Here is how a Doctor of the Church, Pope Saint Leo the Great, described the meaning of the Ascension to believers: “The truth is that the Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity. A more mature faith enabled their minds to stretch upward to the Son in his equality with the Father; it no longer needed contact with Christ’s tangible body, in which as man he is inferior the Father. For while his glorified body retained the same nature, the faith of those who believed in him was now summoned to heights where, as the Father’s equal, the only-begotten Son is reached not by physical handling but by spiritual discernment.”
A visiting priest offered an interesting metaphor during his homily for the Feast of the Ascension at our parish. He said that when Christ ascended, He took the training wheels off the Apostles’ bicycles. He let them know that it was time to ride on their own. He promised to send a helper to them, and ten days later the Holy Spirit descended to guide the apostles, and the rest of us. Christ’s ascension tells us that we can ascend to heaven the way he did, if we follow His teachings. Today, He needs us to complete His work here on earth, with the Holy Spirit as our guide.
Since Thursday, I’ve been thinking a lot about training wheels and bicycles. It occurs to me that there is another way to extend the priest’s metaphor. For those of us who were raised Catholic, adults put training wheels on our bicycles when we were children. In some cases, those training wheels were broken—a lousy priest, a substandard Catholic elementary school, or a misguided parent installed them. But you know what? Those adults did the best they could.
Whenever I encounter a cradle Catholic still ruminating over difficult childhood experiences in the Church, I think: Don’t let those ghosts from the past affect how you live your faith now. Take your training wheels off. I don’t mean to minimize the experiences of any children abused by trusted adults. I truly cannot imagine their pain. But even then, I would say: Don’t let the damaging actions of a wounded person affect your own connection to our Creator.
If I could talk candidly to every lapsed Catholic (and there are millions in the United States alone) I would say: Learn—again or for the first time—about what the faith teaches. Forget whatever negative experiences you might have had with flawed human beings you have encountered in the Church. The people who make up the Catholic Church can be wounded and petty, but so can every other person on this rotating rock we call home. The Catholic Church is a supernatural institution that exists in space and time, and beyond those dimensions.
To be sure, many adults do wonderful jobs guiding children in the faith. When I read blogs by Catholics like Julie Cragon and Sarah Harkins, I sometimes get pangs of jealousy, imagining what a loving parish community they were surrounded by as children. From what I’ve read, their paths of faith were smooth—from positive experiences of faith as children to mature faith lives now as spouses and parents.
That wasn’t the case for me and tens of thousands of others. Like many baby boomers, I’m the product of a miserable parish CCD program of the felt-banner late 1960s and 1970s. I never learned a thing about Church history, or the Communion of Saints, or the Doctors of the Church, or the Liturgical Year, or dogma about Our Lady, etc. As a young adult, I never fully left the Church, but I certainly was erratic in my practice of the faith. At times, I found going to Mass stifling, dull and “irrelevant.” The sad piece is, I didn’t even understand the basics beliefs and traditions of the faith to comprehend what I was rejecting. What drew me back to the Church was opening my heart to the innumerable experiences and people within the Catholic Church that the Holy Spirit kept sending my way, like a drumbeat on my stubborn soul.
To those of us who did not have wonderful childhood experiences in the Church, I propose that we think of those Catholic childhoods as a time when we were riding bicycles with training wheels. Our parents, our teachers and our pastors put the training wheels on. They hoped and prayed that one day we would be able to ride on without them, with the Holy Spirit as our guide and Heaven in our sight.