Covenant Communities, PART III: My Own Bright Ideas

Eamonn Clark

See PART I, PART II

What is the draw of a Covenant Community, anyway? Isn’t being baptized into the Church and living within the parish enough? Isn’t having a biological family enough? Isn’t having a spouse enough? After all, these, too, are covenant communities. People see the good and understandably want more… Living in an intense form of common life, where certain things are shared and there is a structure of obedience, is freeing. It is what human beings are built for. It’s what Heaven will be in full. (By the way, Heaven is not an ecumenical community – true friendship and common life mean a common order of worship!)

I understand the pull to an additional form of covenant community quite well, as someone looking to enter religious life. The thing is, unlike most people, I’m planning on not marrying… That means no spouse or children to account for when discerning where God’s will is leading me – or to drag along where some manipulative superior says “God’s will” is leading me. That’s a major part of why religious life works so much better.

Other differences usually include: immediate oversight and control from the hierarchical Church, a rotating leadership (typically with a large democratic component), many internal checks and balances on governance and financial transparency, strict requirements of theological and spiritual formation for those entering, a clearly defined exit path, and a particular charism which is being offered for the good of the universal Church.

There are also differences between Covenant Communities and “religious movements” like Communion and Liberation, Focolare, or the Neocatechumenal Way. These are massive organizations – with no real “covenantal” dimension, at least not in the same way – that more or less propose living ecclesial life in a certain way in some kind of community with one another, integrated into the hierarchical Church. While there can develop eccentricities (and even real problems) in such movements, the successful ones are closely linked with normal ecclesial structures like parishes and dioceses and/or are so massive that well-defined statutes and close hierarchical oversight are guaranteed. These kinds of movements provide a healthy alternative to signing one’s family’s life away to some charismatic leader and his friends.

So that is one option for families: join a well-established, global movement which is vetted by the Holy See and has a clear purpose and appropriate transparency.

frate
Someone should have told Silas about that option… And also about the real Opus Dei.

But maybe that isn’t enough or right for some people. What other options might be out there? Let me propose two, beyond Third Orders, and/or simply picking friends wisely and making an attempt to spend time together, and/or just really trying to involve yourself with a parish to make it better and let it make you better. (Another Maryland community comes to mind which has this very healthy approach of the last two paths…)

The first is to form associations dedicated to some particular work of mercy, corporal or spiritual. (This is usually how religious orders start, of course!) One of the biggest problems is that Covenant Communities are an attempt at an extra-parochial parish… And they attempt a self-sustaining utopia founded on shaky ground. Associations dedicated to works of mercy actually go and encounter the dystopia head-on with a clear purpose in mind: feed the hungry, heal the sick, pray for the living and the dead, instruct the ignorant, etc. The last one is especially big, as it would involve forming homeschool co-ops (or even private schools in some cases). Such an association satisfies so many desires and needs… For community, for social/spiritual aid, for witness, for working toward common goals. This is especially true for educational projects, which are obviously easier to involve the whole family with. These groups are out there… Go find one that suits you, and make it better!

But maybe even that is not enough… Well, then, in most cases a person simply has to realize that family life is a massive obstacle to the desire for common life with others. (Aristotle teaches that we can only have 2 or maybe 3 friends of virtue, the “real” kind – true common life founded on authentic virtue is that hard, at least in this life!) Because of the prudential issues involved with entering into a Covenant Community, it is better to just wait until the general resurrection. But for single people, including those not really considering religious life or priesthood, there is another option…

Dioceses could establish houses of formation for lay people. Basically, lay seminaries. (Not men and women in the same houses, of course, or at least entirely separate halls/floors/wings without easy access.) There could be an application process of some rigor, tons of diocesan oversight, and membership would be conditional on several things, such as being regularly employed, not getting married, not doing anything too crazy, etc. People could apply right out of college (22) up until about 25 and stay for 3-4 years. Rent would be minimal. Mere “houses” could be set up I suppose – and this is very popular in Africa – but if the diocese is setting up a house for single laymen, why not just go the extra mile and bother to give them some education in the evenings and on weekends? Teach them some basic theology. Teach them how to pray. Teach them how to grow personally and practically. Teach them about what makes family life work well in the long-term.

How many recent college grads do you know who would stop, drop, and roll into such an accommodation?

If you don’t get a few priests and religious after a while out of such a set up (highly unlikely), you will definitely get plenty of well-formed young adults ready to take on life. In the meantime, they can have a serious communal life regulated by an external structure, without having to worry about whether their kids will “grow into” the community life they have promised for them, where their money is going, etc.

Well, that’s it. What are your thoughts? Do you know of any concrete examples of my two proposals? Do you have any experience with a Covenant Community, good or bad? (And I do know that some good people have good experiences, which is fine!) Let me know in the comments.

Covenant Communities, PART II: WOG, MOG, and LOG

Eamonn Clark

See PART I

SOS. No, I’m not crying for help, that last one stands for Sword of the Spirit, a group which has indeed made people cry for help. Before we begin our superficial case studies of two Maryland-based covenant communities gone haywire, I want the readership to know of my own personal connections with one of them (LOG). I have close connections with people who were involved, I have been to their school, I have talked with people affected by the community’s activity and fallout, and I have met their former leader. Let me be clear: I mostly don’t want to talk about people… I really want to talk about the community. Communities are more than the sum of their parts. So this is not a post about people who were involved (save for one), but the way that people interacted with one another in a certain context. So if a WOG-er, LOG-er, or MOG-er is reading this – and I think that is likely to happen – please don’t feel personally judged. You are not the community. And you are free to disagree with my assessment… I think that such freedom is important, don’t you?

The three acronyms in the title stand for Word of God, Mother of God, and Lamb of God. The first is the covenant community which was (until 1990) immediately operated by Sword of the Spirit, the Ann Arbor-based ecumenical super-community. The second is a D.C./Gaithersburg group which was radically reorganized in the late-90’s by Cdl. Hickey and still operates today. (You might be familiar with the publication that came out of the group, called “The Word Among Us.”) The last group was begun in the Greater Baltimore area in the late 70’s and ran into the mid-90’s when it was effectively dissolved by Cdl. Keeler.

I won’t go into all the problems of these groups (especially WOG, which I don’t know much about). I will provide links to caches of documents on MOG (here) and LOG (here) and make a few observations about commonalities among covenant communities, those two in particular. Then I will talk a bit more about LOG, and I will talk about its new incarnation.

