A Call Within A Call for Renewal: Father John Gribowich Reflects on His Own Vocation and the Current State of the Church

April 26, 2021
Crisis in the Church

This is a guest blog by Father John Gribowich who is the co owner of our Catholic Worker Farm and a priest in the diocese of Brooklyn who is on his way to a life of monastic prayer at the Abbey of the Genesee. Father John is a former student of mine at DeSales University and also ended up living with us for about five years. He has become like an adopted son so I know him well. He is a gifted musician, especially on the guitar, and a huge Dylan fan. A truly great priest whose words of wisdom below should be listened to carefully. To meet him is to never forget him. His friends, who are legion, call him, simply, “Grib.” And so I present to you, The Grib.

Larry Chapp

Two years into my life as a Roman Catholic priest, I was asked by my bishop to minister with a Catholic media organization based in the diocese.  To prepare me for a leadership role within the ministry, I was directed to pursue an advanced degree that could better equip me with the skills needed for the position.  I was accepted into the Executive MBA program at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.  While it was an academically challenging program, I was blessed to broaden my horizons and make friendships that I will cherish for the rest of my life.  Not only did I learn tremendously about the world of business, but came to realize much about myself—my insecurities and shortcomings, as well as my strengths and resilience.  Most significantly, my time in graduate school increased my desire for the contemplative life.  One of the great advantages of being in the Bay Area was the unique opportunity to explore just that.  The physical beauty of the region combined with the prevalent “Zen attitude” of many whom I encountered drew me into contemplating, what Thomas Merton’s calls, the “hidden wholeness” found in specific situations and events.  (A book that I later produced of photographs taken during that time sums up my overall experience.)

The truth is that this was not my first time seriously considering contemplative life.  As a seminarian, I distinctly remember making a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and seeing myself as a monk.  I found this a bit odd, since I had been to many different monasteries before and the main motivation for my trip to Gethsemani was to see Merton’s hermitage.  Yet, being present at every liturgical hour of prayer with the monks made a lasting impression upon me.  I had a relationship with Gethsemani’s daughter house the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York since the late 1990s.  After I was ordained a priest in 2015, I would regularly make retreats at the Abbey, as well as spend time with the monks within the cloister.  While I was very much drawn to the monastic life, I had committed myself to the diocese and more specifically to work in the world of Catholic media.

By the time I concluded the MBA program at Berkeley in December of 2019, I realized that I could no longer put off the desire to formally explore contemplative life.  I was graciously granted by my bishop to spend three months as a monastic observer at Genesee.  During that time, I participated in the daily routine of prayer and work with the monks.  (The Abbey of the Genesee supports itself with a full-scale bakery that produces Monk’s Bread products.)  It was an incredible experience, yet it also provided me time to really understand what I would be sacrificing if I were to enter into the monastic community.

Then the pandemic hit.

Fearing that I would get “stuck” at the monastery when we all initially thought that the corona virus would wreak havoc for just a few weeks, I decided to conclude my observership a week early in order to return to my diocese and wait out the pandemic.  I must admit I was a bit excited since I thought that perhaps at this moment in history the Catholic Church could play a prophetic role in the midst of what seemed as the collapse of civilization.  It did not take me long to realize that that was not to be the case.

With public celebrations of the sacraments banned as well as school learning going virtual, I was convinced that we were entering into a dynamic new phase in the history of the Church and the world.  Yet, I found the urgency to get people back in the pews and students back in their desks somewhat uninspiring.  Now was a moment for Catholics to sincerely ponder what their relationship with Jesus Christ meant to them, especially during a time of great suffering and uncertainty.  Could it be that God was asking something from us that our institutional models were no longer providing?  Were we being asked by Him to become a vulnerable community?  Sure, we had Zoom and phone chains, which were essential during this time, but could this be a time for us to rethink what church should look like?  I earnestly prayed to understand what my role might be in this watershed moment.

