How would a saint respond to the synod?
With the release of the midterm relatio from the Synod on the Family, all eyes are on Rome. Hopes and expectations from the secular media are not surprising. But on the Catholic side of things, there is an unsettling amount of almost-despair tainting the spirit of the conversation or, conversely, an irrational and desperate denial of any problem whatsoever. The latter response, ironically, only establishes and confirms the temptations to despair others grapple with.
In an age of instant media, our focus is firmly anchored in the here-and-now. When a major political or ecclesiastical event occurs, I almost instinctively turn to Twitter to see how my hand-picked set of favorite bloggers are responding to the news. When, as a culture, we are already unmoored from our past, this tendency is all the more unfortunate. It becomes frighteningly easy to lose historical perspective, and get lost in the storm without a compass.
John Senior once observed that in times of ecclesiastical trial one should be less attentive to contemporaries and more attentive to the saints. “In this reckless age,” he wrote in the 70s, “if you read spiritual books at all, read none but those of the saints…They know what they are talking about.” Put bluntly: we have a sure knowledge that saints made it to their destination. Whatever missteps they may have made, they ultimately reached their goal. So, in turning to them for assistance, not only can their words inspire us, but their intercession can help us along.
During times like this Synod when things in the present seem tumultuous and the future looks bleak, it is precisely the example of the saints and heroes of the faith that will help us survive the troubles.
Here are a few insights from these fathers in the faith who also lived in tumultuous ecclesiastical eras:
1. A Crisis is a Call to Heroism
In his final years, Ven. Fulton Sheen spoke often and frankly about the dire situation of the Church in the modern world. He spoke of infiltration, of demonic attacks from within the walls of the Church, of betrayals and of treachery, yet in these he saw reasons for invigoration and dedication, not despair or surrender.
If the Church is to be plunged into greater trouble, there is only more reason to be grateful to God for the opportunity He has provided to us to show our love through heroic fidelity:
“We are living at the end of Christendom…Christianity is under attack. That means that these are wonderful days in which to be alive. Now we have to stand up and be counted. It is easy to float downstream in the current. Dead bodies float downstream. But it takes live bodies to resist the current.” Fulton J. Sheen, Those Mysterious Priests
Sometimes that heroism is comprised simply of enduring a crisis with faith-filled resolution. Newman often pointed out that it was the simple but tenacious fidelity of the lay faithful that brought the Church out of the Arian crisis.
The marvel of the Mystical Body of Christ is that our fidelity in little things can strengthen those shepherds who are caught up in many great things. Ultimately, it is fidelity to the usually monotonous duties of our state in life that will restore the Church. As Our Lord told Sr. Lucia after the appearances at Fatima:
“The sacrifice required of every person is the fulfillment of his duties in life and the observance of My Law. This is the penance that I now seek and require.”
This simple fidelity is the simple heroism to which we are called. Each scrubbed floor and each child cared for is replacing a brick in the crumbled wall of the Church.
2. A Crisis is a Reminder to Live in Realistic Hope.
It goes without saying that the Church has survived the many storms it has seen in its 2,000 year history. Fulton Sheen spoke of 500-year cycles within the Church. Every 500 years, he indicated, the Church would be swept up in a crisis that would serve as a test and a purification. His opinion was that we have now entered into the 4th great period of crisis: the collapse of Christendom and the spirit of the world entering the Church itself.
During some trials the Church appears, to use the image of Benedict XVI, “like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side.” Our Lord’s calming of the waters in the Gospel should serve as certain hope that He will prevail and the boat will not capsize; yet, He expects us to hold our own, loyal to the Faith, and confident in our hope.
But this confidence does not equal optimism. The Church has never mandated optimism or pessimism. From its beginning, the Church has been composed of curmudgeons like St. Jerome and effervescent figures like St. Philip Neri. St. Jerome famously penned the bleak diagnosis that “the whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.” He could be scathing about episcopal choices and directions in the Church. St. Philip Neri, on the other hand, lived in a decadent Rome, but seldom spoke of it—either to excuse or to condemn. Both, however, were united in the truth of their convictions in Faith, and the realistic hope that motivates the Christian.
