Today’s Gospel features a significant question from Jesus, one that always serves as a personal challenge to me. He is quizzing his followers about who people say he is. They provide answers. However, Jesus pushes them further and his question becomes about who they say he is. “But who do you say that I am?”
I always read that line with an imaginary bold-faced you. I believe that Jesus is addressing that personal question to Peter and every believer, each one of us included. Jesus is more-or-less putting each of us on the spot. He is asking for a commitment.
We do not have to be part of any Christian denomination to make that commitment. It’s a personal thing that often has nothing to do with church. But most of us live out our faith in the context of a church community. And that is often where difficulties can surface. Our personal response gets tied up with other issues in the life and governance of the Christian community.
It requires strong faith and courage to stay committed to Jesus in the context of the church today. The sinfulness of its structures and many of its leaders is glaringly evident. There are plenty of reasons to simply walk away from church. I’ve read numerous pieces in recent years, written by women and men who are asking the question, can I remain in the church, in spite of all that has been exposed?
Numerous colleagues and friends have asked me that question. To be honest, I’ve been asked that area most of my forty-three years as a Jesuit. I’ve never had a standard answer. My response depends a lot on the present situation in the church and my own life situation. I suppose that the response – both to myself and to others – is ever-changing.
I offer spiritual direction to several people from the millennial generation. Several have commented on the fact that they have known nothing except crises since they could understand what was happening in the world and the church. Involvement in the church seems intertwined with scandal – sexual, financial, governance, clericalism, duplicity, the news of residential schools, etc. Their peers are amazed that they have a desire to spend time with church and with their own spiritual life. I think that it requires tremendous stamina and personal faith to live their spiritual lives in a way that differs from their friends.
I am absolutely certain that if I had a personal experience of being abused by a member of the clergy, I would have walked away from the church and never looked back. I can understand and accept the pain and anger of the many women and men who have suffered abuse or being ostracized.
I am aware that I am a white male priest. Surely, by my very gender, colour and position, I am part of the problem. I’m not sure what I would do if I were a woman. I can understand why women would walk away from church. I’m always surprised that so many choose to stay and to be involved with the life of the church.
Jesus’ probing question challenges me to keep asking why I remain committed to my faith in Jesus. I hope that my service in the church can help people to find freedom and hope with their life issues. But who do you say that I am??