It became apparent that my role could not be found within the diocesan system.  The push to get Catholics back to church and school in the name of “religious freedom” I found to be shortsighted, for the simple reason that it assumed that society’s deference to religion is something of importance to most Americans.  It simply is not.  Yet, it reveals how many in leadership positions within the Church are completely out of touch when it comes to understanding the role of the Church in the contemporary public square.  In a post-Christian world, the institutional influence of the Church is no longer relevant for the simple reason that there is no longer a Christian ethos embedded in the culture.  In other words, it can no longer be assumed that most people (and that includes Christians): (1) understand their lives as gifts from God with a purpose, (2) that what they are called to do by God can be discerned through prayer and by contemplating their experiences, and (3) that the things of this world can sacramentally point us to things that are beyond this world.  To use a concrete example, if it is widely accepted that people can choose their gender (and it’s not my place here to get into the legitimate psychology of understanding gender dysphoria), then there is not much left in this world that people cannot personally choose.  Thus, Protagoras’s claim that “man is the measure of all things” has triumphed and a human person’s relationship with God and nature is tangential if not outright non-existent.  As Fulton Sheen wisely said back in 1974, Christendom has died—and that includes the de facto Christendom enshrined in the American experiment.

Just before the pandemic, an excellent essay entitled From Christendom to Apostolic Missionwas published.  It was composed by a group of concerned and forward-thinking professors and students from the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND.  The essay asserts:

In a time of transition such as ours, we should expect that the pastoral and evangelistic strategies that have pertained for a long time under the influence of an assumed Christendom narrative vision will no longer prove as effective as they once did.  We should expect that many who have attended Mass because it was the conventional thing to do will stop attending and that those who have no real conviction about the truths of the Faith will be reluctant to pay a high price for those truths and will increasingly keep their distance.  There are many “hereditary Catholics” currently in the Church, who have sentimental ties to the way in which they were raised.  But sentimentality will not sustain a way of discipleship that will challenge them at every level of their being, nor will it sustain their faith when it brings them into conflict with those around them.  We ought not be cavalier about this or quick to quench the smoldering wick, however weak the flame has become; every soul, no matter how tepid, is of immense importance.  But the fundamental task of the Church, one that can get lost under a Christendom mentality, needs to be kept in view.

Yet this analysis is not something new.  The Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas has often stated that the greatest threat to Christianity is not atheism, but sentimentality.  Sentimentality highly personalizes one’s faith life and keeps it stuck in a particular moment in time.  Going back even further to the 1950s, the “golden age” of American Catholicism, Thomas Merton wrote in his book The Living Bread:

The great tragedy of our age is the fact, if one may dare to say it, that there are so many godless Christians—Christians, that is, whose religion is a matter of pure conformism and expediency.  Their “faith” is little more than a permanent evasion of reality—a compromise with life.  In order to avoid admitting the uncomfortable truth that they no longer have any real need for God or any vital faith in Him, they conform to the outward conduct of others like themselves.  And these “believers” cling together, offering one another an apparent justification for lives that are essentially the same as the lives of their materialistic neighbors whose horizons are purely those of the world and of its transient values.

Merton’s words are echoed in Larry Chapp’s recent commentary on the McCarrick Report and how it exposes the de facto atheism prevalent in the Church, which includes the clergy.

The “time of transition” mentioned in From Christendom to Apostolic Mission has now hastened since the onset of the pandemic and the last thing that the institutional Church should be doing during this time is “business as usual.”  Two examples come to mind as futile attempts on the part of dioceses to reinvigorate the post-pandemic Church.

The first is in the realm of Catholic education.  I began my career as a (lay) Catholic high school teacher and over the course of ten years I thoroughly enjoyed teaching theology, social studies, and creating ways for suburban students to meaningfully engage with the people and cultures of the inner city.  Yet, I was reminded during my time in Berkeley how misdirected Catholic education has become.  I often had discussions with a former student of mine who was also pursuing a graduate degree at Cal.  In the course of one of our conversations she confessed to me that she no longer held to certain fundamental teachings of the Church.  While I was not necessarily shocked, I was curious as to what she meant by “fundamental teachings.”  She mentioned that she no longer considered herself to be “pro-life,” or more specifically anti-abortion.  I thought that this was telling, since although the tragedy of abortion is an important moral issue, I would not consider it to be a fundamental teaching of the Church.  If she said that she no longer believed in the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, or the Resurrection then I would concur that she dismissed fundamental teachings.  To walk away from at least twelve years of Catholic education and equate a relationship with Jesus Christ as being simply against abortion (or beholden to some other moral teaching) speaks volumes of how ineffective Catholic education has become.  The reality is that you cannot fully understand, let alone accept, any of the moral teachings of the Church without accepting the fundamental truth that God loves us in our brokenness and sends His Son to embrace that brokenness.  Our moral decisions are in response to God’s love for us.  The more selflessly we live our lives, the better we convey our thanksgiving to God for a love that we do not deserve!