First observation: the so-called Charismatic Renewal is a common theme. It seems that where there is a covenant community, there is the Charismatic Renewal. (See this article on the downfall of the Steubenville covenant community, Servants of Christ the King, for another example. Steubenville is, of course, an epicenter of the Renewal.) There is something that tends to unhinge “members” of the Renewal from normal ecclesial life. Perhaps it is because they often see themselves as “members” of a renewal – that is, special, set apart, even “chosen.” (Not all, but many… most… enough.) This is then combined with an inordinate expectation of God’s use of emotions and experiences in prayer and community to drive one toward or away from some action or idea. There is no need to dive into these problems here… I think the point is clear enough: if one feels spiritually powerful because of a direct and “personal” relationship with the Holy Spirit, confirmed by others in the same elite group, the importance of the Church as such diminishes. Interested readers might check out this online book on covenant communities by a Notre Dame professor (who was dismissed from the People of Praise in South Bend, IN) which explores this topic and loads more.

Second observation: the word “obedience” is a red flag. If the covenant one signs says anything about obeying the leadership, one can expect trouble… And if you don’t see the trouble, you are probably part of the problem. This is due in no small part to the fact that leadership will seldom if ever rotate unless a leader dies. An opaque chain of command will almost inevitably be established which monitors and controls lower-level members (psychologically, socially, financially, etc.). It will be done in the name of “pastoral care,” or for the sake of “integrity,” or some such thing. Of course, it is simply manipulation which frequently ends in grave harm to psyches, friendships, and even marriages. Real confidentiality among members, under a covenant with an “obedience clause,” will not exist. It will get so bad that even to breathe a word of gentle criticism against the leadership or the community’s direction will be “corrected.” See an example of a covenant document, from the Alleluia Community in Augusta, GA, here, and do scroll through the comments from former members.

Third observation: Language in general will also slowly become special or equivocal within the group, as the insular nature of the community can only lead to. Taking this together with the previous reality of monitoring members, the word Orwellian comes to mind.

When members start talking about “repentance” or “fellowship” or “spirit” or “discernment” in ways that seem a bit off to an outsider, it is probably a function of spending too much time around each other in an overly intense context of ordered socialization run by people who don’t know theology.

Fourth observation: The sense of being an alternative Church, or a Church within the Church. Covenant communities are the ultimate “safe space” – and how dreadful it would be to get cast into the outer darkness! “They are screwed up out there, unlike us. They’ll get you… they’ll get your kids… they’ll use you to infiltrate the community and try to tear it down…” This creates tons of fear which keeps people in line. The threat of spiritual danger can be just as effective, or even more effective, than the threat of physical danger. And the thing is, depending on how one interprets “out there,” it is true. Western society, and even many pockets within the Church, are incredibly dangerous. Ironically, covenant communities tend to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Training people to mistrust the Church, or even to avoid the sacraments, is deadly rather than life-giving. It is an idol.

Fifth observation: A lot of people get hurt, and a lot of people would be hurt if they allowed themselves to feel and think naturally. This should be obvious. The number of damaged minds, broken marriages, and even apostasies that come from covenant communities should be enough evidence to show that something is gravely wrong with the model.

Sixth observation: A driving force is religious novelty. A “new community.” An “emerging leadership.” Prayer “in the Spirit.” A “different way of life.” Leaders with “prophecies.” These sorts of fascinations are hallmarks of beginners in the spiritual life, not mature leaders. Religious novelty is one of the major themes of the Old Testament: God is spiritual, we are not, and so we will tend to go after lesser things to make God more tangible like ourselves. We want experiences, things we can see and feel and hear, things we feel immediately controlled by and can immediately control. The most superficial study of the Carmelite doctors will convince one of how stupid – and dangerous – this kind of thinking is. St. Teresa frequently saw Christ in plain human form… To her it was rather secondary, almost trivial. She would tell her confessor about what happened, and then she would forget about it. She certainly would not follow commands from such visions without permission from her director… After all, what if it was actually the Devil? A thorough study of the lives of the saints will reveal that this is a pattern: holy men and women do not trust their own spiritual experiences to guide them. They ask someone disinterested to show them the right path.

As I noted above, I have some tangential experience with a covenant community, Lamb of God. The echoes of the community, some 20 years later, are quite loud – there are still damaged relationships and suspicions around Catonsville, there are still some attempts at a common life among former members and their friends, there is still a school, and the old leader of the group is still around. He has, however, moved on to a “new project.”

I have also had some limited active experience with this project, called ChristLife. Just as I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community” or a “covenant community,” I cannot really describe what this entity is, only what it does. There is an evangelization series which it sponsors in parishes (which is basically sound and useful, if not a bit elementary), there is a young adult group (in which I have several friends), and there is a company which somehow also involves itself in broader international mission work. There seem to be many more interior checks and balances on ChristLife than on LOG, and there is certainly more diocesan oversight. However, old dogs don’t learn new tricks. It concerns me greatly that the leader of what essentially turned into a cult (good intentions notwithstanding) immediately became the director (and after some 20 years, has been the only director) of an evangelization program within the exact same local church. Someone will have to explain to me how that is prudent… How might people be being manipulated? What attitudes and mindsets have been carried over from LOG into ChristLife, by the leader and by former members who involve themselves? Who else might be pulling strings that aren’t publicly known to be involved? Etc.

I don’t doubt the good intentions. I do doubt the means.

In the final installment, I will propose a different vision for how a “covenant community” might work. Stay tuned, and be sure to subscribe…

See PART III

 

Main image: Maryland flag

Covenant Communities, PART I: The Beguinage Option

Eamonn Clark

Your husband has just left with his buddies… Not for the bar, not for the bowling alley, but for the Crusade. He will probably never return – the territory is unfamiliar and the enemy fierce. The organization of the ranks is questionable, too. You are left alone in your little Belgian village. A few years pass, and some wearied soldiers come back into town after the failed campaign. The Mr. is not one of them: you are off to the local Beguinage.

There, the organization of the ranks is questionable as well – just as most of the crusaders were not professional soldiers, the superior is likely ill-equipped: she is not a professional ecclesiastic (viz. a priest) or even a proper religious. The other women are only half-invested, since they can own their own property and leave at any time to get married. The local bishop is aware of the institution, but he has other, more pressing affairs to attend to. Many of the women bring tons of money with them after the sale of their land, so the community is overflowing with wealth.

