We all have doubts. Why not let St. Thomas be our patron saint?
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:24, 25
The first church in which I served as a young assistant priest was the cardinal parish in my diocese, with attendance figures greater than the cathedral! If we had put a quota on membership in place in those days, I’m pretty sure there would have been a waiting list. The church held about 450 and there were numerous Sundays throughout the year when we set up folding chairs! Thirty-five years later, it’s a much smaller but still mighty church struggling to attract visitors and then retain them. I suspect that might seem like a familiar scenario to many who have been active in the church during that same thirty-five years. Too many church leaders, in my opinion, are willing to write those off as the unrealistic “good old days.” “They’re gone and there’s nothing we can do about it” is an all too familiar mantra these days. “Let’s just cut our losses and get used to the new normal.”
What’s so curious about those years of seismic cultural shifting is that the polling data did not change much regarding religion and spirituality. Gallup said that 86% still believed in God and in the value of prayer and nearly 60% were still willing to say that religion is important in their lives. Apparently, there is still sizable spiritual hunger out there. People really haven’t left the church. I think, if anything, it may be the other way around.
So, what does the church need to do about this disparity between belief and practice? How about for a start we just get back to the good old basic biblical principles like the ones expressed in the appointed Gospel for this Sunday?
Thomas has been singled out by the church over the years as though there is something wrong with him, while everyone else seems to get it. He has been called “Doubting Thomas,” as if that should be an embarrassment to him. St. Luke tells us, in his account of the Resurrection, that when the women came back to the apostles telling them that they had seen Jesus alive, they thought it was an idle tale. The fact is, that every single one of the apostles, as well as the women who broke the story, had the advantage of experiencing a resurrection appearance before Thomas arrived on that Second Sunday of Easter. Not one of them had to believe without seeing! We don’t always see it that way ourselves, do we?
Thomas missed an entry in his day planner, and he wasn’t there for the surprise visit by Jesus in the upper room on that first Easter Sunday. He arrives a week late, and the other Apostles tell him all about Jesus and how he has risen from the dead. Now I must ask, why should Thomas roll over and believe those ten Apostles who didn’t believe the women who were actually present in the empty tomb?
Before an argument can break out, the Risen Christ enters the room with locked doors, and after he greets them with “peace be with you,” I would ask you to take note that The Risen Christ’s very first act is to reach out to Thomas. Jesus reached out to the questioner in the room. What we have in this Gospel is perhaps the first Inquirer’s Class in the church. How well do we reach out to questioners? That would seem, from my reading of this Gospel, to be part of the Christian mission.
Over the centuries, the church has formulated creeds and codified doctrine. Whether intended or not, the church has given the impression that because we express our faith with one voice, we are all of one mind. Oh, if those Sunday visitors who have that impression of the church would only stick around long enough to get to know us better!
A five-year study by the Barna Group investigated the reasons why young people feel disconnected from the church. Among the answers was one that really caught my eye:
“The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.”
Even though we know that we struggle all the time with questions of faith, people on the outside often perceive us as being perfectly satisfied with where we are. If anyone wants to join us, that’s fine, but they feel they must leave their theological innovation in the narthex before entering! We in the church have somehow managed to give the impression to many that the church views agnosticism and atheism as synonymous. This, in turn, alienates people. They are afraid that if they do come, there’s a good chance that they’ll be given the label, Doubting Thomas.
We, the church, need to reach out to the those for whom Thomas is their patron saint, and bring them in. We need to let them know that we value their questions and their doubts. It was Frederick Buechner who said, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” I can’t tell you how many times over the years someone would come up to me after a class and say something like, “I had no idea I could believe that and still be called a Christian,” or, “I had no idea that I could have these kinds of doubts and still be accepted.” We must get the message out that Christianity is not the sum of its beliefs, Christianity is about maintaining a dynamic relationship with the Risen Christ! Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is where faith begins!
There’s a well-known story about a woman in her thirties who one day had an almost overpowering spiritual experience. It was the kind of spiritual experience many of us crave. It was as powerful as seeing the Resurrected Jesus reach out to you with his punctured hands.
The young woman felt a profound call from God in that experience, and for the next fifty years she answered that call by doing amazing things, so amazing that she won a Nobel Prize. But inside she doubted. She wrestled with her faith. She had what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul”. When she died, the thousands of people who walked by her glass-covered casket had no idea that this woman had doubts that caused her to write to her priest and spiritual mentor saying “the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — listen and do not hear — the tongue moves. . . but does not speak …” The Apostles might have called her “Doubting Theresa,” but to most of us she’s known as “Mother.”
You may have noticed that a lot of churches have red doors at their entrance. This is a holdover from the days when red doors meant that the church was a sanctuary for those escaping persecution. I like to think today those red doors broadcast the fact that the church is a sanctuary from all the exclusiveness that pervades so much of religion. When questioners, doubters and even skeptics see those red doors, they need to know that they can enter this place and test the waters without drowning in a sea of judgment. They need to know that all of us are on a journey and that none of us, from the priest up front to the usher at the door, have completely arrived. They need to know that Jesus’ invitation to reach out and touch his wounded, but resurrected body, is an open invitation, and that at various times along our journey together, some will be able to respond as St. Thomas responded:
“My Lord and my God!”