This encounter with a former student is not an isolated example, and I would surmise that out of all of the students that I taught, a very small percentage of them would consider themselves active Catholics.  This should not come as a surprise, since the narrative for the last 40 years has been that Catholic schools are safe and academically rigorous institutions that foster “values” (a word so broad and overused that it could mean absolutely anything) and pay personal attention to the “whole student” (another term that is seldom defined in any meaningful let alone existential way).  While all of this sounds nice, and maybe even well-intentioned, it does not explain how Catholic education is different than any other customized or privatized school model.  If students are not taught to (1) delight in the mystery of God, which is possible in every academic discipline, (2) understand that God has a purpose for each and every one of their lives, (3) realize that their mission in life can be discerned through prayer, and (4) embrace a sacramental life that widens a desire for an eternal (yes, eternal) destiny, then that Catholic school has no business being opened.  How is this done?  By administrators and teachers who actually believe and try to live the Christian claim.  This does not in any way excuse pedagogical incompetence nor does it simply promote pious platitudes, but affirms that a life in Jesus Christ is both reasonable and joyful.  Now I know a good deal of Catholic grade school and high school teachers and many of them are exceptional teachers and human beings.  However, I would also say that few of them have a clearly identifiable relationship with Jesus Christ (and they would be the first to admit that).  And, like I said, I am not talking about a Pollyannaish, “pie in the sky” notion of God, I’m talking about attractively witnessing to the reality that God understands our sufferings and that it is only in and though a relationship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ, that one can find freedom in the midst of suffering.

Another example would be the obsessive time and energy spent on maintaining the physical plant of the institutional Church.  In older dioceses especially, there are way too many churches and buildings.  All of these buildings were built during a time when there existed an organic need for them.  Immigrant communities scraped up nickels and dimes to build beautiful churches that rival most cathedrals.  And during a time when public education in the United States was essentially anti-Catholic, religious congregations founded and staffed elementary and secondary schools.  The simple reality is that the need for many of these buildings is over.  The “mission” of trying to re-populate large empty buildings is putting the cart in front of the horse.  The existence of parishes and other Church structures was the initiative of the laity, not the clergy.  Lay people wanted these institutions and the clergy responded accordingly.  Does any bishop or priest today even ask or reflect upon what type of community that an intentional Catholic wants?  (I need to ask myself, do I ask?)  I have heard from many of my lay peers that they are simply frustrated with the state of their parish and that they have resigned themselves to put up with the superficial nonsense happening in many of them simply because it is the venue to receive the sacraments.  Moreover, I have heard from more than one of my faithful—and I mean truly faithful—Catholic friends that “they are done” with going to their parish.  Words that I never thought they would say!  In light of this, I find it completely understandable why semi-practicing Catholics are happy to use the pandemic as an excuse as to why they no longer participate in parish life.  

The current state of affairs leads me back to my personal desire for the contemplative life.  Contemplating the limitations and shortcomings of the institutional Church has revealed to me where my heart lies.  I love Jesus Christ.  I love His Church.  I realize that my love for Him is a gift that I have been given the grace to say “yes” to.  And it is in the context of that love that I desire the contemplative life.  I am convinced that being, as St. Thérèse of Lisieux says, in “the heart of the Church” where one prays and sacrifices for the Body of Christ is the most efficacious way to offer my life.  Yet, it is reasonable for many Catholics to challenge a vocation to the monastery.  If I am so aware of what needs to be changed then why don’t I just work on “fixing” the Church within active ministry?  Am I not just giving up or taking the easy way out?  There is a simple reason.  Because I am a part of the problem!  The only reason why I can criticize the ineptness of the Church is because I myself have fallen into these stagnant “pastoral” practices.

