For some reason (it must have been creeping boredom after eight months of social distancing), I remembered having read a striking article in our Rochester diocesan Courier. It was titled: “Romantic ideal is missing in religion.”
You can see why I was intrigued. I remembered having copied the article — it was definitely worth saving! — and I dearly needed to re-read it. I went through the usual search process, looking in all the logical places it might have been. No luck.
Then several days later, pop! There it was in some raggedy file. The article, published in February 2004, was written by Father Ronald Rolheiser, Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate. Father Rolheiser is the author of many books on prayer and the spiritual life. Their titles match the spirit and flame of this article such as The Holy Longing, Sacred Fire, Wrestling with God, and others.
In the Courier article, Father Rolheiser was exploring why our churches were “graying and emptying.” He readily dismissed the Conservatives’ reasoning: “the intoxicating power of secularity, … a pampered culture that has lost its sense of self-sacrifice, rampant individualism, [and] the sexual revolution.”
Liberals had other ideas on the subject. They blamed “the breakdown of the family, a church out of step with the culture, a church too rigid, too patriarchal, … too much consumed with its own agenda … etc.”
Rolheiser offered a startling alternative: “We’ve lost a romantic ideal … We’ve no idealistic fire left.” After these many months of social distancing from friends and the Sacrament, this seems particularly valid. Even so, Rolheiser shows a healthy respect for theology, knowing that sound theology provides the necessary balance to the passionate love that moves and attracts believers. And really, isn’t this what our Lord Jesus taught?
“I have not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” (Matthew 5:17)
And how is the law to be fulfilled?
“A new command I give you: Love one another.
‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)
What a different approach to worshiping God!
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
Father Rolheiser boldly writes:
What we’re lacking is fire, romance, aesthetics . . . What needs to be inflamed today inside religion is its romantic imagination, and this is not so much the job of the theologian as it is the job of the saint and the artist. We need great saints and great artists, ideally inside the same person.
We can find these qualities in persons such as St. Francis of Assisi who drew thousands, – no, millions, to a passionate union with Christ. This was not because of a brilliant mind, but by a humble demonstration of a powerful and self-sacrificial imitation of Christ in the Gospel.
Rebuild my church.
Francis took this command literally, but soon realized what he was really meant to accomplish. Yes, the law, the rules, are necessary as they prepare the soil to receive the holy seed. But they are not meant to override the command to love, to forgive, to accept.
Rolheiser ends his article boldly with these words:
“Without vision, the heart doesn’t know where to go; but, without romantic fire it doesn’t want to go anywhere, least of all to church.”