On Sunday I headed to Mass with my parents where the new pastor of their diocesan parish introduced himself to the eager congregation. He skillfully utilized a story about growing up with “boat people” here in the Seattle area to offer a little background on his upbringing and simultaneously make a point about the day’s scripture readings. His mother is a life-long sailor, and met his father, a football player, when he came to her for sailing lessons at the university recreation center. When they married they bought a “fixer-uper” on the lake so sailing could continue as a regular part of their lives together. Consequently, this pastor grew up on the water, “rowing before he could walk.”
He recalled that the first thing his father taught him about sailing concerned steering. “Figure out where you want to go and pick a spot in that direction on the horizon,” his father instructed. “Steer the boat in that direction.” Trouble arises, he explained, when things distract the sailor from that far-off guide-point. When this occurs one’s steering shifts, thinkingly or unthinkingly, and the boat will quickly veer off course. “We must, as Christians, keep our eyes on that right spot in the horizon to ensure that we’re steering our lives in the proper direction,” the pastor exhorted.
As I continued to ponder his illustration after the liturgy, it began to reframe an issue I have been grappling with for a couple weeks now. At the end of July my friend Dan over at datinggod.org and America reported that Pope Francis had formed a “ground-breaking lay committee.” The committee “will have broad, unprecedented powers at the church’s highest levels” he explained. Dan’s commentary illuminated the significance of this reform within the Vatican: “This move marks a significant change in the way that the Vatican power structure had been previously organized”—a change that empowers lay people, satisfying (at least in part) an enduring hope among many who rally for anti-clerical church reform.
Yet, amidst my excitement about the symbolic capital of this committee, I found myself distracted by a number of nagging doubts. “I wonder if there will be any women on this committee….” This was one of the first thoughts I had upon the news of the committee. I would learn that there is one female committee member. “Just one?” As I read the comments on Dan’s posts, another disappointment arose. Someone observed that there is only one committee member from outside Europe. “Just one?” I found myself asking again.
Even as the virtual comments about this committee echoed doubts I had already named or disappoints that quickly resonated when I read them, they bothered me. They bothered me, and have subsequently led me to reevaluate my own response to this good news from the Vatican: Why is it that disappointment is one of my first responses to this good news of reform? Why is it that negative observations about this committee ring much louder in my mind than points of appreciation? Why am I so vulnerable to being distracted by the shortcomings of Vatican happenings, even when I am confronted with such positive signs of reforms? Why do I so quickly render this reform a failure of some sort?
These comments bothered me because the shortcomings of the lay committee seemed to garner more attention (from me, and from many others) than its apparent gains. I thought about this after the homily this weekend. The pastor’s sailing image poignantly presents Christian life in terms of orientation. It invites us to consider whether we are headed in the right direction, generally—whether we are on our way toward the proper destination, a destination that is always ultimately out of reach. It invites us to consider whether or not we respond to the happenings of the world in a way that keeps us oriented toward God.
We can consider this as individuals and as a church community: As an individual, I suspect that my doubt and disappointment can distract me at times from hope in the world and my church. Pessimism about the Vatican distracted me from encountering good news with hope—the kind of hope that is so central to a Christian orientation in life. It distracted me from recognizing that the Church may be changing, moving—oriented in the right direction. And in fact, my pessimism may distract me from participating in the movement of the Church.
That is not to say, of course, that one is misguided in recognizing and responding to the shortcomings of the church. We are a pilgrim church, a reforming forming church, and we must work toward a more Christian life together. However, it is tempting as a Catholic to be distracted by the endless shortcomings of the institution and the people who make up our church. (Likewise, it is easy to be caught up in one’s own personal and perpetual failings as a Christian). This orients us toward our failings rather than the orienting point in the horizon—a point we will never reach but nevertheless steers us in toward better life together.
Attending to the shortcomings of our community is imperative to staying the course of Christian life. My struggle as a Catholic (and I suspect I’m not alone) is learning to tend to our personal and communal failings without being so consumed by them that I shift my gaze and the direction of my life toward them alone. In order to move in the right direction, we must fix our eyes on the guiding point that will lead us toward God and a more holy life together.