We need prophets to call out our broken institutions
A Reflection for the Memorial of Sts. Timothy and Titus, bishops
Find today’s readings here.
In his 1955 essay collection Notes of a Native Son, the writer James Badlwin made a pointed statement about the country where he was born. Writing as a Black descendent of slaves and as a gay man raised in the Pentecostal church where his father was a preacher, Baldwin warned his readers that “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
In his essays and novels, Baldwin was prophetic about the fact that America had not yet reckoned with what its history of human exploitation was doing to its identity as a nation, and how someday it would pay the price. As a man brought up in the Christian faith who had himself been a child preacher, Baldwin also knew the Bible intimately, and he knew the complications of trying to take the best from a church where he never really felt comfortable or welcomed at the same time that he tried to sustain his belief in Jesus Christ.
As Baldwin knew, holding institutions accountable means both being willing to see the people hurt by them as individuals, and to see the people within them who make mistakes as individuals as well.
When Jesus tells the disciples in today’s reading that a lamp should not be put under a bushel basket lest its light be hidden, I think Baldwin would agree that this is how many of us feel about the church with some degree of frequency. Or perhaps we, like Baldwin, might also feel that way about our nation, with its message of welcome engraved on its most famous symbol of liberty even as immigrants are daily turned away from its shores and descendants of slaves are the most likely people to be incarcerated. Or we might feel that way about the institutions we work for, putting profits above humanity, the bottom line before health and safety. We might believe in the idea of a country, workplace or church, but struggle with the reality.
Jesus, of course, knows this. And the Catholic Church can feel like it has over and over again hidden its light under a bushel. The statistic that three out of 10 American adults who were raised Catholic has left the church is a stark reminder that people are not finding a consistent source of light.
But this is why we need prophets, whistleblowers and those brave enough to call out our broken institutions. Jesus reminds us that “nothing is hidden except to be made visible, nothing is secret except to come to life.”
As Baldwin knew, holding institutions accountable means both being willing to see the people hurt by them as individuals, and to see the people within them who make mistakes as individuals as well. And many of us are still hanging on, trying to see the promise in our nation, our church, and in one another. “Take care what you hear,” Jesus reminds us, because “the measure which you measure will be measured out to you.”
Correction: A previous version of this reflection sent via email said that nine out of 10 Catholics will leave the church. This version has been updated to clarify that three out of 10 American Catholic adults has left the church.