There is a famous story in Christian tradition that tells of Saint Peter fleeing the persecutions in Rome during the first century to avoid his immanent death. Along the road, he encounters Jesus who is walking the other way, toward the carnage. Peter asks Jesus: “Quo Vadis?” which translates from Latin “Where are you going?” Jesus replies that He is going to Rome to be crucified again. This response gives Peter courage to remember his commitment, return to his mission, renew his battle against grave obstacles, and reunite with the Lord knowing that he will suffer because of it. In Holy Week, as we reflect upon the final walk of Jesus’ earthly life and contemplate our own journey and cross, we would each do well to ask ourselves, “Quo Vadis?”
I wonder what we, the Catholic Church, are walking away from today and what it is that we’re walking towards. Some staunch Catholics believe that a vast majority of members are walking away from sacred rituals passed down over 2,000 years, walking away from structure and discipline that keeps us close to God’s laws and teachings, and, therefore, walking away from God. Others believe that the institutional church has become so out-of-touch with God’s people that it is walking in the wrong direction, that it is concerned with many laws but often bypasses the law of love that Jesus presented us, that it is more concerned with corporate compliance than with hearts that yearn for Christ’s mercy and compassion. If it is true that the church, represented by the first pope in this legend, has taken a path opposite Jesus’ will, it must be our fervent prayer that we encounter Christ along the way so He can inspire us to turn around and face the fear and errant decision-making that causes us to flee.
“Quo Vadis?” is an important question for each of us to ask as we, individually, reflect upon the passion of Jesus, and an important question for us to ask as a community of believers. Most of us are part of a parish. The majority of parishioners and churchgoers are part of the 7% or so that will always remain faithful to the institutional church, according to Bishop Robert Barron’s analysis, while the minority are part of the 82% that are disenfranchised (11% of Catholics are so far gone, he says, they will never return). The 82% love the church as much as the 7% but believe that the church is walking away from Christ’s core message in favor of institutional protection and self-preservation. For some Catholics, it is confusing to know which direction to travel.
After the pandemic lifts, all Catholics will be invited back to church, but many may not return. I suspect this has to do with the comfort we have felt in not being obligated to attend Mass in person and also with church leaders not being courageous enough in facing challenges in our society with Christ-like responses. Though people of all age groups find the church—its worship and teachings—to be markedly irrelevant, millennials and the Gen Z cohort are impacted most. They don’t, for the most part, understand or value the church’s differentiation between civil marriage and the sacrament of holy matrimony—why one union can be blessed by the church and the other cannot. They don’t care for the church’s explanation that homosexuals are created in the image and likeness of God in an intrinsically disordered fashion and therefore deserve the dignity afforded every human person yet also condemnation for expression of their sexuality. They don’t appreciate the church’s promotion of orthodoxy when Jesus was among the most unorthodox church leaders in history. They don’t like it when ecclesial leaders focus on one life-issue while seemingly ignoring others. Their list is long, but it essentially boils down to not understanding why the church that has been errant in many past instances—from Copernicus to Galileo to Inquisitions to Crusades to slavery to capital punishment to the pedophile crisis—can’t simply say, “We might also be wrong now, but we’ll lead by following Christ’s example the best that we can.”
Their list is also held by the 82%, and it should be held by all. We should peruse it when we ask: “Quo Vadis?” Doing so will help us, as a church, to discover whether we are going in the direction Christ has mapped out for us. And if we’re heading in the wrong direction, let us be given the grace to recognize Jesus along the road; He can inspire us to turn around and meet the challenges we ought to face.