Our Church is dwindling – that is, our particular Church here in the United States: the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church sui iuris of Pittsburgh. We’re about one third the size we were in 1990.* There are also signs of diminishment in the Catholic Church in the United States as a whole.† And, indeed, in all of Christianity in the United States as a whole.† We're shrinking. Have you seen the numbers?
So, what can we do? Well, we can lie down and wait for death. That’s one option. Or, we can rise, take up our mat, and walk (John 5:8). In some ways, our Church is like the paralytic man lying by the sheep pool, who had been ill for thirty-eight years (John 5:2-5).
Incidentally, that is a long time to be sick, don’t you think? That is my whole life – I turn thirty-eight this year. That helps gives me a sense of how long this man had waited for Healing – my whole life.
In some ways, as a Church that’s been dwindling for about that long, we can identify with this paralytic man. Maybe we feel powerless as we sit here and watch our limbs wither. “What can we do about it?” we wonder. We blame others sometimes and shift the responsibility, saying, "I have no one to put me into the pool when it is stirred up” (John 5:7).
Meanwhile, we sit by the sheep pool of healing. And we watch others get healed. After communism fell, our own Churches in Eastern Europe experienced enormous growth. Our seminaries there are bursting at the seams compared to here. And for another example, the Church in Africa is growing by leaps and bounds. We’re talking more than five thousand percent growth over the last century.‡
Meanwhile, we shrink. We say with the paralytic, “While I am going [to the pool to be healed], another steps down before me" (John 5:7). We sit paralyzed by the pool and wonder who will put us into the water so that we too can be healed.
Well, Jesus is asking us, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6). Do we? Or, are we too comfortable as we are? Are we even aware that we stand in need of such healing? Or, are we so focused on our own problems, our own lives, our own parish, that we have no regard for the diminishment of our larger particular Church? Or even for the diminishment of Christianity as a whole across this nation?
Of course, we want to be healed, we say. Heal us, Lord Jesus! Descend upon us, O holy and life-creating Spirit, and give us new life and growth!
This is all well and good, but be advised, this healing and new life and growth may require breaking some of our own personal rules and dearly-held expectations (which are not to be confused with the commands of God).
For example, it was forbidden among the Jews to carry certain loads in certain ways on the Sabbath (John 5:10). This was a dearly-held custom or human tradition – part of the Mishnah around the Torah – but not the Torah itself.
It is worth recalling that Torah nowhere explicitly forbids carrying an item from one place to another on the Sabbath. Torah forbids work on the Sabbath. But what is work? Later Mishnah strives to answer this question. Mishnah developed to serve as “a fence around Torah”– to make it so that if a pious Jew follows Mishnah, he cannot come even close to breaking Torah. These are human laws built around Torah and not Torah itself. They’re good inasmuch as they bring the people closer to the Lord. But, Jesus above all has the authority to supersede Mishnah because he himself is the word of God before all ages and is himself the source of Torah.
So it is meaningful when Jesus, the Word of God, says to the man on the Sabbath, “Rise, pick up your mat, and walk” (John 5:8). And he doesn't just say, “Rise and walk.” The command to go against Mishnah – to pick up his mat – is a necessary part of the healing. It demonstrates the totality of his healing. He carries that which had carried him.§
If we as a Church are going to grow in numbers and find new life – if we are going to rise and walk like the paralyzed man – it is going to come with some violation of our own expectations. We’re also going to have to pick up our mat. God, as it so happens, is not obligated to fulfill our expectations. We are going to have to let certain things go – including things that we hold dear – maybe even things we falsely regard as central to our faith, our mission, or our identity.
Really, these things are idols. Any good thing can become an idol in our heart once we allow it to distract us from God rather than bringing us to God. Our teeth are good for chewing the bread of life. They are good things. But if one of them begins to decay irreversibly, at a certain point, it causes nothing but pain and becomes a hindrance and distraction rather than a help. At this point, the thing to do is extract it.
I know better than to start giving examples. And I know that there are idols in my own heart that need to topple, too. So, let's each of us in our own hearts consider what our own idols may be, which are distracting us from the divinely mandated purpose of evangelizing this nation and growing this Church.
None of us can do everything, of course. But each and every one of us can do something rather than nothing. Maybe some of us are already doing all we can, but let none of us be complacent. Let each of us prayerfully consider what we are doing to help the Lord bring healing and growth to this Church. Let each of us listen in our own hearts to the Spirit’s inspiration guiding us to new life for this Church. Through us, if we will let go of our own will and seek the kingdom of God instead of our own agendas, the Lord will restore the Church’s withered limbs so that she may begin to walk strongly in this nation.
* Eastern Catholic Statistics
† Rapid Decline of Christianity in the U.S.A.
‡ Why the Church is growing in Africa
§ Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 171.1