To whom shall we go?

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Elise Italiano is co-writer and co-curator of the Catholic News Service column “In Light of Faith.” Italiano is the founding executive director of The Given Institute. (CNS photo/courtesy Elise Italiano)

“Should I stay or should I go?” It’s a question that has been on many Catholics’ minds in the wake of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. From op-eds to podcast interviews, many Catholics – even those who never could have imagined asking that question – have either entertained it as a passing thought or are seriously weighing their next steps.

In a September 2018 column, Jesuit Fr. Matt Malone, president of America Media, wrote:

“When I was first appointed editor-in-chief, I often said that the most important question we would face in the years ahead would concern ecclesiology, that field of theological reflection that seeks to answer the question, what is the Church? I still think that today, mainly because someone’s answer to the question of whether to stay in the Church will depend, in large measure, on what he or she thinks the Church is.”

His reflection came to my mind on the First Sunday of Lent, when we paused from the regular liturgical sequence for the rite of election. Once a year, catechumenates preparing for baptism and those preparing to enter into full communion with the Church come forward to affirm their intentions. This year at my parish, seven adults and their sponsors stepped forward.

Every year, without fail, my eyes well up at this rite. I find myself repeatedly overjoyed that adult men and women continue to find the Lord Jesus and join his church. What team doesn’t want a deeper bench? Their witness inevitably moves me to renew my own commitments and to express gratitude for the gift of the Catholic faith.

But this year, saddened and frustrated by the abuse crisis and the still-to-be determined accountability measures for leaders, I reflexively found myself asking: Knowing everything there is to know about the Catholic Church – and some of its worst sins have been on full display – how are they able to say, “Yes, I want to be a part of that”?

Their decision is obviously countercultural. It’s no secret that increasing numbers of adults are disaffiliating from institutional religion. And when looked at from a purely sociological or secular angle, it’s arguably counterintuitive: A new Gallup Poll released in March revealed that more than a third of Catholics have questioned whether to remain in the church in the wake of the crisis.

Many Catholics, frustrated and hurt, have been trying to provide answers to the question Fr. Malone posed: What is the Church? In an attempt to salvage weakening faith in the institutional Church, some have chosen to emphasize the Church as the people of God over the hierarchy. Others are shifting their focus from Rome to their local parish.

The reality, though, is that the Church is all of these things – a community, an institution with a hierarchy, the mystical body of Christ. And it’s both human and divine, which makes the delivery of grace messy.

I think it’s fair to say that it’s going to take the faithful who remain quite some time to interiorly integrate all of these models again, but it’s a necessary step just the same. There’s no denying the “rock of Peter” reality of the Church.
How do the catechumenates and those preparing for full communion see the Church? Surely every person’s reasons for entering will be different. But it’s a safe bet that those who have gone through RCIA this year are moving forward with their eyes wide open.

Then again, Lent is the perfect time to move through that kind of discernment, whether as a catechumenate or a longtime Catholic.

The Passion narratives leave nothing to the imagination when it comes to the weakness of Jesus’ closest followers and the frailty of the church’s members. But the Resurrection narratives – and the boldness of what follows in the years after that event – should give someone every reason to join or to stay with his or her feet firmly planted.

In these uncertain times, one thing’s for sure: The Church will be stronger after the Easter Vigil when it welcomes its newest members than it was the day before.

Elise Italiano Ureneck, associate director of the Center for the Church in the 21st Century at Boston College, writes the “Finding God in All Things” column for Catholic News Service.

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