Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
A liturgical composer once said, “The purpose of liturgical music is to help us inspire and expire together.”
He might simply have said “to help us breathe in and breathe out together.” But there’s a deeper intention at work. As we breathe in together, our deeper goal is to breathe in the Holy Spirit — to “inspire” — as one Body in Christ. And as we breathe out together, our deeper goal is to die — to “expire” — together with Christ and each other.
It’s a beautiful way to think of liturgical music: We’re practicing living and dying together in Christ. It’s also a helpful way to think about All Things New: We have the opportunity, these days, to live and die together as parishes.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote an essay titled “The Five Deaths of the Faith.” He noted that a remarkable pattern emerges in history: Christianity seems to die and rise again, over and over. Every time high culture is ready to proclaim the impending death of Christianity — and, to all eyes, in light of both numbers and spiritual strength, the prognosis seems to be right — Christianity rises again in surprising ways, with new and unexpected vitality.
What Chesterton notes is that we should have expected this if we really believe that the Church is the mystical Body of Christ! As he says, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
I won’t present the details of Chesterton’s argument here. I only want to draw one connection. What he says about the Church on a broad scale can also apply to parish structures: They’re bound to die and rise again. It’s what we ought to expect if the Church is the Body of Christ. In fact, if we read the Resurrection accounts carefully, we see something interesting: When Jesus rose from the dead, He was not immediately recognized by His followers. It was really Him, the same Jesus. But they had to learn to recognize Him in the new way His body was manifested to them. Parish structures work the same way.
At this point, I imagine someone might object: “Easy for you to say, your parish isn’t going to be affected.”
But, my friends, I’ve spent a good portion of my ordained ministry dying and rising. I was happy as a pastor in Baltimore! When I was made an auxiliary bishop, I had to leave parish life behind. I was happy as an auxiliary bishop in my home Archdiocese of Baltimore! When I was made bishop in Springfield, Massachusetts, I had to leave my home and family behind. I was happy as a bishop on the East Coast! When I was made Archbishop of St. Louis, I had to leave that life behind.
At each step I’ve had to let precious things go — and that’s a kind of dying. But at each step, I have also been given the grace to live more deeply in Jesus — and that’s a kind of rising. So I can tell you, from my own experience: Every dying holds an invitation to live more deeply in the Lord.
As we move into new parish structures in the coming years, I pray that we’ll be open to dying and rising in Christ.
We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus’ life and His mysteries and often to beg Him to perfect and realize them in us and in His whole Church… For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in His mysteries and to extend them to and continue them in us and in His whole Church.