Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

The Church as parable

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Sundays of summer have us listening at Mass to stories called parables from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. They are parables of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus in his preaching ministry. They need explanation because they are often marked by paradox. They speak of a pearl of great price, of mustard seeds, of wheat and weeds, of a super-generous sower of seed, of nets thrown into the sea and catches of fish. Jesus spoke in parables for two reasons: because the meaning of the story was not immediately self-evident, the parable was a way of engaging people and making them think anew about what is most important; and because some were going to reject the Gospel and Jesus himself, so he deliberately taught in a round-about way that he knew would confuse them.

The great parable of the kingdom is, of course, Jesus himself. He both reveals God as his Father, whose home is the kingdom, and “hides” God behind Jesus’ proper humanity. In this way, God does not force anyone to believe but draws everyone to himself through the goodness and truth of his incarnate Son, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ identity is not immediately self-evident. We know him because God gives us eyes to see through faith and ears to hear what God has done to reveal himself. Love, as Pope Benedict often says, always respects freedom. Parables are instructions that leave us free to respond.

Since the church is the body of the risen Christ extended in space and time, the church is the sacrament of God’s kingdom. She is the sign and community that God uses to tell the world who Christ is until he returns in glory. But we know that the church is sometimes a clear sign of God’s kingdom and sometimes a very confusing one. As the parables tell us, wheat and weeds both grow in her. The pearl of great price remains hidden in the ground. The net sometimes breaks as the fish are hauled into the boat. Even on good ground, the seed of God’s word sometimes has a mixed reception and bears fruit less than a hundredfold. But the church, like Christ himself, remains the necessary means of the world’s salvation.

I often say that we speak too much about the church and not enough about Jesus, but the two cannot be separated. Many stories about the church today report institutional decline, and there is truth to them. Seldom noted, however, is that the church is in decline mostly in societies and countries that are also in decline.

In the archdiocese, catechetical ministry is strong, as are the programs for preparing deacons and lay ecclesial ministers. Many parishes are flourishing and are truly innovative in their ministries. Schools are being systematically strengthened. We will be making a special effort this year to tie young people to the church more closely. We have talented and dedicated priests, religious and deacons. We have families that are true schools of sanctity. Catholics are generous to their parishes and the archdiocese as well as to Catholic Charities and its related institutions. There are grave problems, and the aftermath of old sins and crimes will be with us for a long time to come; but the church here is a beacon to light the way to Christ, for those who want to see.

A recent statistical report on the Catholic Church in our country as a whole presents data that are the stuff of a parable, a counter-intuitive story. If the interpretation given me is correct, the Catholic population of the U.S. has increased by 75 percent in the last 40 years and by 50 percent since 1990 (the number of baptized faithful in the Archdiocese of Chicago has remained stable over the last decade at 2.3 million). Across the country, Mass attendance is up 15 percent since 2000, and contributions have increased by 14 percent in the last five years. Catholics sometimes leave the church during their college years and, later, because of their marital situation. At least half of those who leave join an evangelical church whose moral teachings are the same as those of the Catholic Church. The primary reason for their return to the church is hunger for the Eucharist.

The French have a saying that those who eat the Pope die of a stomachache. The last 20 centuries have been witness to that, and the 21st will be as well. Personally, from 1974 to 1986, I traveled to many parts of the world as part of my responsibilities as vicar general of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. I visited many dioceses and saw how poor people live and the church works in much of the world. Everywhere, even where she was hated or persecuted, the Catholic Church was a sign of hope, a parable of God’s presence, often in the midst of horrors hard to imagine. My country, however, was often the object of suspicion and distrusted as a source of oppression by these same people, sometimes unfairly. People knew who I was as a Catholic priest; they weren’t sure what I was up to as an American. Only when I returned to the United States were those convictions reversed: the Catholic Church was considered by many as a source of oppression and the country considered a sign of hope. As Catholics who are American citizens, we can help the church to flourish here as a sign of God’s kingdom. She will then act as leaven to create a society marked by fuller justice and greater love. That’s my hope and my prayer. God bless you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago