An Encouraging Word — Protect the fire, not the ashes

I am with you always. Matthew 28:20

Fr. Ron Knott.2012-wI always like this time of year when we read from the Acts of the Apostles, an album of snapshots from the early church. We have that beautiful passage about everybody meeting for prayer and the breaking of bread, sharing everything in common and attracting members every day.

But unlike most family albums which show people only at their best, the Acts of the Apostles is disarmingly honest and includes some not so flattering snapshots of the early church. It is a story of heroism, yes, but it is also a story of lying, betrayal, discrimination, fanaticism, name-calling and infidelity.

People who want to go back to some “good old days” usually engage in “selective memory,” picking and choosing what they want to remember. Idealizing some period in the past seems to be a typical reaction of fear-filled people going through the throes of dramatic change. Stuck in a desert between Egypt to the Promised Land, some of God’s people yearned for the “fleshpots of Egypt,” idealizing the slavery they had left behind.

The truth of the matter is our fidelity may wax and wane, but God is just as alive today as he has been in the past. The challenge today is to find God in the modern world, not look for him as if he retired sometime back in the 1950s. I have always loved Pope John XXIII’s insight in this regard. “Tradition,” he said, “is about protecting the fire, not preserving the ashes.”

When we were renovating the Cathedral of the Assumption in the 1990s, we were under a lot of pressure from groups who wanted to “put it back like it was.” The problem was, they didn’t know what they were talking about.

They were actually talking about the way it was after a 1910 renovation, not the way it was when it was dedicated in 1852. What we ended up with looks more like 1852 than 1910, but we chose, not one period of its history, but a marriage of “the best of the old and the best of the new.”

As pastor, I wanted to be about “protecting the fire,” not just “preserving ashes.” I made it clear that I wanted no part in turning our cathedral into a museum of 19th century Catholicism. I wanted a place where Catholicism was alive and practiced today. I wanted us to revitalize its traditional ministries in a way they would serve the needs of today.

The two enemies of the church, I believe, are those who do not respect its history and those who do not respect its developments.

Thomas Merton put it best. “Tradition is creative. Always original, it always opens out to new horizons for an old journey. Those who are not humble hate their past and push it out of sight, just as they cut down the growing and green things that spring up inexhaustibly even in the present.”

Indeed, “He is with us always.”

Father J. Ronald Knott

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