When I was a Catholic high school teacher and a college adjunct professor, I know that I did not always witness to my students the sincere gift of the Christian faith.  I know that I often acted in ways that condoned aspects of the culture on the basis of trying to be cool and relatable.  While I cannot say that I approached my relationship with Christ solely in a moralistic or Puritanical manner, I have definitely let my neediness to be liked get the best of me.    

Additionally, as the current administrator of two small parishes in Brooklyn, I often feel that my job description is more of a museum curator than a priest.  (I’m lucky that I have a degree in art history!)  The magnificent buildings that are in the possession of the Catholic Church are paralyzing genuine pastoral ministry.  There is no need to have at least half of the parishes open in my diocese, yet the buildings themselves get in the way.  What to do with a closed church—something that is considered part of the “patrimony” of the Church?  I also realize that it is easier to take care of the physical plant than it is to take care of souls.  A priest can find a great sense of “accomplishment” in replacing a roof or fixing a boiler; journey with someone in his or her ongoing spiritual conversion, not so much.  Moreover, accommodating stale parish activities and ministries is easier to do than to deal with the noisy backlash from a small group of parishioners who constantly remind a pastor that “we always did it this way.”  

It is because I have directly contributed to the societal irrelevancy of the Church that I desire the contemplative life.  Contemplation has revealed to me how wounded I am and how much I have inflicted my wounds upon others.  I am caught up in materialism, the desire to be liked, the need to be right, and a selfishness and pride that comes from my insecurities.  Furthermore, I am constantly reminded of my many blind spots—especially when it comes to understanding people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and ways of life than mine.  In short, I desperately need the mercy of God.  Allowing myself to constantly face my sins and shortcomings as a monk facilitates the process of allowing myself to be healed in Christ.  And it is that personal healing that in turn helps to heal Christ’s Body, the Church.  Throughout the history of the Church, monasteries, religious orders, ecclesial movements, and prophetic voices are the things that have reformed and renewed the Church.  The hierarchy is by default conservative (not necessarily politically or theologically, although that is often the case) because its job is to conserve the earthly activity of the Church.  I cannot necessarily blame bishops, priests, religious sisters, as well as “professional lay Catholics” for conserving the structures—they are what they know and they have in a certain sense “worked” in the past.  Yet, there needs to be Christians who respond to a call—and it is a call, not necessarily a quixotic duty—to throw spiritual grenades over the institutional wall of the Church.  The holiness of the very institution is at stake.

I urge any and all intentional Catholics to look within themselves and identify their personal wounds.  Offer those wounds to Jesus.  Allow Jesus to love you through His wounds.  Then look into your heart and identify your desires.  Ask yourself how those desires might be a means of healing the Body of Christ.  How can you make up in your flesh what is lacking in the suffering of Christ (Colossians 1:24)?  In other words, how can the complete healing that only comes from the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ be brought to the People of God today?

Perhaps the following suggestions might help you get started:

  1. Connect with like-minded intentional Catholics that you or others know and form an ongoing discussion (either in-person or virtual) so that you may be able to collectively discern what you may be individually called to do.    
  2. Connect with or at least look into non-mainstream Catholic communities in order to see how the faith is being lived outside of the traditional parish model.  Check out: monasteries (here’s a listing of Trappist monasteries in the country); shrines (here’s an “ultimate list”); ecclesial movements (Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, the Catholic Worker Movement and the Tradistae website).  
  3. Connect with or at least look into non-Latin Rite expressions of the faith.  The Catholic Church is a big umbrella and we might not know what else is available within the Tradition.  Check out the Anglican Ordinariate (known for their beautiful liturgies and family-friendly communities) the various Eastern Rites of the Church, and the Black Catholic Messenger.  
  4. If you have young children, look into the classical education models and homeschool co-ops that are popping up throughout the country.  This can be the surest way of establishing an alternative community.
  5. Read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and see if you can relate to any of the ideas that are put forth.  Maybe it might lead you to an inspiration!
  6. Sign-up and regularly read Dr. Larry Chapp’s Gaudium et Spes 22 blog and discussion!

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