I am almost home - I hope. For the last month, my reflections have been about a pilgrimage I made with some seminarians, a colleague and a few friends. Over eighteen days we wen about five thousand miles by bus stopping at shrines, cathedrals, and basilicas in seven countries and twenty-two cities as we made our way to Madrid for World Youth Day and back. Our pilgrimage which began in Krakow also ended in Poland at Jasna Gora with Mass in a chapal next to Our Lady of Czestochowa on her feastday. Today, everyone is home, I think, except me. I am waiting in Toronto after having had to re-book my flight. Believe it or not, here in this busy airport is my first chance for solitude and silence in a long time. Being almost home helps me remember that although the earthly pilgrimage is over for now, I am still in the middle of a spiritual pilgrimage - that together we yearn for our heavenly homeland, our true home where we are awaited by those who most love us.
Part of our pilgrimage took in the great achievements of our faith in art and culture, and part of our pilgrimage was about understanding the ways in which the Church fell short of her mission. It is as if we forgot that we are not at home in this world and became to at home with worldly power and honor. Pettiness and bad judgment always result from a failure to remember one's true purpose. It is sobering to call to mind that despite great achievements we always remain capable of deviating from the mission entrusted to us by God.
Briefly, when Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the Church began to enjoy not only spiritual power for the salvation of souls but also had to deal with different forms of worldly power. Social institutions were formed to take care of the poor, the sick and the widowed. Then when the empire fell, the Church hierarchy and the monasteries became the only providers of social order and culture. At the same time, the seduction of worldly power sometimes poisoned pivotal decisions. Normally, the end was good - a society ordered to God. Mistakes usually involved the means used to achieve this -- faith cannot be compelled by violence or fear without harming human dignity and destroying the very foundations of Christian culture.
Faith in fact has the nature of a proposal - something that requires freedom in order to be properly embraced and lived. It is only a power not of this world which produces it in the heart, a power that is shown forth in the weakness of the Church rather than her earthly glory. In many cases, it was not until the Church lost its worldly power that the suffering and injustice such decisions caused could be more objectively evaluated. When during the Great Jubilee in the Year 2000 John Paul II asked for pardon from the world for the sins committed by members of the Church, there was a lot that needed to be forgiven.
Piety in America lives as a proposal with which each generation must wrestle. It has not given birth to the great monuments and cultural achievements we find in Europe, but it has its own dynamism which is vital to God's plan for the world. Although we believe in the goodness of people to use their freedom well, we also believe that those with power need to be accountable because earthly power and the human heart are subject to death - and so we do not put our trust in government or any unaccountable political power, even if that power were religious. When it comes to faith, although we desired no established religion and wanted a separation of Church and State, from the beginning Americans tended to see themselves as a pious people as dependent on Divine Providence as the Children of Israel entering into the Promised Land. There is both optimism and caution which lives in the American religious sense.
This paradox living in the heart of our history and national character is not fully understood by most Americans, and we risk losing something very important for our culture as a result. Our culture of personal liberty is built on it. In this paradox, the mission of the Church and the purpose of government have a chance find their proper place so that human freedom and God's love can come together in our society.
This is why America, for all its struggles with materialism and temptations to arrogance, has a deep piety that still informs its culture at times, especially when it comes to personal liberty. The mission of the Church involves service to the piety which informs this liberty. It is a service of truth. In America, the Church must work to be a vital voice in the public square which contributes to a just society. Yet it is not a voice of earthly power as it once was in Europe. This frees the Church to be the voice of conscience America most needs. Is there a model here which points the way forward in post-Christian countries which need a new evangelization today? Whether this is so or not, this collision of freedom and faith which American democracy and the mission of the Church make possible is what helps America point to something beyond itself: it is what helps me remember our true homeland.
A note about America's caution regarding religious institutions. It is not the Church as such that American's distrust - yet every religious organization is made up of people and it is the tendency of people to abuse power of which Americans are rightly wary. It is a humble part of the American character which sees that the desire for earthly power is a dangerous force in the human heart. Something inside us wants to make a name for ourselves and if we do not humbly allow ourselves to be held accountable by God and those He gives us - well, we soon find ourselves intoxicated with our need to be in control at the expense of another's freedom. When we have not submitted this to Christ in our service to the Church, such psychological forces can influence the kinds of decisions we make for even the most noble of causes.
It is not a bad thing for the earthly power of the Church to be limited - in our weakness the power of God is made perfect. Sometimes, so that we do not get carried away by the pride of life and forget that we are meant for something much greater, God strips us of earthly honor and influence. When He humbles us, it is to remind us about what is really important. Earthly power is meant only to protect and promote human dignity - it is not something we should be at home with. This world and the power we find here are not big enough for our hearts - we are made for something much greater. Here, we are only almost home - Someone with a host of angels and saints, the family of God, awaits us with love at our true home - so that every homecoming only anticipates something even better.
So sitting in Toronto's airport waiting for my flight - I am almost home, but even when I get to Denver and find myself at home telling stories about this adventure with my wife and children, we will still only be almost home. Something about being with our friends and family anticipates our true homeland in a beautiful way. But there is something even better waiting for us, something which every other homecoming signifies and points to. We are meant to care for our earthly home so that those entrusted to us and who come after us can learn to love, so that they can find God. Our true home, however, is found only in Christ to whom every knee must bend and every head must bow, on the earth and under it. The pathway to this heavenly homeland is faith - a road traveled by the truly free who by truth know how to love.