Father Dwight Longenecker
Searching for St. Utopia's
But eventually the bubble of St. Utopia's bursts. It turns out the pastor is not what he seemed, or some scandal erupts. People rush to put out the flames, but then all the dark, pent up feelings emerge. The higher they flew, the harder they fall. The bigger the bubble, the bigger the bang when it bursts.
The scenario I have described is the typical dynamic of cults and sects. It's how they work. The group psychology is weird and sick and yet it abounds in many churches and organizations, both Protestant and Catholic.
Why does it exist? Because we have an addiction to the quick fix, the instant solution, and the magic wand. It is easier to join St. Utopia's than to climb the long, lonely road up the mountain to heaven. It is easier to join St. Utopia's for an instant nirvana fix once a week than it is to achieve holiness. It is easier to trot along to St. Utopia's than it is to face our inner demons and the faults and frailties of others. It's easier to believe in the Disneyland happiness and harmony of St. Utopia's than to get on with the dirty work of living the life of sacrifice, forgiveness, sanctity, and faith.
The bottom line is that if a church or fellowship seems too good to be true . . . it's too good to be true. It's fake, and the sooner you realize it the happier you'll be.
What's the antidote? First of all, get your expectations right. Your church is filled with flawed people just like you. Expect more sinners than saints and you won't be disappointed. Expect your pastor to have blind spots, serious personality flaws and weaknesses. Expect him to have bad days, disappointments, communicate poorly, and be selfish. He's a work in progress too.
Secondly, don't expect your local church to be your everything. Get a life. It's great to worship every Sunday—indeed every day at Mass. It's great to say the Divine Office and the rosary and all the devotions you like, but then remember to get up and get out into the world. Religion is there to help you a shining witness in the world, not just a refuge from the world. If your church experience is too warm and cozy you might be tempted to stay there. Don't. Get out and get involved in the battle that is the truly spiritual life.
Thirdly, don't play weird psychological games with your pastor or anybody else. Don't imagine that he's going to solve your problems for you. Don't imagine that he is your Daddy who is going to give you all the love you need. Maybe he's a great preacher or a good confessor or a wonderful social worker. Great. He's not the only one. Look past him to Christ for whom he stands. Don't pretend that he is either better than he is or worse than he is. Accept him and put up with him as much as you can; after all, he's trying hard to accept you and put up with you, and if you have a pastor who seems like God's golden boy—don't believe it.
Fourthly, if all that sounds cynical and suspicious and mean-spirited, it isn't. It's just being realistic. Learn to love the church and her people warts and all—like God does. Be solid and steadfast. Be loyal and loving. Be reliable and responsible. Be mature and hard working. Be prayerful and powerful. Love and laugh and serve and sing. Be yourself. Live the gospel with joy.
Finally, if you have been on a search for St. Utopia's remember that "Utopia" was written by a martyr—St .Thomas More—and no one's more realistic than a martyr. Thomas More knew that "Utopia" means "Nowhere." There is no St. Utopia's. There is no perfect church, and if you think you've found one you're under an illusion.
Soon after I became a Catholic someone asked me if I liked being a Catholic. I answered, "No. If I were choosing a church that I liked I'd still be an Anglican. I didn't choose the Catholic Church because I thought it was the perfect church, but because I thought it was the true Church."
So in your search for a church, choose truth—even if truth hurts.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is Catholicism Pure and Simple. Visit his blog and sign up for Faith Works! his free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith here.