I have good news and I have bad news and as is often the case when someone tells you that, the bad news is worse than the good news. The good news is that Catholicism is still the largest religion in our country, the bad news is that the second largest religion is fallen away Catholics. People who were raised in the Church and walked away. If you were with us on Holy Thursday, I shared with you another very scary statistic that came out about a month ago. For the first time in American history, more people in this country are not affiliated with a church, a mosque or a synagogue than are affiliated with a church, a mosque or synagogue. It’s not just that most people aren’t going to church, for the first time in American history, the majority of people have no relationship with a church.
You know we might be shocked when we hear that, but if we look at our own lives, it really shouldn’t surprise us. I don’t know about you, but I can look at some of my friends and some of my family and realize that they have walked out of the doors of the church and have never come back. They were raised in the church, but for one reason or another they walked out of the church and we have not seen them in years. As I’ve seen this with my own family and friends, I found myself wondering why and the reality is there is no one simple answer. When you talk to them they all have different answers, but if you summarize all those reasons, it is very simple, they did not find an encounter with Jesus Christ. For one reason or another, sometimes their fault and sometimes the Church’s fault, they missed that opportunity to have that life changing encounter with Jesus Christ.
You know as Catholics, it is easy for us to forget that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” So often our faith just gets reduced to a set of rules; do this and don’t do that and we forget that those rules are there to help us have that encounter with Jesus Christ. Most high school kids figure this out without knowing it. How many of us when we were that age asked our parents questions like, why do I have to go to church on Sunday? Maybe you even asked your religion teacher and they probably answered by saying “because the Church says so.” I know the Church says so, that is why I am asking the question. But why? It’s only when we begin to understand the why that we begin to realize that it’s not just a set of rules, that God wants us to have an encounter with Him, a relationship that will change our life.
Sadly, our faith can easily become like an insurance policy. None of us want to pay the bill every month for our insurance, but you we do it, because we don’t want to be caught without. How often is that our faith? We don’t really jump into it, we don’t really engage it, we just keep it on the sidelines in case we might need it at some point.
Now, don’t write the bishop or call him and tell him I am saying there shouldn’t be any rules. The rules are like a life vest, so that when it gets hard for us to live out our faith, at least we know where we are supposed to be, we can commit ourselves to following Christ. I’ve talked about it before so I’m not going to go deeply into it, but look you don’t have the game of basketball without rules, yet I know all the rules of basketball and I am the world’s worst basketball player. Just knowing the rules and following the rules doesn’t make you great, but if you don’t have the rules and you don’t follow the rules you can’t actually have the event. The same is true with our faith.
Did you notice today’s gospel? Here are the apostles, locked in a room. They have abandoned Jesus while he died, they have heard that Jesus has risen from the dead and they are locked in a room for fear that they will be killed next. Jesus comes to them and what does He say? The first words out of His mouth, “peace be with you.” He comes that we might have life and have it to the fullest. He comes that we might have peace and joy that only He can give.
You notice Thomas isn’t there the first time Jesus comes and so he doesn’t believe. He says unless I can put my hands into his side and into his nail marks I won’t believe. So, what does Jesus do? He shows up again and says peace be with you. He says to Thomas if that is what you need to do to believe then do it. My friends, you and I are given an even better opportunity than that. In just a few moments we will come forward to receive Holy Communion and we will hear that phrase “the Body of Christ” and we will respond “Amen,” yes, I believe. We don’t get to just touch Jesus, Jesus becomes a part of us. The challenge for us is to open our hearts experience Him. To allow Him to touch us with that peace and love that we all need and only He can give.
Everyone whether they realize it or not needs that peace that comes from being a follower of Christ. The problem is the world throws so much junk at us, that we are just comfortable with it. Maybe you experienced this at Easter where there’s all the candy and other sweet stuff to eat. I don’t know about you, but by the time I get to dinner I’m not hungry. I have filled up on all that junk and frankly the meal is great but for some reason I prefer the junk until later that night I begin to feel it and every year I ask myself why did I do that again.
The world fills us with all kinds of junk but the Church holds out that which provides us our nutrition, that which actually gives us what we need. My friends, Jesus came for us. He came life that we might have fulfillment. He wants us to have peace, a peace that only He can give us. This Easter season then is an opportunity for us to experience what those first disciples experienced, an encounter with the risen lord. Thomas, after he has that encounter is all in. He goes out and shares that message with other people and ends up losing his life over it. Thomas has that moment of conversion and the reality is every Catholic is a convert. Even if you were baptized as an infant there was a moment in your life where you had to make the choice to believe and then to say because I believe I will live my faith out whole heartily. All of us are converts, the challenge for us is to open ourselves up to that encounter with Christ and that alone will set the world on fire.
That’s how the faith spread in the early Church. The faith spread amongst people who couldn’t read or write, not because of great teachings that were offered but because people encountered Christ and lived it out. There were nor programs, there were no gimmicks, it was just people who encountered Christ and went out and shared Him with others. It was those who encountered Christ and had that joy and when others saw it in them they too went off and had that encounter with Jesus Christ. This Easter is a chance for us to have that encounter. Like Thomas we have seen the risen Lord. Now we have to be like him, to honestly admit that Jesus is our Lord and our God and to go out and allow others to see Him present in us. After all Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly, but we can only have it abundantly after allowing Him to give us that peace.
 The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Religious Landscape Survey. Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic February 2008. Available at http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf
 Karen Mahoney. Why won’t my kids go to church. Archdiocese of Milwaukee Catholic Herald. Available at http://catholicherald.org/special-sections/parenting/10172-why-wont-my-kids-go-to-church.html
 Jeffrey M Jones. US Church Membership Falls Below Majority for the First Time. Available at https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx
 Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est. §1, http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est.html