Getting a hold on religion and its practices is deceptively simple. Children eat up little devotions with delight. No problem. But, as we age, we begin to get critical about things of religion, and sometimes extremely so. We have such high expectations.
But, as the saying goes: "corruptio optimi pessima" (corruption of the best is the worst). The clergy sex abuse crisis epitomizes this, and moves it way past the standard criticisms of yesteryear about the pastor drinking too much or driving around in his expensive cars.
There is a way, however, of handling this ambivalence we have toward religion, and traces of it are found in today’s scriptures. Hopefully it can lead to that wholesome sign of being an authentic Catholic when we can take our lumps with our successes, much as we do with our own families, whose histories are not always something we want to parade around.
For example, the prophet Ezekiel works hard today at rehabilitating the good name of the temple in the city of Jerusalem-a temple that has had its ups and downs in the recent past, overrun by the enemies of the Jewish people, confiscated, disfigured, desecrated. But Ezekiel skips past this sordid past and notes the glory of the Lord coming out of the east, entering the temple and announcing that this is where He intends "to dwell among the Israelites forever".
Jesus does a better rehabilitation job on Jewish religious institutions than even Ezekiel does. First, He lets us know that He is not happy with the conduct of the ruling religious authorities among them: the Scribes and Pharisees. He becomes almost sarcastic in describing their antics, all of which are designed to amplify their religious standing among their fellow-Jews. But He has an answer for all this, which is not to abandon Judaism, but simply to do what they say, but not imitate what they do.
But, more importantly, He moves to a positive note, obviously the remark that He really has in mind: "The greatest among you must be your servant—whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Jesus knows how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Much of this is brought closer to our own day in the memorial we’re celebrating today of St. Pope Pius X, who died just as the First World War was getting underway. Pius X had a "feel" for the religious needs of his day, on the part of Catholics hesitant to approach communion more than once or twice a year, as well as confession/reconciliation. Thanks to his effort, this was quickly turned around, and we today benefit by his intervention in a desultory practice. At the same time, Pius was a doctrinal purist and was quick to dislodge any traces of unacceptable interpretations of tradition, such as the then current modernism. He came down hard on such people, perhaps too much so. But we survive the ups and downs of our religious heritage, certainly more enriched than impoverished by the riches available to us.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.