Humans have always made religion more complicated and confusing than God wanted it to be.
I'm a Catholic worrier. I worry that the brand of Christianity our parents and grandparents passed on to us was too complicated. It erected too many barriers between God and us. My childhood God, whose real name was Gotcha! was ready to punish me for every minor misdeed. Yet, I also worry that we post-Vatican II parents are passing on to our children an approach to faith that is too . . . simple. We've pared down the religious have-to's. Yes, we've knocked down some barriers that used to confuse our image of God. But, in the process, have we diminished the importance of solid faith conviction and a commitment to lives of Gospel service? Is my old Gotcha! God now so laid back that it doesn't matter any more what we believe or do?
What's a parent to do?
Judeo-Christian theology has consistently taught that God is a simple being. After all, God's self-proclaimed name in Scripture is I AM (Exodus 3:14). Historically, the collective we of humanity have found it difficult to accept the simplicity of the Divine Being. Prehistoric societies created elaborated systems of deities and idols. Over three thousand years ago, God gave the chosen people a set of Ten Commandments. Too few, they said and created hundreds of legal and dietary regulations. Each new rule blurred the true vision that we are made in God's image, not God in ours.
By the time Jesus came, Judaism had become bloated with complexity. So he set out to simplify our relationship with God again. He trimmed the commandments to two: love God and love others. Yet, the first Christian communities also struggled with religious legalities in trying to preserve the purity of the Good News. Should Gentile male converts be circumcised? Could the community of Jewish Christians allow Gentile converts to ignore kosher dietary laws?
Following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), every minor Catholic regulation seemed to take on equal importance to the core message that Jesus imparted to us. One of my favorite examples is found in the life of 19th century John Vianney, the Curé of Ars. This saintly priest gained renown as a wise and understanding confessor. Apparently, his homily preparation suffered from the long hours he spent in the confessional. Once, he accused the members of an assembly of committing multiple sins while attending Sunday Mass! Now that's an image. This story may be apocryphal, but I tend to believe it. Pre-Vatican II seminarians were alerted to an extensive list of grave sins they could commit while presiding at the Eucharist.
In 1961, Pope John XXIII thrust open the church's theological windows. He understood that the best of the Gospel of Christ would bloom in the sunlight (aggiornamento) of modern scrutiny. And he was right. Today, Vatican II remains a work in progress. With so much left to do in achieving the council's goals, this is an exciting time in which to live and engage in ministry.
But still I worry. With two daughters now in college, I wonder if our leaner brand of Catholicism has prepared them to move the church forward in this new century. Will they and their generation of young Catholics mature into committed believers? Will they make our tottering world a better, safer place for people of all faiths? I suspect that parents and others who guide today's youth in prayer, worship and Christian education have similar questions. We are challenged to keep the message simple and clear, as did Jesus and at the same time produce well-informed and active young Christians. When I bring these worries to prayer, God says, simply (of course), "Stay tuned."
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Alfred J. Garrotto is pastoral associate at Christ the King Parish, Pleasant Hill, California. He coordinates RCIA, bereavement ministry, and small church communities. He is also a published fiction writer. His most recent novel is I’ll Paint a Sun (Genesis Press). He invites you to email him with your comments at algarrotto.comcast.net and to visit him at www.blsinc.com/garrotto.htm and www.authorsden.com/alfredjgarrottohtm.