Up until COVID-19 hit nearly three years ago, I had been regularly serving meals at the local Union Gospel Mission here in Duluth. Two to four times a month I would go downtown to what seemed to be a totally different country to help those who were in need. Time and time again as I would leave the meal shift, I would ponder the reality of just how different a world it is for the people I served compared to the world I lived in just a few miles away.
|Father Richard Kunst
I can honestly say that serving at the UGM was some of the most rewarding work I have done in my ministry. Many of the people that came there for meals were just down on their luck, but most of them were either addicts or suffering from some mental illness. Despite that, I was always treated with respect and maybe even a bit of reverence. I always made sure that I was wearing my Roman collar when I went to serve, because I wanted the people to know that I represented Christ and the church to them. And I have to say that most of these people had a deep faith, even if their beliefs were a bit skewed.
Juxtapose this with my own family experience. I hesitate writing this, because it is a bit personal, and I do not want to make people in my own family upset, but in the spirit of calling a spade a spade, I have many nieces and nephews who are starting their own families. I have more great-nieces and nephews than I can count. And the vast majority of them have not been baptized. Though their parents were all brought up in the faith, the faith is not surviving to the next generation (with few exceptions), even among my own family, which I find heartbreaking.
Now, here is something sad and shocking at the same time: In the big picture, I would rather be among the Union Gospel Mission crowd than large swaths of my own family (whom I love dearly). There is a scene in the Gospel that appears both in Luke and in Matthew in which Jesus calls out the disbelief of three cities. The small villages Jesus names are Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, in which Jesus states that most of his “mighty deeds” were done. He says, “Woe to you Capernaum … if the miracles worked in you had taken place in Sodom, it would be standing today. I assure you, it will go easier for Sodom than for you on the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:23-24).
There is a message here that might be easy to miss, one that might even be a bit disconcerting, because it affects so many people. Jesus is making it quite clear that God is more tolerant of sin than he is disbelief. There is no name more associated with sin in the entire Bible than Sodom and its twin city Gomorrah, yet Jesus makes the point that at the time of judgment they would be better off than cities that simply did not believe despite having all the reasons to believe.
When I would go down to the Union Gospel Mission to serve meals, I knew that many of those people lived lives of sin and vice, but I also knew that most of their sins were likely sins of weakness, as opposed to sins of malice. We all sin, and hopefully our sins are mostly out of weakness. Human nature is prone to sin because it is a fallen nature. Sins of malice are hopefully not as common, but sins of weakness easily become traps that are difficult to escape; they become our vice.
When I see people in my own family and others who were brought up in practicing Catholic homes and then grow up to start their own families and not even baptize their children, let alone go to Mass, it fills me with sadness and frustration. On one hand, I think we have done a bad job in catechizing our young about the importance of baptism and faith, but on the other hand people inherently know the importance of both if they were brought up in the faith themselves.
Everyone reading this column has people in their families who have abandoned the faith. It is important to pray for them, and when appropriate encourage them in the faith in a way that does not come across as being judgmental — re-evangelizing the baptized, as it has been called. Seeing so many of my nieces’ and nephews’ kids not given the opportunity to have a sacramental life is tragic to me. As much as I love them, I would rather be in the group of my old friends down at the soup kitchen.
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].