What could go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. The Beguines (and Beghards, the male version) were suppressed by the little-known Ecumenical Council of Vienne in 1312. These semi-monastic communities, mostly centered in the Low Country, had amassed enormous wealth and slipped into very bizarre spiritual doctrines. (Basically, their errors amounted to the thought that one was able to attain, in this life, their twisted vision of spiritual perfection. For the condemned propositions, see Denzinger 471-8, older numbering.) It is also difficult to imagine there were no “power issues,” given the nature of the structure of the communities and the strange ideas that eventually pervaded them. (The “no kissing rule” was especially weird… Yes, go on click that Denzinger link. You know you want to see what infallible statement the Church has made on kissing.) If you think you are perfect, and your inferiors think you are perfect, when you are definitely not, how would that not occasion terrible abuses? Even though the Beguines did not share property (unlike the Beghards) or take vows, there was still a superior of the community, and how could a perfect superior not wield undue control? (Coincidentally – or not – Vienne also dissolved the Knights Templar, who had begun a similar downfall into wealth, power abuse, lax membership requirements, and heresy. One is reminded of the Church in present-day Germany.)

The Beguinages did attract pious women who did plenty of good work for each other and their towns, but in the end they didn’t work in many important ways, namely in cultivating a mature spirituality among the members. (There are, however, still a few active Beguinages around… The suppression on the Beguines – not the Beghards – was lifted 9 years after the Council, but eventually, the need disappeared and so membership declined.) When wealth, power, and gross spiritual imperfection are mixed in an ill-defined religious community with limited ecclesiastical oversight, one should expect mayhem to ensue. This is the lesson which Church history teaches us, and I fear it is a lesson not being well-learned today. That means the error will be repeated… Let us turn now to the so-called “Benedict Option.”

thevillage1
Some critics might have M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” lurking in their memory.

A million articles have now been written in response to Rod Dreher’s book on the need to duck out of postmodern society and form intentional Christian enclaves – which, he opines, is sort of the point of Christianity anyway (made obvious in part by the comical slew of “original” variations on the theme – the “Marian Option,” the “Augustine Option,” etc.). The idea is basically that Western society is so bad that it should just be left to destroy itself while we preserve our faith and morals amongst our own rather than risk more bleeding by living out “in the wild,” and we can draw people into the Church by leading attractive lives and with some occasional missionary activity overflowing from the enclave.

While most critics of this idea are concerned with the abandonment of wandering souls to the Zeitgeist, which is a legitimate (although in my opinion overblown) concern, my critique is focused on the interior life of an “intentional Christian community” rather than its exterior missionary activity. We don’t always need to preach to Gehenna (Jesus didn’t bother!), but we do always need to know who is in charge, where the money goes, how the hierarchical Church is involved, and in general how the community lives its life together.

There is a chasm between the domestic church and the hierarchical church. It is easy to fall into it.

I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community,” though this is now the primary buzzword, closely followed by “covenant community,” although these are distinct (albeit not mutually exclusive) realities. An “intentional Christian community” is just that – people who intentionally associate with one another to aid their discipleship. A “covenant community” involves signing a contract that pledges certain things for the good of the group… Like “obedience to the leadership.”

Let’s ask some questions.

First, is this or that community even specifically Catholic? If not, how will the Catholic Church be presented by non-Catholic members and leaders? Will there be requirements or “suggested opportunities” for members that don’t square with Catholic doctrine and morals? Is there a non-denominational-ish church which the community is obliged or semi-obliged to support, financially or otherwise? What is being preached and taught there? What about a school? Same questions. What kind of spirituality will the community develop and encourage that is not founded in or ordered to the Mass and the confessional? How exactly does one’s local parish pastor involve himself in the lives of Catholics in such a community? How do members relate to their parish in general? Is the leadership tempted to use the group’s ecumenical nature as a means of dodging episcopal oversight? How can a Catholic member in good conscience follow a non-Catholic spiritual leader, precisely insofar as he or she is a spiritual leader? These are serious questions, some of which don’t have easy answers. It can sometimes happen that, as far as the Church is concerned, what happens in such groups is more communism than ecumenism.

There are many other questions to be answered by any community, especially the ones that require signing a contract or “covenant” to join… Will the community be at the service of the parish and hierarchical church, or vice versa? How will a poorer family support both the community and the parish? What are the details of the “covenant” (viz. what is actually required, and why)? How does one opt out of the community, if it is possible at all? If it is not possible, why? How is personal information treated within the community? How are relationships between men and women monitored? Where does the money go, and how is transparency guaranteed? Are there inordinate pressures to take or leave certain jobs? Is there any restriction of relationship with people inside or outside the community for arbitrary reasons? What is required to become a member of the community? How does the community relate with the diocese and bishop? In whose name does the community exercise its ministries and evangelization projects – their own, the diocese’s, the parish’s, the individuals’? If priests or deacons are members, how does their membership and activity relate to their official ecclesiastical role wherever their bishop or superior has actually assigned them? Exactly what role does the leadership of the community play in the life of the group? What is required to become a leader in the community? Does all of the leadership rotate periodically? If no, why not? What is the understanding of the “grace of state” among the leaders?

This last one is huge. Grace of state is a gift that comes with occupying a certain office. In some cases, it can, in a sense, involve an infallible discernment of the will of God, which would imply obedience to that person’s demand under pain of sin. A few examples will suffice… The president of a country signs legislation that people must drive on the left side of the road. The local bishop chooses not to allow a tabernacle to be put in a certain rectory. The parents of a child tell him that he will go to the parish school. Who would argue that obedience in these examples is not a matter of moral precept? However, this does not mean the decisions were necessarily made for the right reasons… Perhaps the president is hoping that his new law will cause catastrophe for tourists. Maybe the bishop is jealous of the piety of the priest who lives in that rectory. It could be that the parents would actually do better to homeschool their child, but they are just lazy. It doesn’t matter: it is still the will of God precisely because these people have the right to demand these things of those under them in virtue of their offices – offices which ultimately derive from God, either through nature (like the government or the family) or through grace (like the hierarchical church).

In covenant communities, there is often an ambiguous commitment to “obey” the leadership. One could be shamed and thought of as impious or disobedient (or even Satanic) for not falling in line with whatever the leaders require. After all, don’t they have the grace of state to determine God’s will for the community?

No. There is no office of nature or of grace which authentically interprets the will of God for such a community which comes from within the community itself. That is the job of the pastor and/or bishop, or a duly appointed delegate. Even then, the scope of obedience only goes so far – the bishop, for instance, does not have the right to tell parents they must enroll their child in the parish school. The pastor does not have the right to demand a certain amount of tithing from his parishioners. Etc. These things can frequently be items of “discernment” in covenant communities which then become “suggestions” or “opportunities.” Pity the member who does not go along with the will of their leaders! In fact, it seems that all that a duly appointed ecclesiastical representative could really authentically interpret is how to relate the community to various real authorities, such as the pastor, the bishop, the government, families, and so on, according to those authorities’ proper roles. What one finds instead is often one or several people at the top, who were self-appointed, who never rotate, and who claim to be authentic prophetic voices for the community which is centered around their wills; in other words, cult leaders.

