become ill (food poisoning, I think, but perhaps mixed with needless trepidation). My wife, and others, found the weekend not simply eye-opening, but faith-opening as well. “You would get so much out of it,” she told me, in a way that suggested, “Please don’t miss the next one.”So on this Lenten weekend, I gathered with a couple dozen other parishioners in our parish hall. Our pastor, Father (now Msgr.) Peter Amy, was the presenter, and his low-key demeanor and presenting style set me at ease. The content of the presentations — not so much.The questions we reflected on were, indeed, challenging. Among them: “Where am I being irresponsible as a Catholic? In what specific ways do I need to reconcile with my fellow Catholics? What are the biggest changes I need to make to be more Catholic to my fellow Catholics?” After each one, we sat quietly, wrote our responses, then shared those responses in groups of five or six. We were invited to listen to one another with respect and acceptance, and without judgment. I learned quickly that this weekend wasn’t about “getting the right answer.” It was about finding out where you were on your journey with God, and I quickly realized that my journey was just getting started — and all the clever words and phrases in the world wouldn’t make the journey go faster, or easier, or more comfortably.But amid the sharing and the challenges and the discomfort, I heard Father Amy say something about the Catholic faith that I had never heard anyone say:“We are the body of Christ,” he said. “We are a community of believers. We are the people of God, building the kingdom of God on earth.”We. We are the body of Christ. We are a community. Being Catholic is not a “me and God” relationship, it is “we and God.” Us, all of us, in it together for life — on earth and in heaven.Wow. Even now, I tremble just a bit when I hear those words, but in 1984 I shook with amazement, and with gratitude. At that moment, I began to realize that all of my life, without really being aware, I had yearned for a place, a community, where faith and humanity came together in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And here, not only here in Sylmar, California, but here in this time and this place, was what I had been seeking.From that point forward, there was no question in my mind that I would be a Catholic all of my life. Yes, there would be challenges and disappointments; there would be people (including Church leaders, ordained and lay) who would aggravate and exasperate. There would be times when I would do likewise (and not simply as a newspaper editor). There would be times when I would wonder and worry and despair and even question. But there would be no turning back. We are the body of Christ. We are a community of believers. Those words transformed my life, and they guide me to this day. We are not perfect. We struggle mightily sometimes. And on some days we seem far from who God calls us to be as builders of his kingdom.But with faith and in community, we persevere, believing that Jesus walks with us, that the Blessed Mother prays for us, that a loving God waits to embrace us — if only we, as a community, can continue to serve one another. And if each of us, as individuals, is open to the transforming power of faith.Transformation: How and when did it happen to you?One measure, maybe the best measure, to determine the effectiveness of Sunday liturgy is the degree to which its participants are transformed. That does not necessarily mean, “Come in liberal and leave conservative,” or vice versa. Rather, “Come in comfortable and leave unsettled,” or, “Come in despairing and leave hopeful,” are more in line with what an effective liturgy is all about — especially, of course, if we are inspired, at liturgy’s end, to go forth to love and serve one another.How many of us, though, are open to transformation — at liturgy or any other time? Are we so certain of our own beliefs, so ensconced in our own positions, so convinced of our “right-ness,” that we have no room in our hearts, minds and souls to receive anything that might alter what we believe? Are we, rather, of the mindset that proclaims, “I will do as Jesus teaches, as our Church teaches, but only if it fits with the way I believe and think and feel”?Or are there times in our lives when — at liturgy or elsewhere — we truly have encountered someone or something that caused us to, at the very least, take a step back and reconsider what we believe — and perhaps changed our way of thinking and believing, and even our way of following Christ? In other words, have we experienced a transforming moment, or a series of moments? How were we changed? Are we open to transformation?This weekend (Sept. 21), we celebrate the feast of St. Matthew, the tax collector-turned-disciple and evangelist, who experienced firsthand the transforming power and love of our Lord Jesus. While your own transformation experience may not be as profound, as Matthew’s, we nonetheless invite you to share that with us in The Tidings.You are invited to respond, in 200 words or less, and send your replies to [email protected], or mail them to The Tidings, attn. Mike Nelson, 3424 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010. We will publish as many responses as space permits.
Mike Nelson is the former editor of The Tidings (predecessor of Angelus).