A grim diagnosis is often these days conflated with a lack of trust in the Church of Christ. Yet, saints throughout the history of the Church have often pointed out, with dire and bleak description, the awful state of the Church. Some time ago Fr. Z dug up a fascinating letter from St. Alphonsus Ligouri in which he details the sorry state of the Church in his day. St. Alphonsus wrote, in a passage that sounds like it was penned yesterday:
There is need for prayer and much prayer. All the human science and prudence that there is cannot extricate the church from the present state of relaxation and confusion in which every section finds itself; the all-powerful arm of God is necessary.
As regards the bishops, very few of them possess genuine zeal for souls. Almost all religious communities—and one could omit the “almost”—are relaxed. As a result of the present state of general confusion, observance has collapsed and obedience is a thing of the past. The state of the secular clergy is still worse: so, in a word, there is a need for a general reform of all clerics and ecclesiastics if there is to be any improvement in the present great corruption of morals among the laity.
Despite this bleak description, to St. Alphonsus, there was no doubt as to the eventual restoration of the Church. His only desired consolation was that perhaps God would be generous enough to let him witness the beginning of the Church’s restoration:
“I trust in the merits of Jesus Christ and Our Lady that, before my death, which is now quite near on account of my years and the infirmities which afflict me, the Lord will grant me the consolation of seeing the church restored.”
Sometimes even the treacheries of men can serve as a re-anchoring in supernatural hope. Cardinal Siri of Genoa, one of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, was witness to the countless machinations of worldly or heterodox clergymen at the Second Vatican Council, who sought to re-orient the Council in their direction. What he witnessed in these attempts led him to observe that: “If the Church were not Divine, the Council would have buried her.” Rather than see these evil maneuvers as cause for despair, his supernatural vision allowed him to see even in the evil of men proof of the goodness of God.
3. A Crisis is an Opportunity for Spiritual Purification.
Sometimes it is easy to fall in love with the Church for the wrong reasons: a bit like a man who falls head-over-heels for a woman, but never sees through the allure of the flesh to the beauty of the soul that vivifies it. In times when the Church is ravaged by internal crisis, it is harder to do that. But this, as John Senior pointed out, is actually a way of growing in Faith during trying times. Much like the dark night of the soul, a “dark night of the Church,” strips us of everything accidental and leaves us only with the essential: Fidelity to Christ.
Writing in 1978, when the Church in America was flirting with every passing fad and worldly fancy, he wrote:
At the present hour we are in a dark night of the Church. The usual ways are lost. There is little comfort in the visible Church now. The liturgy, set upon by thieves, is lying in the ditch; contemplatives are mouthing political slogans in the streets; nuns have lost their habits along with their virtues, virgins their virginity, confessors their consciences, theologians their minds. And, if this is true, it is a “happy chance!”—because there is absolutely no reason left to be Catholic now except the only one there ever really was—that in the invisible life of the Church you will find the love of Christ. But if the Church were lost? That can never be, because, as St. Peter said, there is a soft and gentle candle flame like the vigil light that burns beside the Blessed Sacrament, “a light that shineth in a dark place until the day dawn and the day star arise in your hearts.” – John Senior, The Death of Christian Culture
During the time of the First Vatican Council, Blessed John Henry Newman was extremely troubled by a push from some bishops to define the doctrine of infallibility in a way that would have been exaggerated and heterodox. The machinations of the time he described as “tyrannical”, “cruel”, and a “dreadful scandal”. Even after the Council defined the doctrine infallibly and without the exaggerations Newman feared, the controversy persisted in that pastors and bishops were imposing the doctrine in ways that went beyond the definition of the Council. This caused him considerable anguish of mind.
But it also provided him the opportunity to find solace in the Source of all Consolation. Writing to a friend who was similarly troubled, he wrote:
For years past my only consolation personally has been our Lord’s presence in the Tabernacle. I turn from the sternness of external authority to Him who can immeasurably compensate trials which after all are not real, but (to use a fashionable word) sentimental. Never, thank God, have I had a single doubt about the divine origin and grace of the Church…on account of some of its officials or rulers. And I think this will be your experience too. Bear up for a while and all will be right.
When speaking of bishops seeking to manipulate Church teaching by craft and wile, he was fond of recalling the words of the poet Cowper. These words are especially apropos during the present drama of the Synod on the Family:
Beware of desperate steps—the darkest day
live till tomorrow, will have passed away.
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