Signing a contract is an important action, and it should not be done lightly. However, we must realize that humans are not angels – they do not perfectly understand all the implications of their actions – and therefore, vows can (and sometimes must) be broken for the good of the individual or commonwealth. Unlike marriage, association with a community is certainly something “intrinsically dissoluble” – that is, either party can choose to step away once it becomes clear that it is best for either of them, so long as any inordinate injury is avoided… It does not require an intervention of a third-party, like the Pauline or Petrine privileges in the dissolution of non-sacramental marriages. A vow to a merely human society is not a vow to God, and so it is far less serious, though it is still a matter of justice insofar as the reckless abandonment of the promise can bring damage to either party… One does owe something to the person or persons to whom a vow is made simply by the nature of the vow itself.

But let’s examine the nature of private vows made to God. (See the relevant canons here.) Vows to God are much more serious (as a matter proper to the virtue of religion), such that the complete release from them requires a dispensation or commutation from the Church (or the time elapsing). And yet even here, one who undertakes a vow to God with insufficient understanding of what he is committing himself to by that vow can’t be morally bound to it. (Think of a pious 5th grader who, in a fit of religious fervor, promises to God after Mass one day that he will never marry. He is unquestionably not bound by this vow! Of course, determining what is “sufficient” is a difficult matter.) What’s more, a vow made to God must actually be possible (obviously) and for the sake of a better state or action than what one would otherwise be in or do without the vow, or else the vow does not bind. (A person who promises to God that he will not go to Mass except on Sundays is not bound by this vow unless he would really be doing harm to himself or others by going to Mass during the week. A person who promises to God that he will tie his left shoe before his right shoe is also not bound by the vow because it is not better to do this. Vows like this are vain and sinful, in fact, and rash or hasty vows can be sinful as well.) It must also be the case that the “better state or action” must really continue to be better for the one who made the vow in order for it to remain binding. (If a husband vows to spend several hours each week in private prayer, this would cease to bind if his wife became very sick and needed his constant attention.) In general, when more fundamental obligations become more serious, the obligations based on vows begin to decrease in gravity.

Given all this, it should be easy to see that the “covenant” part of covenant communities involves a serious but not that serious kind of promise. The public vows made when entering proper religious communities, or private vows made directly to God, are much more serious – and yet there are many qualifications and ways out. I wonder how well the nature of vows is understood by leaders in various covenant communities – and how well they explain that nature to aspiring members. Once it becomes clear that a community is bad for one’s children, isn’t it incumbent upon the parents to remove themselves from that community? If it is becoming harmful to one’s psychological, emotional, spiritual – or financial – welfare, isn’t it a duty to leave? As a person slowly realizes that he got himself into something he didn’t really understand the details of, doesn’t his obligation to stay begin to diminish? Of course. And all the while, the leaders of these communities will still not be authentically interpreting the will of God, because they are only appointed or elected for the good of a merely man-made and non-fundamental collective to which people can freely come and from which people can freely go, usually without sin. This is unlike the government, this is unlike the Church, and it is unlike the family.

The “Beguinage Option” is not the right way – but clearly, the desire for intense communal discipleship is good. How can it be fulfilled in the lives of lay people who can’t enter or don’t want to enter religious life?

In the next post of this 3 part series, I will look at a few specific examples of covenant communities as case studies (including one with which I have some personal connection), and then finally I will propose a model or two of my own.

See PART II

 

Main image: The Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium. By Navy8300 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Have You Heard the Bad News?

Eamonn Clark

We hear a lot about the Good News. The Good News is that God sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, who died for us and has risen from the dead, freeing us from the tyranny of sin and death. This is also called the kerygma.

The kerygma does not make sense to most millennials. Why? Because they don’t know the Bad News. There can no longer be much Western evangelization without first talking about the Bad News.

What is the Bad News? It is this: you are a sinner, you are going to die, you deserve to be punished by God forever, and there is nothing you or any mere human being can do to rectify this situation.

Post-modern millennials (PMM’s) do not believe in personal sin, that is, offending God in a meaningful way. They don’t even believe in God, or if they do, it is a God that is more like a soup than a person… He is not really more in one place than another, and He makes you feel good when you take a spoonful. PMM’s ignore death – they wrap it up as an occasion to celebrate the life of the deceased, thus avoiding significant grief over the horrifying reality of loss. Therefore, the thought that anyone could merit eternal punishment is incomprehensible to them, except maybe some Trump supporters, terrorists, and global-warming skeptics… Certainly, they deserve eternal punishment, right?

The faithful Jews of ancient Israel understood the Bad News very well – they knew sin, they knew death, they knew personal guilt. Particularly helpful in describing the sad state of affairs in which post-Eden humanity finds itself is the Book of Ecclesiastes… There is perhaps no book in Scripture which paints a clearer picture of the human condition. I submit that this text is a massively underused tool of evangelization, as it relies almost entirely on appealing to natural reason, and it very well disposes a person to feel the need for the Gospel message. Qoheleth just tells it like it is: the world is not fair, your wealth and pleasure, though good, are torturously fleeting and uncertain, people will not remember the good you do, and soon enough, you will die – all of the fruits of your labors will be lost to you, and you have no real way of controlling what will happen to them.

If that’s not a cold dose of reality, then nothing is.

And since we have to present the Gospel as real, it must connect with what is really experienced. A sincere appeal to life’s unfairness, the fleetingness of pleasure, etc., can open the door which He is always knocking on, even in the heart of a PMM. The Bad News is, in fact, the door itself which has blocked Him in the first place.

Is the Church Really in a Crisis?

Eamonn Clark

It has been said that the Church is in a crisis… Some have even said we are now in the “Fourth Great Crisis.” After all, it seems that about every 500 years the Church needs to face some massive doctrinal upheaval. First was Arius, next was the Great Schism of 1054 between East and West, then exactly 500 years ago was the Reformation. Aren’t we due? Isn’t the confusion over Amoris Laetitia the manifestation of a widespread sickness that has been plaguing the Church for some 50 years or more? We are facing serious novelties and ambiguities regarding the doctrine of grace, at least three sacraments, fundamental morals, the nature of the office of the papacy, and canon law. Indeed, there is a massive problem… But the Church is not in a crisis.

