The Catholic parish in a time of violence

By Bishop W. Shawn McKnight

Over these past few weeks, we have seen many serious, sad headlines and news stories reflecting a growing disrespect for the dignity of human life.

Every day, there is news about the suffering of the people of Ukraine who are fighting against an unjust and merciless aggressor. Russia’s deliberate targeting of non-military targets and other atrocities violates the basic secular standards of a “just war,” let alone our Christian principles. For this reason, the community of nations is responding with material support for Ukraine and sanctions for Russia.

Within our own country, we seem to be in an epidemic of mass shootings, with so many innocent people killed, leaving entire communities in deep pain. Simple, daily activities like going to a supermarket in Buffalo, or to school in Uvalde, or a hospital in Tulsa are now associated with scenes of carnage. While the root causes of these recent tragedies are legion, society has every obligation to improve gun safety as prudence would dictate.

And as we patiently await the Supreme Court to overturn nearly 50 years of mandated legal abortions in every state, we will soon find debates close to home about where to draw the line between private, individual choice and the right to life of the little “somebody” already present in the womb.

Some, including the Supreme Court, have been wrong before about the dignity of all human life, as when slavery and racism were legally protected and enshrined into law.

It is a sober fact: Whenever we disregard the dignity of any class of human beings, we impoverish our own dignity and the bonds that hold our nation together suffer.

The laity, with well-informed consciences, must prudently judge the specific steps to limit, if not altogether eliminate, the means and opportunities for violence against innocent human beings in our world, nation, and local communities. Justice and the natural law demand it.

While the Catholic Church has every right and obligation to speak to the political issues of our time and to be clear about what our faith teaches, it would fail in its mission if its clergy reduced its sphere of concern to the political.

Preaching from the pulpit in a manner that condemns those who are wrong and does little to provide hope for the fallen only exacerbates this diminishment. We are a Church of relationships, through which the grace of God extends to the poor and brokenhearted, especially in our celebration of the sacraments.

As the chief pastor of the Diocese of Jefferson City, I have a responsibility to address the spiritual sickness which is at the root of the growing violence around us.

It is hard to fathom the internal motivations one might have to kill the innocent. Confusion, disillusionment, and despair come to mind. But whatever the motivation and wherever it comes from, the parish can and should be the place in which people are taught and shown the dignity we all have as God’s children.

Pope Francis described his dream for the parish as “the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration” (Joy of the Gospel, no. 28). Accordingly, our diocesan pastoral plan called parishes to prioritize becoming centers of charity and sanctuaries of mercy, where those who are in need may experience help and support, not condemnation and rejection.

We have some work to do in this area, however. Our listening sessions for the synodal process surfaced that even some in our pews do not feel welcome. Their reasons are various; some find themselves to be judged because of circumstances of their lives, others feel they are invisible, hiding in plain sight in the pew.

The more our parishes can be true communities of welcome and hospitality, the more we will fulfill our mission to proclaim the Gospel and the more our society will be healed from its underlying spiritual sickness.

I am heartened by the many good things our local church in central and northern Missouri is already doing to counter the throw away culture and foster an integrated pro-life witness.

Our Catholic Charities organization is actively supporting immigrants and refugees from war and continues to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and educate those from broken families.

Many Catholics support and work for the Vitae Foundation and other organizations, which support a culture of life by providing a pro-woman approach to reach those struggling with an unplanned pregnancy.

Many of our fellow parishioners belong to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, developing their own spirituality through their personal interactions with the poor in their local territories.

As we face the turmoil of our times together, I pray that our parishes going forward may manifest the culture of life that our world so desperately needs by teaching and healing with the hope we have in the grace of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.