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Our humble work can save the world, reform the church


Before we can talk about much of anything these days, we American Catholics have to acknowledge the two 800-pound gorillas in the room with us. And we have to admit that both of them will be with us for the remainder of our natural lives.

The first is the terrorist attacks of last Sept. 11 and their aftermath, including the war in Afghanistan and the current turmoil in Israel and Palestine. This gorilla has changed the world as we know it. No longer can we claim (if we ever did) that we are doing a pretty good job of bringing about the reign of God “on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus called us to do.

We have had to conclude that the world is less just and more fragile, complicated and threatening than we had imagined. We now know that we have to redouble our efforts -- on our jobs, with our families, in our civic lives -- to bring about a world where there is “liberty and justice for all.”

The second gorilla, of course, is the internal crisis in the church brought about by the clergy sex abuse scandal and its cover-up by some of our most trusted leaders. This is the No. 1 topic of conversation at our parishes, in the media, during gatherings of family and friends. Our sense of disbelief, betrayal, anger and disgust are palpable.

Here is the problem that we laity face: We cannot let one of the 800-pound gorillas distract us from dealing with the other 800-pound gorilla. We cannot allow our concern for the well-being of our church to keep us from working to “repair the fabric of the world,” as our Jewish brethren describe social justice. But just as critically, we cannot get so caught up in current world events that we ignore or abdicate our responsibility for what is happening inside the church.

Yet how are we to accomplish both monumental tasks -- saving the world and reforming the church -- especially while we must continue to go about our daily work of making a living, raising our families, keeping our parishes running and being involved in the ebb and flow of daily life?

The answer is as profound as it is simple. We must do the best we can -- no more, no less. The history of Christianity is filled with lay people “doing the best they can” in the midst of crises both societal and ecclesiastical. Most of us will not be called upon to lead the efforts to solve these problems or even to be particularly heroic in dealing with them, but we might be asked to attend a few meetings, express our opinion, sign a petition, volunteer to do something that needs to be done.

Mostly, we will be asked to go about our daily work as we always have, but with a new sense of urgency, a new appreciation that every single thing we do matters.

Wendell Berry, the environmentalist, writer and conscience of us all, once put it this way about saving the planet, and I believe the same can be said about saving the church. He said: “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.”

All of us -- laity, clergy, vowed religious, married couples, singles, parents, grandparents, young adults, children -- have a job to do. In fact, we now have two very important jobs to do. We have to tame a couple of 800-pound gorillas.

Let us do it the best we can.

Gregory Pierce is the co-publisher of ACTA Publications and the author of Spirituality@Work: Ten Ways to Balance Your Life On-the Job (Loyola Press). He can be reached at SpiritualityWork@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002