Thursday, August 7, 2014

Holding on to faith in an imperfect Church

I had a choice yesterday: I could post about the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, or about the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima — both watershed moments in world history. I choose instead to write about a friend of mine and her family, who are going through their own crucible of faith.

I'm reluctant to give any details, or even any hints, that would identify this friend. While the details will become public access soon enough, what little she has revealed to her friends and co-workers in Christ was given in privacy; until it does become public knowledge, I must for her trust's sake observe some discretion. All I will say is that what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described as "the smoke of Satan" has not only touched their lives but shattered them, putting their faith on the precipice.

Hilaire Belloc is said to have remarked to a friend once, "The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight." And at the beginning of one of his books, the late Fr. Andrew M. Greeley quoted an "Elderly Irish Monsignor" as saying, "Faith, the Barque of Peter must be divine, else we boys would have kicked the bottom out long ago."

It takes no citation of Scripture to realize that an institution filled with humans will contain and comprise all the folly and evil that humans are capable of committing; all it takes is simple observation of human nature. But if it helps, Our Lord even told us it would be so, with the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23).


Some Christians, as I pointed out the other day, just don't get Christianity; they view it through the prism of ideology, or tailor it to adapt to their preferred life styles, or selectively ignore that which they'd rather not accept. The most intolerable example is the Christian who assures himself that "they are going to Hell, while I am going to Heaven" ... which, given the slightly perverse whimsy of the universe, is probably why such Christians are so common.

If God exists, then He does so whether that fact prompts me to kiss you or kill you. If what the Catholic Church teaches about God, our relationship with Him, and our duty towards one another is true, then it remains true no matter how much difficulty I have living up to it ... or even if I behave in a manner which suggests that I don't get it. In this rather limited sense, hypocrisy doesn't pertain to the truth of Catholic doctrine.

Nevertheless, Christian hypocrisy does undermine our credibility. One of my favorite quotations on this subject comes from — wait for it — G. K. Chesterton:

Of course, I mean that Catholicism was not tried; plenty of Catholics were tried, and found guilty. My point is that the world did not tire of the church's ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. Christianity was unpopular not because of the humility, but of the arrogance of Christians. Certainly, if the church failed it was largely through the churchmen. ... [But] the great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. (What's Wrong with the World, ch. 1.5, "The Unfinished Temple")

What amazes me, then, is not how many people leave because of scandal in the Church, but rather how few leave for that reason ... fewer than three-in-ten of those who have left, according to the Pew Forum. And it's surprising that Catholics still return to the faith; as of 2012, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) estimates that 9% of all self-identified Catholics are "reverts", 13% of all Catholics who attend weekly Mass, and that about 168,000 return to the Church every year.

Most impressive of all, people continue to convert to Catholicism, despite not only the all-too-visible failings of our leadership, but also despite heightened attacks against the Church from several quarters and the Church in America's relative unacquaintance with non-Catholic evangelization. In fact, many of the conversion stories I've read came from people who had had no Catholic attempt to convert them; one, a woman who had been a Lutheran priest, even said a Catholic woman tried to dissuade her because converting would mean giving up her priesthood! The Church continues to grow, despite the ineptitude of her leaders and the hypocrisy of her followers.

Nevertheless, it's frustrating and debilitating when those who are supposed to be our leaders in the faith abandon that leadership for more secular concerns, even when those concerns are "for the good of the Church", such as protecting Church assets against alienation through "greenmail". It makes me angry and sad when orthodox, practicing Catholics who hold themselves in communion with the Holy See must appeal to the Holy See for justice against their own vicar and the very ministries established to serve them. That we were never promised perfect leaders, and that our leaders are as human as we are, is scant comfort to those who must suffer the consequences of their folly, their timidity, and/or their cupidity.

But the whole point to being a Catholic is not to have brave, good and wise bishops, or to have beautiful churches and liturgies, or to have flourishing and successful social programs. The point to being a Catholic is to get rid of your sins and enter into friendship with God; everything else is either secondary or irrelevant.

True faith is not a blind faith; it's a decision to trust, even in the turmoil of our hearts and tumult of our minds. Like the soldiers on Omaha Beach seventy years ago, it's to go forward and risk death rather than stay behind and ensure death, because to risk death is the only way to have a chance to live. Although faith is communal, at its root it's personal, and the decision must be made without respect to the actions of others: "And if you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15).

And with that, I offer this final note about my friend: The other day, she and her daughter went to Perpetual Adoration at her church. As she was praying for her daughter, the costs of Satan's attack bore upon her heart; and in front of the Host she began to weep.

As they left, her daughter asked why she had been crying. My friend replied, "Oh, I was just praying for someone very special."

And her daughter smiled and replied, "I was praying for you, too."

"Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
"Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matthew 18:3-6)

If you pray, pray for my friend and for her family.

O St. John Paul, from the window of heaven, grant us your blessing! Bless the church that you loved and served and guided, courageously leading it along the paths of the world in order to bring Jesus to everyone and everyone to Jesus. Bless the young, who were your great passion. Help them dream again, help them look up high again to find the light that illuminates the paths of life here on earth.
May you bless families, bless each family! You warned of Satan's assault against this precious and indispensable divine spark that God lit on earth. St. John Paul, with your prayer, may you protect the family and every life that blossoms from the family.
Pray for the whole world, which is still marked by tensions, wars and injustice. You tackled war by invoking dialogue and planting the seeds of love: pray for us so that we may be tireless sowers of peace.
O St. John Paul, from heaven's window, where we see you next to Mary, send God's blessing down upon us all. Amen.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.
In the + Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.