The Church is a crisis.

We, the Church on Earth, are no longer in Eden. This is the Bad News™ which makes sense of the Good News. We are caught in between the life of our corrupted nature and the life of Heaven, with the possibility but without the guarantee of making it to glory. The Church Militant is “militant” because of the continual working out of our salvation in fear and trembling… We must constantly fight against our weakened wills and darkened intellects. Either the battle is fought – with the help of God – or the battle is lost. If you are not fighting, you are dying… The one who stops fighting allows the Evil One to gain ground.

A city which is in a perpetual state of warfare would certainly be in nonstop crisis, but the Church Militant simply is the war itself on the part of the baptized. To be baptized is to have the power to fight for what the sacrament makes possible to obtain, namely, Heaven, and it makes one a special target of the Devil and the possible subject of a tragic fall into damnation. Therefore, the Church Militant is itself a war – or a crisis.

Yes, it is more than that. The Church is a communion of persons united with God through grace, it is the access to a supernatural storehouse of merit, it is the temporal participation in the Mystical Body of the Lord, and so on. But it is also essentially a dramatic fight for Heaven, where the Lord does battle with us and within us. Thus did Joshua enter Canaan, and so must we enter the true Holy Land. Our nature being what it is, however, there will be resistance to grace, and this will make a mess of what could have otherwise been an immediate victory – Joshua failed to purify the land of all its idols, which occasioned much trouble – and we have failed in much the same way. So long as there is sin within the Church, we have not yet succeeded, and this means that the war must continue.

There has always been widespread sin in the Church in every day and age. (Do you really think the pre-conciliar Church was that nice? Where, then, did the post-conciliar Church come from, I wonder?) However, there are moments where sin becomes more pronounced or more accepted as good among members of the baptized or even among the clergy. When this happens, it is something of a return to form… If you want to know how bad things can really get, reread the story of Our Lord’s Passion and Death, keeping in mind that the apostles are clergy – and one is the pope. (An attentive reading of 2 Kings 21 might also help – surely, you will have a legitimate complaint when your local bishop institutes the policies of Manasseh, King of Judah, and stays in power for 55 years.) Nonetheless, God made good on His promises then, and He will do so again. His own holiness and fidelity have the last word. He fights with us, and this is why the crisis – which is the Church in time – will not last forever. Until that day, let’s cultivate an eternal perspective on the failures of mere men who have a special office in Our Lord’s mystical body.

Let’s pray, too.

Reflections of a New Priest

Fr. Peter Gruber

Before I was ordained, I was asked what I looked forward to most about being a priest. My answer happened to be the same thing that filled me with the greatest uncertainty: hearing confessions.

Everything else about being a priest seemed somehow already familiar – daily Mass had made me accustomed to the priest’s role, diaconate ordination acclimated me to preaching, I had already adjusted to our primary ministry to the students at our universities.

However, hearing confessions was an entirely new experience. Sure, I had grown used to being on the penitent side of the screen, but the idea of encountering other people in what seems their most personal details had given me pause. Would I have anything to offer?

But upon being ordained, I quickly found hearing confessions the most impactful and formative aspect of being a priest of Jesus Christ.

I’m a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and hearing confessions is a particularly Oratorian thing to do – St. Philip Neri did the bulk of his pastoral care within the sacrament of Penance. Even the time spent waiting for the next penitent has become a new facet of my spiritual life. More than any other time do I get to practice what Blessed John Henry Newman would call (in his Advent sermon of the same name) “watching.” I pray that I may have the same zeal as St. Philip, who would go throughout the streets of Rome to attract people to the confessional early in his priesthood, and later would “attract souls as a magnet draws iron.” To support such zeal, I all the more have to be rooted in intimacy with Christ in prayer, as St. Philip was.

In one of our confessionals, we have a small statue of St. Padre Pio. A few years ago, while I was still in college, I found Padre Pio’s Prayer after Communion, and since then, St. Pio has accompanied me through this prayer with every communion. And now, he accompanies me as a priest. I’m reminded when I see him there how his advice in the confessional was short but filled with insight, and I pray that I may have something of his depth or brevity in my counsel.

As a mediator of Christ, it is His mercy that I dispense. Behind that screen, at the intersection of God’s love and human misery, I have to make real the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). It’s His cross, His sacrifice, that I witness to, and I pray that I do not get in the way of his outpouring mercy.

More than anything, I have found that sins do not make us who we are. The priest does not see our deepest selves when he hears our confession; he sees our deepest selves when he gives us absolution. “We are not the sum of our faults,” St. John Paul II says, “we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.”

Four Kinds of Problems with the Pan-Amazon Proposal on Married Priests

Eamonn Clark

The suggestion has been floated around in some quarters that at the newly announced Pan-Amazon Synod, to happen in 2019, bishops will discuss the possibility of ordaining married men in their region to the order of Priest. These “viri probati,” “proven men,” would make up for the absolute dearth of priests deep in the jungles of South America, where people are often deprived of the sacraments for long periods of time. There have been some missionary efforts there, but the terrain is vast and unfriendly, and the culture is extremely difficult to adapt to, so there has been limited success. It seems to some that simply ordaining certain men in isolated communities would help to make up for the absence of celibate priests in the area.

I note at least 4 categories of problems with the proposed solution. They are as follows:

