“The end is near!” Our mental picture of a stereotypical street evangelist usually consists of a person standing in some public square and holding a sign with these words written on it.
In society’s rush to make fun of such a person, one awkward but critical fact is often forgotten: the end is near.
It is easy to live in denial of the truth that the world will end, and that it could happen at any moment. But our denial does not change the fact that it will end and that it could happen at any moment. As we approach the end of the Church’s liturgical year, we focus on the end of time and the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus. This focus continues during the first part of the season of Advent, which begins a new liturgical year.
We need this period of sharpened focus on the end of time, precisely because we are strongly tempted to forget it. At a time of God’s choosing, all of history will come to its definitive conclusion. It will be, to quote the ’90s rock band R.E.M., “the end of the world as we know it.”
To cite a more authoritative source, we profess every Sunday at Mass that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Just as each of our individual lives end in death, so will it be for our whole world. And we can’t say we weren’t warned.
Jesus goes into detail about the end times in this Sunday’s Gospel, and makes references to the end of time and his Second Coming repeatedly throughout the Gospels. And the other books of the New Testament, not to mention significant references in the Old Testament, deepen our understanding of the end times and heighten our sense of urgency about preparing for the end.
I would like to make a connection here to the Church, and particularly to our parishes. Here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, this Sunday marks the third part of our intensive reflection on what it means to "unleash the Gospel." We began two weeks ago by thinking about evangelization in the broadest sense, and then last week we personalized the mission of evangelization by considering how it applies to us as individuals and to our families. This Sunday, we move to our “family of faith,” the Church, and especially our local parishes.
Our parishes, among many other ways we could describe them, are what we might call “end times churches.” Such a name probably makes us think of cults, and we might rightly object that Catholics are not cult members! At least, we are not members of that kind of cult.
As the Catholic author George Weigel has often observed, however, “cult” is at the root of “culture,” both linguistically and in its essence. The Church exists at the heart of the human community. And one of the most important roles the Church plays in society is that of pointing beyond society, beyond the present day and the circumstances of our own time.
The Church is an “end times community” because she is a living sign that this world is not the ultimate reality. To put it bluntly, there is more to life than smartphones and foodie culture (note: I have a smartphone and enjoy foodie culture). There is more to life than making money or who won the latest elections. There is another world, a greater world, to come.
The Church is an “end times community” because she is a living sign that this world is not the ultimate reality. To put it bluntly, there is more to life than smartphones and foodie culture (note: I have a smartphone and enjoy foodie culture). There is more to life than making money or who won the latest elections. There is another world, a greater world, to come. And the wall standing between this world and that one will eventually and definitively fall down.
Even now, there are chinks in the wall, through which the light of the world to come is already breaking through. And it is in the Church, especially, that these chinks in the wall exist.
What is true of the whole Church is true, in microcosm, of the parish. Each of our parishes is a sign to our local communities that our true citizenship is in heaven, as St. Paul writes in Philippians 3:20. We do not live for this world. And God wants all people to join us in living for heaven.
Remember these words from Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14-16) as we consider the mission of our parishes:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
Each of our parishes shines with the light of heaven. We may think of them as ordinary places, filled with ordinary people, and in certain respects they are. But the presence of Jesus in our parishes and in all of us causes them and us to shine brightly in a world very much darkened by sin.
Here are five ways our parishes shine with the light of heaven, and thereby unleash the Gospel in the wider society:
1. Community — At a time when many people are feeling isolated and losing both their sense of belonging and of the meaning of their lives, our parishes offer genuine community, as well as a deep sense of purpose and meaning. And we build community (or, rather, God builds our communities) through a unique combination of prayer, shared ritual practices, the observance of various feasts and seasons, and formational and social events for people of all ages and walks of life. Even on a merely human level, there is no other group that offers exactly what a Catholic parish offers.
2. Conversions — While we are often preoccupied with the number of people abandoning the Church, we also have tens of thousands of adults who choose to be baptized or to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church each year in the United States. Each of our parishes has some share in this great blessing of new Catholics. Those who enter the Church give clear witness to the truth that this world is not enough. They show the world the truth of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that Jesus Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question.
3. Prayer — In a world of nearly constant noise and distraction, our parishes are sanctuaries of prayer. Particularly, when parish churches are open for prayer at various times during the day or night, people come to see the value of having a place to stop and spend time in quiet contemplation of God and their relationship with him. Plus, the presence of our parishes reminds our neighbors of our commitment to the Lord, that he is the center of our lives and that we happily dedicate our time, energy, and other resources to him and his Church.
4. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty — These three “universals” are present at each of our parishes, and are clear signs of the Kingdom of God in a world that has often substituted opinion and feelings for truth; convenience and pleasure for goodness; and efficiency and comfort for beauty. This time of unleashing the Gospel gives us a great opportunity to review what our parishes do well and what we need to improve on in showing people the truth, goodness and beauty of the Gospel. Do we share the teachings of Jesus and his Church without distortion, passing our Catholic faith on to a new generation of disciples? Do we show Christ’s love to all in need, with self-sacrificial generosity? And do our church buildings and grounds, our music and other elements of the Sacred Liturgy bear witness to the perfect beauty of heaven?
5. The Eucharist — If there is one thing people know about the Catholic Church, it is that she is a “Church of the Eucharist.” Pope St. John Paul II used exactly this description of the Church for the title of his 2003 encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. The Holy Eucharist, as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council teach us, is the “source and summit” of the Christian life and is more specifically the source and summit of evangelization. Catholics and non-Catholics alike know that the heart of any parish’s life is the celebration of Sunday Mass. At no time and in no place does the light of heaven shine more brightly as during Holy Mass. At no time and in no way are we more powerfully made like Christ and prepared for life in the world to come. By centering our lives on the Eucharistic Lord Jesus, we show our neighbors that we have a treasure and a destiny that are not of this world. And many converts to the Catholic faith have testified that it was the Eucharist, more than anything else, that attracted them to the Church.
It is often said that “life’s a journey, not a destination.” One of the keys to unleashing the Gospel in the Archdiocese of Detroit and beyond is helping people to see that life is a journey with a destination. God calls us to make this journey together, as pilgrims making our way through the joys and challenges of this world to the home he has prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.