Cardinal Blase Cupich

Democracy, like discipleship, is not a done deal

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

Let me begin with two stories.

Recently, a woman told me that after her father died, she found a letter he had written to his wife on the 13th anniversary of their marriage. He told his wife they needed a “fresh start” and recounted the struggles that they were having. 

The daughter was shocked to learn that her parents, who seemingly were happily married for more than 50 years, experienced moments in which their marriage was in jeopardy. Yet, after thinking about her own spiritual life, she realized that we are naive to think that we can reach a plateau in our relationships and can coast along.

Life is not like that, she noted. If it were not for the failures we would never hear God’s call anew, develop and grow.

Years ago, Archbishop Fulton Sheen told priests during a retreat that he got to a point in his life when his fame as a public personality was leading him to believe that he had mastered what priesthood was about. An experience marked by personal failure and shame brought him back to reality.

One day, while visiting a leper colony, he decided to give each person a rosary. He came upon a man whose hand was eaten away totally by the disease. The archbishop was so repulsed that he just dropped the rosary onto what was left of the man’s limb and walked away.

Shame quickly rushed over him for being so insensitive. He quickly went back and took the rosary from him and placed it in what remained of the leper’s hand, holding on to it to let the man know he was close to him and wanted to share his suffering.

In that moment, he reminded himself why he became a priest: to share in the sufferings of others, or as St. Paul wrote, “to make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”

These stories come to mind as we take up the Gospel of Mark in this new liturgical season and hear repeatedly how the disciples are slow to learn and only gradually come to understand the meaning of discipleship.

It is a Gospel that puts on full display how human life involves a series of failures, setbacks and breakdowns, and yet also teaches us that the fear of failure and sin should not paralyze us. Instead, such moments are opportunities for coming to a new awareness of or new awakening to the meaning of our lives and relationships.

Each of us should keep this truth in mind, as we look at the spiritual landscape of our lives. But so must the entire church.

We have more than enough examples of breakdowns in the Catholic Church, to the point that we can become paralyzed about our future. Throughout this year of Mark, the Word of God will summon us to a new awakening, to hear in our setbacks, failures and breakdowns the call to follow Jesus again and to be the church and community of faith that he wants us to be.

When we look around our world today, we see dispiriting, even shocking failures and breakdowns. Think of the pandemic. Think, too, of what transpired in our nation’s capital on Jan. 6. What was meant to be a peaceful transition to a new administration was imperiled by a deadly assault the Capitol, and indeed, an assault on democracy itself.

These events represent setbacks and institutional and societal failures. And still our faith invites us to hear God’s call to build up the common good and to make a fresh start. If we do that, we will remember who we are, and who we are called to be.

Democracy, like discipleship, is not a done deal. We have to work at both, and recapture what they mean by learning from setbacks and discovering something new about who we are.

The Christmas season has passed and we have entered Ordinary Time, with the reminder that setbacks are part of ordinary life.

We also begin this season with green vestments, suggesting that as we come together in these dark winter days, we should keep our eyes on the new springtime that God is always preparing for his people. Let that be our hope as we begin a new year and a new era for our nation.