We are living today in a time of religious change. The past forty years or so have witnessed many changes in the life of the Church, and it seems rather certain that this millennium will witness many more. Living in the midst of it, we might suppose that all of this change is unique to our generation. But the truth is that religious change is nothing new. It is, in fact, as old as religion itself. You can trace it through the Bible from beginning to end.
Our Catholic faith was born in an atmosphere of change. Jesus went beyond the frontiers of thought and opened vast new regions of understanding. He refused to be shackled by the theology of the past or limited by the traditions of the present. This, as we know, put Him in constant conflict with those whose chief concern was the presentation of traditional religions.
Jesus changed a number of time honored traditions, and some people were deeply disturbed about it. This leads us today to examine what Jesus is teaching. For one thing Jesus is telling us that the outward expressions of religious faith and religious faith itself are not one and the same. They do not stand or fall together. Outward expressions change; customs change; rituals change. Religious faith abides forever.
Take for instance having altar girls serve at mass. The bishops of our country, in union with the Popes, gave permission years ago to allow girls to be altar servers. We have altar girls and altar boys serving at our masses – and rightly so. Some people like this change, and some do not. In fact, there is a subculture growing today who want to reverse this change – sad to say. But it will never happen. It is what the bishops along with the Popes direct us to do; and we know that this is the Lord’s church and the Lord still directs His church through the teaching body of His bishops.
In the scriptures we see time and again that the Pharisees could never have believed that the time would come when most of their cherished traditions would be gone and forgotten, while the worship of God continued on. And this is exactly what happened. Read the book of the Acts, and you will watch it happen. Christians started worshiping on the first day of the week instead of the last. For awhile, they observed the rite of circumcision, but eventually this ceased to be one of their religious practices.
Here we are today, worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; yet we practice few, if any, of the Jewish traditions. Religious faith is greater than and can be separated from its outward expressions. So have we the wisdom and courage to face the same fact about our Catholic faith? What about our own traditions? Are we not included among those who identify Catholic faith with certain ideas and customs, and then conclude that no one can be genuinely Catholic who does not hold to our ideas and observe our customs?
St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: “How deep are the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God. How inscrutable His judgements, how unsearchable His ways.” If we know that, if we ever understand how big this gospel of Jesus really is, then we will be less troubled by change and more patient with those of different opinions.