  1. Canonical. The Code of Canon law, which binds the Latin Church (including, presumably, the men who might be ordained in the Amazon,) does allow for the possibility of married priests under certain circumstances (see c. 1047, §2, n. 3), but nowhere is the obligation to perfect and perpetual continence lifted for any cleric in the Code (though entering Orders – even the diaconate – without understanding or making the promise of continence means one cannot be obliged to its fulfillment). There has been much misunderstanding of the obligation to continence as distinct from the obligation of celibacy, and the widespread priestly ordination of married men in the Latin Church would make this worse. (On the other hand, it might finally get the mess canonically resolved.) For more on this confusing topic, see Dr. Ed Peter’s fine treatment here.
  2. Standard objections. There are many intrinsic problems with the idea of a married presbyterate. There are the economic problems, such as the time and energy a father and husband would have to spend between his family and the service of the community – or several communities, sometimes perhaps separated by miles of thick jungle, in this case. The resources needed to educate and train these priests adequately is an additional economic strain (and would likely never rise to the level of a normal priestly education), as is the payment of the priest who has to make enough income to provide for his family. There is the loss of the power of the witness of celibacy, which is a sign of contradiction to the spirit of the world, reminding people that there is a Heaven and a Hell, a death and a judgment, and that we had better start thinking about these things now if we are to be prepared for them later. There is also the impoverishment of the spirituality of the Latin priesthood as normally understood, which is spousal in nature and urges the priest toward greater charity for those in his care. In general, it seems that all the normal problems of a married priesthood obtain.
  3. Internal prudential. Not only will there likely be no comparison between the education and training of the Amazonian viri probati and a regular Latin priest, to the possibly very grave positive harm of the community (due to serious deficiencies in the confessional, in the pulpit, and so on), but the deeper problem causing the shortage is ignored. It is like a man who drinks to cure his depression – the feeling will go away for a while, but the underlying cause is never addressed. In the meantime, an addiction is developed which harms him positively and perpetuates the deeper problem, perhaps even worsening it. If there are no normal vocations to the priesthood, it is due to a lack of faith, a lack of zeal, a lack of something important in the local church. This ought to be the real object of discussion.
  4. External prudential. Once the Amazon has viri probati priests, who else will feel entitled? What other areas or countries will claim that they need this compromise? Meanwhile, as more concessions are made due to mounting pressure, the three foregoing sets of problems will perpetuate themselves.

The idea of a “simplex priest” may be what the bishops have in mind, a priest who does not do all of the public actions a priest with full faculties to preach and hear confessions would… But that comes with other problems, which will be addressed in a future post.

In summary, the bishops meeting at the Pan-Amazon Synod ought to think these things through quite carefully. I, for one, am unconvinced that it is a wise idea. But then again, I’ve only ever been to Amazon.com…

Sancti Obscuri – St. Crispin and St. Crispinian (October 25)

Jacob Gruber

In Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, King Henry overhears a soldier lamenting how few men have come from England to fight in a battle against the French at the Battle of Agincourt, leaving their odds of carrying home a win rather low. He responds with a bold appeal to all the courage left in the hearts of that “band of brothers” who did show up for battle and unites the hope of their victory with the celebration for all time of St. Crispin and Crispianus (Crispinian). It’s worth the watch:

Fictional though this speech may be, the king’s prediction seems to have unfortunately come true: “and Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered!” In this article, it is my hope that on the feast of Crispin and Crispinian this year (October 25), Crispin and Crispinian themselves will be remembered for once!

These two saints lived the in middle of the third century in the Roman empire. Allegedly, they were brothers from a noble Roman family. The story from the Bollandists (from which the Catholic Encyclopedia draws their information in the case of these men) tells us that they went to Soissons in Gaul together to preach the faith. While there, they supported themselves financially primarily by making shoes. Their missionary work there was so effective, however, that it caught the attention of the high Roman authorities. A short historical detour is necessary at this point.

Crispin and Crispinian lived in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Any Christian familiar with some Roman history should be feeling the shiver run down their spine – this man was ruthless. He was Roman emperor from 284 to 305 AD, and in his rule he initiated one of the biggest, cruelest persecutions in early Church history (which is no small statement when the bloodbaths of Emperors Nero and Decius are taken into account). So bad was Diocletian’s persecution that, before Anno Domini (AD) came into fashion for marking years, the Christians (especially of the Alexandrian Church) used Anno Martyrum (AM), or the Era of the Martyrs, to mark their years. The Anno Martyrum system began year 1 in 284 AD – the beginning point of Diocletian’s reign and persecution.

With this in mind, consider that Crispin and Crispinian were preaching the Christian faith rather effectively at this time in Gaul, an important territory of the Roman empire. It did not take long at all for some action to happen. In the year 285 AD (or the year 2 in the Anno Martyrum), Maximianus Herculius, who had been made a sort of co-emperor with Diocletian, called the two men before him. After his efforts to persuade them to give up the faith, they responded,

“Thy threats do not terrify us, for Christ is our life, and death is our gain. Thy rank and possessions are nought to us, for we have long before this sacrificed the like for the sake of Christ and rejoice in what we have done. If thou shouldst acknowledge and love Christ thou wouldst give not only all the treasures of this life, but even the glory of thy crown itself in order through the exercise of compassion to win eternal life.”

Maximianus handed them over to Rictiovarus, the Gallic governor, who had them tortured terribly – stretched on a rack and flesh torn, among other horrible inflictions. After all of this, he had millstones fastened to their necks and had them thrown into the Aisne River. Miraculously, they managed to swim to safety. The Roman Martyrology succinctly finishes the story: “after [these] horrible torments, they were put to the sword, and thus obtained the crown of martyrdom.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia questions some of the credibility of this story, since its sources may be somewhat unreliable. However, we must examine a certain important principle in the matter of saintly stories, since credibility will always loom as an issue in the stories of the obscure saints. I simply quote a section from St. Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God in which he defends the practice of believing holy stories:

“Charity willingly believeth all things; that is, it is not so quick to believe that any one is lying, and if there are no apparent marks of falsehood in things which are told, it makes no difficulty about believing them; but above all when they are things which exalt and magnify the love of God towards men, or the love of men towards God … in matter of religion, good souls have more sweetness in believing things in which there is more difficulty and admiration.” (Chapter XII)

By means of this argumentation, St. Francis de Sales was insisting that a certain miraculous story told in a homily by St. Bernard could be believed, even though he simply had no evidence whatsoever to prove it. We are in a similar situation. We’ve been handed a story of the miracles and martyrdoms of Crispin and Crispinian with only the written testimony of writers centuries later to show for it. But the good souls have more sweetness to believe stories such as these. Our charity willingly believes all of these things.

Thus,  I would suppose that we can accept the story handed onto us from the works of the Bollandists – but I’ll leave that up to the reader.

So, what if Crispin and Crispinian hadn’t fallen into obscurity? They are already known as patron saints of shoemakers, saddlers, and tanners. But their legacy is more than cobbling. While the modern imagination tends towards Shakespeare’s reference in “Henry V,” it turns out that this reference is not so far from the original spirit of these men. The Battle of Agincourt was a battle in which England triumphed against great odds over France in 1415 AD. But Saints Crispin and Crispinian in their own way triumphed against great odds in France (Gaul at their time), albeit in a spiritual battle for souls.

So let us hail them today as victors all the same! May St. Crispin and St. Crispinian pray for us!

Will the Real St. Matthew Please Stand Up?

Fr. Peter Gruber

“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Pope Francis remarked in his 2013 interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.

“It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.”

In Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew, Pope Francis found the perfect image to express his own surprise at being uniquely called by Christ to serve the Church as supreme pontiff.

