Christ promised that the underworld would never overpower his church, but he did not say this community of his followers would be immune from troubles. Nor has it been. From its first days in Jerusalem, the church has often been violently shaken by forces both within and without.
From a multitude of cases, consider two. There was once a flourishing church in North Africathe church of Cyprian, Perpetua and Felicitas, and the great Augustine. It disappeared beneath waves of invading Arabic Muslims.
In the fourth century, the heresy of Arianism struck at the heart of the Christian faith by denying the divinity of Christ. Many bishops in the East declared themselves Arians, and various local councils denounced the defenders of orthodoxy. It was after one such proclamation that Jerome, the most learned Christian of the day, said, The whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.
Humanly speaking, these tribulations were inevitable. Jesus said he came to call sinners to repentance, but the conversion of hearts is a slow and fitful process. From this painful truth, the Second Vatican Council in its Decree on Ecumenism (1964) drew an inescapable conclusion: Christ summons the church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of men here on earth (No. 6).
For U.S. Catholics today, this rather bland generalization must sound like a firebell in the night. The revelations of abuse of children and minors by members of the clergy are scandalous proof of that need for continual reformation.
Although the crisis is still too close to be seen in proper perspective, several national polls have already picked out the main lines of the reactions of American Catholics. In a survey conducted by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., and in one jointly sponsored by The Washington Post and ABC News, three points of general agreement appeared. Most of those questioned thought the issue of sexual abuse has hurt the overall reputation of the churchthey could hardly have thought otherwiseand they disapproved of the way some bishops and chanceries have handled this issue. But when the respondents were asked whether or not the crisis had shaken their faith, majorities ranging from 83 percent to 95 percent said it had not.
All the same, even people of sturdy faith must be asking themselves when the skies will clear and what wellsprings will refresh their church. They can be heartened by recalling two aspects of the Catholic response to the worst crisis in Christian historythe 16th-century separatism that divided Europe into Catholics and Protestants.
The Council of Trent was a response from the church leadershipwith significant lay input. Pope Paul III convened the council under firm prodding from Emperor Charles V.
Over the course of its three sessions from 1545 to 1563, Trent dealt not only with doctrinal questions but also with the reform of a mostly ignorant clergy. In some German cities the crowd of untrained priests made up a clerical proletariat, whose members moonlighted as saloon keepers or musicians. Trent transformed this scene by calling for the establishment of seminaries, a change that it took nearly a century to bring about.
The other response was not a specific event like Trent but a groundswell of religious energy rising from the Catholic people, beginning well before Luther and extending into the 17th century. It nourished theology and produced a constellation of saints who pioneered in ministries of service to others. A random sampling would include Angela Merici, forerunner of dozens of congregations dedicated to the education of women; John of God and Camillus of Lellis, founders of hospitals and congregations for care of the sick; Ignatius Loyola, whose Society of Jesus became both a teaching and a missionary order; John Baptist de La Salle, whose Brothers of the Christian Schools brought literacy to the poor; and Teresa of Avila, a doctor of mystical theology.
Alongside these heroic figures were countless others who have not been canonized but who together in their lives and work constituted one of history’s most powerful religious movements.
Secular historians see in Trent and the Catholic revival the capacity of an ancient society to reinvigorate itself. Believers see that too, but they also see the never-failing action of grace. They believe that grace will help the U.S. bishops shape policies that will do away with clergy abuses and restore trust. They believe that grace can raise up another generation of innovative saints who will transform the life of the church. And so with particular fervor this season, they repeat the Pentecostal prayer: Come Holy Spirit, renew the face of the earth.