Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat; But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren. (Luke 22:31-32)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
My very Dear Sons,
There are two ways to consider the great mystery of the Church (at least two ways), two perspectives on this institution that is divine in its constitution and preservation from error, but all too human in its earthly members. We might consider the Church going from the top down, beginning with the eternal Shepherd, Christ, Our Lord, Himself, who is its transcendent head, descending all the way to the most recently appointed altar boy or least conspicuous member of the faithful, passing in review every intermediate rank and association of its members as we go. We might then contemplate, conversely, the same Church, going from bottom to top, beginning with the representatives of the Church who are closest to us on ground level, the individual human beings who belong, more or less truly, to it, and from this ground perspective raise our eyes toward the top of the hierarchy.
Another way to make this same comparison between Holy Mother Church in her Divine institution on the one hand, and then her human instruments full of imperfections and weaknesses on the other, would be to consider Church in the very person of her most exalted member under the Divine Head, that is to say the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, spotless creature having all human perfection and full of Divine gifts, who represents to us the living image of the Church as Saint Paul described it, saying,
as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it: That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life: That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
To complete the comparison, then, having in mind this perfect mirror of the Church’s sanctity who is Mary, we might make inventory of the countless mishaps and treasons that have been perpetrated in the name of the Church by the sons and daughters of Eve, underlining these sad betrayals and all the harm done to human beings in the name of the Faith. These shadows are great, so great, in fact, that they actually represent a kind of negative proof of the Church’s divine institution. In effect, no other institution could have suffered so much turmoil and survived like the Catholic Church has survived. A contemporary Catholic philosopher merely restates a truth often repeated by Catholic thinkers, when he says,
[There is] the fact that many priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes not only lived very bad lives opposed to Catholic teaching, but rejected many Catholic doctrines, or simply did not believe them. Any purely human institution would long since have been dissolved, or suffered inner divisions and contradictions that would have been reflected in its creeds and official teachings. (Josef Seifert, “The Persecution of Orthodoxy,” First Things, October 5, 2017)
For the Church in its transcendent perfection, its spotless beauty, we need never apologize or be ashamed. As for the Church contemplated in the failures of many of its members, some contemporary Popes have thought necessary to apologize. They alone are in a position to make such a call; they would know more than any human being about human weakness in the ranks.
In the end, however, where do we want to direct our gaze? What aspect of this immense mystery of the Church do we want to contemplate assiduously as to become more like what we contemplate? There is no doubt about it: our souls long for the light.
When the well-known English journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, was thinking of entering the Church, but was put off by what he did not approve of in the actions of Pope Paul VI, Saint Mother Teresa, with whom he consulted about the matter, urged him “to look higher.” And he finally did, converting to the Roman Catholic Church in December of 1983. It had been a very long road for this man raised in a family steeped in Socialism, a man who had become increasingly cynical as he saw what went on in the world as he traveled from place to place pursing his journalistic career. When he did finally make the step of entering the Church, he said he felt “a sense of homecoming, of picking up the threads of a lost life, of responding to a bell that has long been ringing, of finding a place at a table that has long been left vacant.” After his conversion Muggeridge especially remembered the one who started him on this path, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose selfless work for India’s destitute he first told the world about, who had a dramatic transforming effect on his life. Seeing the light of God illuminate the nun’s wizened face, seeing her complete trust in God, Muggeridge saw as never before the pathetic condition of his worldly cynicism (Dinesh D’Souza, “Conversion of a Cynic,” Crisis Magazine, August 1, 1984).
For us too there is a danger in looking too intently upon the human weakness that may appear in the Church, even in the clergy or among consecrated men and women. Without being unrealistic or refusing to see what may need to be corrected, for example the tragedy of clerical child abuse, we need to look higher, contemplating the Church who truly is in her essence, glorious, not having spot or wrinkle, like the Immaculate Mother of God. Nor must we ever forget the words Our Lord so solemnly spoke in the Gospel, referring to Simon Peter, the first Pope, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat; But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” We must always pray for the Holy Father, Christ’s Vicar upon earth, that he find the grace ever to steer Peter’s Bark through the raging sea of the contemporary world. Buoyed by the apostolic witness, we must not and will never compromise with the errors that seek to engulf us all. Amen. Alleluia.