But, we have a problem. Which figure in the painting is St. Matthew?

(If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to give the painting a good look and try to figure it out for yourself.)

Besides the faintest loop over Christ’s head, there are no halos in this painting. Nor should there be – St. Matthew was only Matthew the tax-collector at this point. Here he is, in the midst of his sin and in corrupt company. Matthew has just as much chance of being called out of this situation as any of the five guys in the tax office.

But which one is he?


Option 1: The Bearded Man

At first glance, Matthew appears to be the man with long beard. His eyes show surprise, his face is illuminated, his finger seems to point toward his breast. And, maybe just to help us out, he has a distinguishing coin in his hat and a right hand fingering money on the table. If there is anyone in this painting who is reacting as the one who is called, it’s this guy.

bearded-guy

There are two other reasons why the bearded man is the best candidate for Matthew.

First, Caravaggio did not paint The Calling by itself. With this painting in the Contarelli Chapel in the San Luigi dei Francesi Church in Rome, Caravaggio painted two other scenes from the life of St. Matthew: The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. MatthewIn both of these adjacent paintings, Matthew is depicted as a man with a sizable beard.

The second reason concerns some of the interesting history going on at that point. Before this was painted, there was a passing fear that France might go the way of the Church of England. This fear partially subsided when the Huguenot (Protestant) Henry IV converted back to Catholicism upon taking the French throne in 1593. Caravaggio was commissioned six years later to paint three works for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi (St. Louis of the French). To flatter the now-Catholic king of France (and appease his patron), Caravaggio painted St. Matthew to resemble Henry IV. (You can see the bearded resemblance here.)

But that might not be the whole story.


Option 2: The Hunched-Over Man

People make a big deal about Christ’s pointing gesture just below the window in the painting. His hand is unusually relaxed for a definitive signaling of direction. The reason for this is very likely that Caravaggio is alluding to a more famous painting: The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.

finger-edited

fingers

Michelangelo’s Adam is depicted in the Sistine Chapel fresco in the moment just before his animation, with his finger less than an inch from that of God. Michelangelo, instead of showing an Adam already filled with life, depicts the precise moment prior to his ensoulment with all the drama of a limp wrist.

Like Michelangelo, Caravaggio may not be capturing the moment of the calling of Matthew; he might very well be capturing the precise moment before the calling of Matthew. The finger of Christ the New Adam has yet to be fully extended, the call is only just about to happen. The whole painting is in that dramatic tension of the moment before the call.

In that case, Matthew is not the bearded man whose face is fully illuminated; Matthew is the man whose face is about to be illuminated – the smooth-faced hunched-over man.

hunched-over-guy

And here, before the call reaches him – before the light reaches his face – Matthew is still a sinner, still a tax-collector, still fingering his coins and gripping his money bag. The bearded figure to his left anticipates the perceived direction of Christ’s soon-to-be-extended finger, pointing perhaps not to his own breast but to the hunched over man next to him. This man’s face, only half-illuminated by the light that comes from Christ’s entrance, still intently looks down to the table; he has but to lift his head an inch to make eye contact with Christ. Will his eyes meet the gaze that tests mortal men and will he remain the same? Will he respond to the call?

 

So, which one is Matthew?

It’s still not entirely clear. It can go either way.

But that’s probably how Caravaggio wants it to be. Caravaggio’s art was at the cutting edge of the subjective turn of modern thought. As a controversial artist of his time, he departed from the idea that art is exclusively at the service of the true, good, and beautiful, and turned instead toward an innovative realism. (See our earlier post on what makes art good.)

Part of Caravaggio’s goal is to pull the viewer into the painting. He wants this ambiguity; he wants you to be asking these questions. And he knows that things are not so cut and dry. Christ entered a world in chaos, a world engulfed in sin. He calls us out of that darkness and into His light.

Turning again to the painting, if we go to the source of Christ’s call and look above His not-yet-fully-outstretched right hand, we find ourselves at the base of a cross (the fourfold window pane forms a cross). Here we are meant to ponder Christ’s own cross. And at the cross, darkness appears to triumph over light, chaos over order, death over life. It is precisely at that moment when Christ conquers. It is from that cross that Christ calls His disciples, and it is to that cross that Christ calls His disciples. Like Matthew (whoever he is), we are drawn up while we are still sinners into the cross, into the central mystery of our faith.

Pope Francis (himself seeming to weigh in on Matthew as the bearded man) hits on what our response should be to Christ’s call: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Independent of who we decide Matthew to be in this painting, our response to Christ should be the same as that of Pope Francis. We are that sinner uniquely called by Christ.

How will we respond to His call?

 

Main image: “The Calling of St. Matthew,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1599-1600

In Defense of Bad Priests

Eamonn Clark

I recently prepared third graders for their First Holy Communion. Going through the story of the Last Supper several times, I noticed that they had a fascination with a certain Apostle… You guessed it – Judas. A fascination with such a character is understandable, as it seems rather out of place in a story which one would think is supposed to be exclusively upholding models of virtue. This is not unlike the very grown-up temptation to expect moral perfection from Catholic clergy. After all, they are supposed to be models of virtue, right?

Yes, they certainly are, and extra scrutiny is rightly deserved because we do indeed have the fullness of truth and grace available to us. But here are the facts. Our Lord chose losers, dummies, and wicked sinners as the foundation of His Church. Of the original Twelve, ten were ambitious cowards. One of those ten was also arrogant (Peter). The eleventh was just ambitious (John). And the twelfth one was a greedy traitor. (Later on He would also call a terrorist to this elite group.)

The place to start looking at the failure of any priesthood is a comparison with the first four failed priesthoods, and the first successful one: Adam, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and Melchizedek, respectively. (Others such as Abel and Noah and Abraham offered sacrifices, like priests, but they were not called by the name “priest.” More could be said about their sacrifices as well.)

Adam was the high priest of nature, called to guard and serve the Garden of Eden and his wife Eve at his own expense. He ought to have put himself in front of her and the serpent, but he shrinks away from his duty. He stands next to her (as Eve “turned to her husband” to give him the fruit) and watches this calamity take place. The serpent goes after Eve first, because he knows that she is easier to trick and that she might be able to trick her husband. When confronted by God, Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve: there is no responsibility taken.

The Devil often seeks to harm God’s priests through the very people they are called to protect. In this case, Adam’s own fear and self-interest allow his beloved to fall, and then she takes him with her – for what husband would want to have a wife estranged from him, as Eve surely would have been without Adam following her into sin? And yet they become estranged from each other anyway, needing to hide themselves with the flesh of animals… The first time blood is shed in Scripture, it is to cover up the sins of our first parents. A sign of things to come, for sure.

