On Sunday night Bill and I sat on the shore of Lake Erie, admiring the best sunset we’ve seen all summer and savoring the weekend past. A very diverse weekend indeed, which included finally accomplishing several nagging tasks, as well as two remarkable outings, rather different, but somehow connected. See what you think:
The first was seeing the film “Dark Knight Rises” and the second was attending the reopening Mass at St. Wendelin’s Church on Cleveland’s near west side. How, you ask, could these possibly be connected? The sense that they were was strong, but I could not quite put my finger on why I thought so. I asked Bill what he thought.
His thoughts must have been travelling along the same road. “I think it’s desolation followed by rebirth,” he said. He is a pithy man.
In the Dark Knight series, the life of Bruce Wayne (Batman) is portrayed as a succession of desolating events, followed by very long periods of psychological and physical suffering. A sensitive person, he could be the modern Job. For the most part, his troubles come from outside of himself, but his “darkness” refers to the inner rage he developed when, as a child, he saw his parents murdered right before his eyes. The circumstances were such that on some level he takes personal responsibility for the act of a thief and killer.
As this third installment opens, we see that Wayne, who had done great things as Batman, fighter of the despicable criminal overlords who had essentially gained control of Gotham City, has basically become a hermit in his own home. He first appears dressed in an old man’s cardigan sweater and sporting a cane. He has lost heart due to the loss of his childhood love in the battle with the Joker. He has lost his purpose because of a devil’s deal he made to allow Batman to take the blame for the city’s nightmare. In essence, he became the scapegoat. The Batman is dead and in the tomb.
And, ostensibly, the city has been thriving in his absence.
But underground, in the sewers and subways, a gang of thugs has been lacing concrete with explosives, preparing to take the population’s attention again. The events that follow call the Batman out of hiding, and reengage Wayne with a crew of more or less heroic followers (reminiscent of the apostles?) who eventually manage to band together for their apocalyptic fight.
There’s one catch – Batman has become soft. His long period of desolation has taken its toll, and despite all his gadgets and bravado, he no longer has the edge he needs to defeat this enemy.
What follows is again a sort of death for Wayne, he experiences physical and psychological devastation, the slow resurgence of hope, the conquering of fear and finally his return from another “grave.”
I won’t give away any more. This movie has a lot more to it than you might expect, and I hope you will see it for yourself.
So, let’s take a look at some of the themes of Dark Knight Rises, and how they relate to the journey of the once closed parishes, and on a broader level, to our journeys as individuals and as a church.
First, there’s the general theme of desolation followed by rebirth, as my husband summed it up. The people of St. Wendelin and the other parishes which spent recent years in a fight to regain their identities have certainly experienced a profound period of desolation.
Wayne’s tale has something to say about the many options that are placed before any of us when a painful external event radically rocks our world. We can blame ourselves in an unhealthy and defeated way. We can blame and demonize someone else. We can accept what has happened and honestly assess or discern a response. If we decide we cannot or should not try to change anything, we can do so with rancor or with openness to a different future.
And lastly, once we decide there is a wrong that must be righted, we had better strengthen ourselves for the fight to come.
In most cases, I think, this is a process. My guess is that on some level, all of this took place in all the closed parishes. Many of the Catholics involved discerned the rightness of the parish’s closing and moved on. Some opted to fight what must have seemed a rather hopeless battle. As the Rev. Robert Kropac reminded his new flock, their strength was found through community and prayer. My guess is that, as happened in the movie, community developed as a growing number of members were inspired by the example and conviction of a few.
All who are open to the Spirit constantly experience rebirth. We saw this yesterday, in the crowd, the excitement of the congregation and its new pastor and in the especially poignant gestures of ringing the church bell for the first time in two years and lowering the sanctuary lamp to re-light it.
These are the moments that remind us why we are Catholic Christians.
But there is one other theme from The Dark Knight Rises that I think must be revisited if any of our parishes are going to survive. We can’t afford either to curl up in a ball or find some exterior demon to blame for the perils we may see facing our church.
For a time, the people of St. Wendelin had lost the gift of a home for their faith community. They are now blessed with the opportunity to rebuild. It is our hope that the faith and strength they have displayed will attract others to their parish and revitalize it.
But what about the rest of us? Aren’t we all a lot like the people of Gotham City? We all stand at a crossroads. We can let the bishop or the pope or the Batman take the blame. We can choose to neatly store away this, or another, resolved or unresolved drama and put it out of our minds while we blissfully neglect what’s going on “underground.” Yet, in the woefully ungrammatical words of another comic strip character, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Batman wore a mask “to protect his loved ones.” But for is most heroic and healing journey, Bruce Wayne was without masks, armor or protection of any kind. All he had to rely on was faith.
The real battle, the battle underground, is the ongoing conversion of our individual hearts for Christ. It takes converted people to bring about a vibrant, convicted church. The landmines are many. We need to “Stay awake,” as Jesus told us, and develop our strength through prayer, discipline and loving commitment to community. It’s a long, hard process, but our ally is God’s Spirit. As the Batman learns, complacency and fear are two enemies we have to look in the mirror to confront. If we are to follow in Christ’s footsteps, we will lay down our masks, our armor and our very lives at Christ’s feet. If we don’t, the church truly is in peril.