The next failed priesthood is Aaron’s. While Moses is busy with spiritual matters on Mount Sinai, the people grumble against him. The patience required to receive the Covenant is too spiritual for them, and so they threaten to leave the mountain in protest. Aaron is concerned about such a loss of numbers – he is afraid of what Moses will think. He has the people give him their gold, and he makes for them an idol which provides them with the experience of God they wanted: an unchallenging, unspiritual, ungodly experience. But the people are happy, and they stay put for a while, high on their own erroneous ideas about the worship of God. Aaron saved the day. When Moses returns with righteous fury, Aaron explains, like Adam did before God, that it was not his fault – it was the people’s and the furnace’s. More shirking of responsibility. (Moses gives them the proper experience of the god Aaron made for them when he ground it down, threw it in the water, and made the people drink. Like a good priest, he teaches them that a dead god gives even less life than water: it cannot save.)

Unlike Adam, Aaron’s ambitions were totally worldly. Instead of trying to become like God as a direct opponent, he simply wants to be the hero of God’s chosen people. Aaron wants just a little bit too much of their attention… He is not really after the gold, but what lies behind the gold – the esteem of men. That is what gives gold its value, after all.

Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s sons. They violated the code of the Lord’s sanctuary by bringing unholy fire into the Tent of Meeting. This strange fire was deeply repugnant to the Lord, and so He slew them where they stood. Our Lord will only have sacred heat and light dwell within His holy place. Though profane fire may sustain bodily life, only sacred fire can sustain the life of grace.

The first successful priesthood is that of Melchizedek, whom Abraham meets after his battles. His is a totally spiritual and eternal priesthood, offering bread and wine and accepting the tithes owed to him for his work. He does not ask for money, he simply receives it. He is a priest not because of his family stock, like the Levites, but because of his charity. He gives to God first, then he receives what is rightfully his from men. He does not go looking for greatness: he simply is great.

Judas wraps up all of the failures of earlier priests in himself and makes them even worse. He is unwilling to do the work of a priest, putting himself in the place of Christ over and over again for the salvation of souls, standing in the way of the Devil’s reach of the weak, even though he would not have been alone in this task, unlike Adam. He trades the incarnate Lord not for the esteem of men, but for money itself. The purifying fires of the grace welling up in the Eucharistic Lord are traded for the fires of the foundry which purified the silver he would take as payment for his betrayal and would later throw into the Temple to try to buy back that grace. He takes into his body the blessed fruits of that very first celebration of Holy Mass which he was simultaneously endowed with the awesome power himself to perpetuate, as a recapitulation and elevation of Melchizedek’s priesthood, and then invites in the Devil to contradict it all. Though the accidents of bread and wine sustained Judas’ bodily life, the spirit within him died because of the rejection of the grace within the Lord’s Body and Blood – true food and true drink which preserve from everlasting death.

What greater human evil is there than the evil found in Judas on Holy Thursday? And yet that very night, Our Lord bowed before him to wash his feet, and He even personally called him “friend.” It is not unfair to say that, in a way, God loved Judas more than anyone else in human history, for there has never been a fouler human being to love. In the midst of this supreme wretchedness, Christ left us a memorial of His own greatness.

We know how the human story turns out. Judas despairs of the very mercy he was shortly supposed to be empowered to bring to others in the sacrament of confession. He attempts to slay himself (though perhaps did not succeed, and received even more time to repent), as if the death of the Lord had not been enough payment for his sin… No, Judas saw himself as so great that he believed his sin was unforgivable. “What a fool I have been,” he uttered. Yet this foolish failure brought about the culmination of our very redemption. Without Judas, there is no Passion, Death, or Resurrection. There is also not the greatest condescension of love ever shown by God. Deicide is not therefore justified, but God’s choice to allow a bad priest to exist in the Church is.

Meanwhile, Peter weeps in contrition and makes amends with “the man” he denied knowing, within earshot and within hours of having heard this prophesied. He left that “strange fire” in the courtyard, from where he watched the Lord shiver in the cold and dark of the prison cell, and he leaves the slave girl before whom he cowered in fear. Behold, the Prince of Apostles, who would eventually learn that taking up the sword is better left to those who persecute Christ than those who defend Him, and who would finally end his life as a willing victim upon a cross. The priesthood of Peter was in as sorry a state as the priesthood of Judas; the difference was repentance. Yet again, Our Lord shows his greatness through the failures of one of His hand-picked dispensers of grace.

The Church on Earth is institutional and hierarchical by nature, because human beings require such an order so as to avoid repeating the tragic error of the men of Babel who tried by their own powers to cooperate to reach up to Heaven. The Church on Earth is also sinful by nature, because it is populated by human beings – even in its hierarchy. It has been so from the moment of its inception, and this is by design. No, God does not want bad clergy in the same way He wants good clergy, but He does want to permit them to exist for now. He knew Judas would betray Him, and He knew all the clerical pedophiles, heretics, and antinomians of our own day would do the same. While they betray the Lord by selling Him for popularity or money, as they shrink from their duty to stand in front of Satan and then blame the weak or the natural insufficiency of their means, as they profane the Eucharist through indifference toward it, they repeatedly show the power of Christ in His Church: even through all this, there is victory waiting.

There has always been a crack in the foundation, there has always been chaff in the wheat, and yet there has always been grace available through these men nonetheless, as it is God’s own power which is the source of their priesthood and thus the source of their power to give grace – “ex opere operato.” God shows His majesty in the midst of this weakness and wretchedness. And sometimes He even brings these men out of their shameful disgrace and elevates them to the profoundest heights of sanctity, a feat which must be marveled at. There is true hope of Heaven for every bad priest in this world. Christ calls each of them “friend.”

Perspective is important. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Qoheleth reminds us. We would do well to recall more frequently the beginnings of the Church to understand Her challenges today. (A reading of the disturbing history of ancient Israel would help too.) Whatever cleric is the object of concern – parish priest, celebrity priest, local bishop, curial official, pope… If there really is sin there, realize that it is just business as usual. The Barque of Peter has always leaked in the storm while the inept crew runs about helplessly, and yet it continues to float safely toward the harbor. Our Lord can guide it even in His sleep.

Let’s pray and fast for all priests, especially those who need it most.

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!

 

Main image: Pope John XII, who was killed in the act of adultery by a vengeful husband