An overarching crisis in today’s church is a crisis of faith; not faith in God, not faith in Jesus Christ, but a crisis of faith in the institutional church. Members of an older generation have felt a certain testing of faith since the mid-1960’s. They remember their childhood: novenas, Forty Hours devotion, the Latin Mass, the priest with his back turned toward the people. Youngsters making the Sign of the Cross passing the parish church, but not allowed even to look into a Protestant church. Bishop Fulton Sheen on evening television, Fridays with macaroni and cheese or creamed tuna on toast, abstaining from food and drink from midnight on days when you received Communion, the nine First Fridays, collections in school for “pagan babies” and “JMJ” spontaneously scrawled at the top of homework papers.
Patrick Buchanan, sometime presidential candidate, recalls the day he selected the name Francis Xavier for his confirmation name—not just “Francis,” he says, because the name Francis alone could be misunderstood to mean that other Francis, the pacifist with the pigeons.
Garry Wills, speaking about his boyhood, recalls seeing firemen carrying poles and axes at a church fire and genuflecting every time they passed back and forth before the tabernacle. Girls without hats attached Kleenex to their heads with hairpins; it fluttered like a raffish dove as they strode to the Communion rail. At the moment of the consecration of the bread and wine at Mass, there was always a hush...then the scuffling resumed; all the coughs and sniffs inhibited during the consecration formed a firecracker series of soft percussions. The bus driver put his hand over the fare box when a Sister entered the bus. In the public swimming pool one saw brown scapulars like big postage stamps glued here and there on boys’ chests and backs. At the altar rail, as one knelt on a hard marble step, the altar boy nicked each Adam’s apple with the paten, the cold Communion plate he carried.
Catholicism then was a vast set of intermeshed childhood habits: prayers offered, heads ducked in unison, nuns in the classroom—alternately sweet and severe. In our younger days, the church was enclosed, perfect in its circular inner logic, turned in on itself, but so vulnerable, so fragile, if one looked outward away from it...one touch of change could shatter it. No wonder we protected it as long as we could with a sense of its brittleness and that some left it when it broke. It was a ghetto, Wills says, but not a bad ghetto in which to grow up.
Then came the 1960’s and the Second Vatican Council. Now we had the Mass in English, with the priest facing the people. Now we had the sign of peace and the holding of hands at the Our Father. A gradual change from a law and order church to a flexible church—the blurring of lines of authority. Things we had thought to be static, eternal and unchanging were changing. But these were mainly peripheral things.
The past 35 years have been a time of growth, a time of adolescence in the church, and adolescence is never easy. Like adolescents, we are stumbling over our disproportionately large feet; we are breaking out in ecclesiastical acne. We need liberal and progressive Catholics who truly love the church to push us forward to new insights. And we need conservative, traditional Catholics to provide a challenge to new ideas, to insure that the essential teachings of the church are not diluted. We will remind ourselves that the church is basically Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.
What we have thus far described are aftershock tremors in the institutional church. Other events, more foundational, have accumulated throughout the years to shake our trust in organized religion altogether. The endless embarrassing “religious” wars among the faiths (not usually theological wars at all, but armed conflicts for secular gains). This very day, Muslims are fighting Jews in the Middle East. Hindus are fighting Sikhs and Muslims in India. Catholics and Protestants are opposed in Northern Ireland. What is the value of organized religion anyway?
Unsettling to the faith of Catholics in our time and place is the current crisis created by cases of sexual molestation of the young by clergy. Is the Catholic Church unable to comprehend and communicate lucidly the baffling mystery of human sexuality? So many of the people around us, particularly among the young, dismiss as irrelevant the church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality, pre-marital sex and birth control. This incessant countercultural force of the modern world that rejects the church’s positions can tempt Catholics to doubt. Still, the church cannot change its teachings simply because it has difficulty persuading.
Since the days of Jesus of Nazareth, what has the church become?
After Christianity’s embrace by the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century and the reinforcement of its power by one of history’s brightest intellects, St. Augustine, in The City of God, one strain in the church gradually developed through the centuries into a spirit of dominance, duress and triumphalism—politically, socially and theologically.
Some Christian leadership, in part knowingly but mostly unknowingly, separated diametrically from the spirit of Jesus Christ. Christ had taught non-violence, the dignity of the individual, the priority of conscience and identification with the poor and the oppressed—not the conquest that the world conceives of as success. The acquisition of political power and the subjugation of “enemies,” un-Christlike pursuits, led a considerable part of the world to forsake religion in favor of secularism.
When the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment promoted reliance on reason, educated people began to recognize the contradiction implied by the notion of Christianity as power. Today the Western secularist world trusts mainly in science. It is a world that has turned away from institutional churches in the wake of Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Voltaire, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Einstein and Hawking.
All society, however, would do well to study the authentic, original charism of Jesus Christ and his teachings, if it hopes to find an ethical compass for the new millennium. The scientifically enlightened 20th century was in fact the most brutal of centuries. The religious wars of the past killed thousands, but the totalitarianisms of the Soviet, Nazi and Pol Pot Cambodian governments killed millions.
Some secularists think that the loss of the papal states in the 19th century and the ideal of the servant-church emphasized by the Second Vatican Council are signs that the church today is in decline. Actually it is a church closer to the vulnerable Christ, and it more nearly resembles the defenseless first Christian communities. It is moving away from structures of prestige and esteem. Hopefully it will now use the power of powerlessness.
There is accumulating evidence that changes are needed in the operation of the church and in its exercise of authority. There is need for continued serious study of human sexuality, for a renewed emphasis on personal holiness, for greater participation of women and the laity generally in the life of the church and for an unconstrained acceptance of the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
We are weakened today, but one of the most liberating things we have discovered is that it is in our weakest moments that Christ is strongest in us. As a lyric in Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” puts it: “Have you ever noticed that glass shines brightest when it’s broken?”
The church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.
Michael Buckley, S.J., recalls that Raïssa Maritain in her Journals writes that she was enormously struck by the comment made by the Catholic thinker Charles du Bos on his deathbed. He said, “The mark of every great life is failure.” Perhaps Du Bos was remembering Nietzsche dying in madness, or Mozart dying in poverty with his music trivialized, or Aquinas and Chaucer, dying with the Summa and The Canterbury Tales forever unfinished.
There is also a tradition of weakness and failure in the church. Think of Peter and his mistakes. Think of Mary Magdalen, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, son of a family that could be termed dysfunctional. Think of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, rather neurotic in her childhood, and St. Bernadette Soubirous, who flunked out of religion class in the second grade. Jesus himself failed in his prophetic mission to convert the people of Israel. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said the failed Jesus is his most distressing disguise.
Socrates went to his death with calmness and poise. He accepted the judgment of the court; spoke of the two alternatives suggested by death, found no cause for fear, drank the poison hemlock and died. How different the example of Jesus. He was profoundly upset in Gethsemane. He felt terror and fear; he looked for comfort from friends and for an escape from death and found neither. Then he mastered his anguish and accepted his death in silence and lonely isolation. Socrates never wept over Athens. Socrates never expressed sorrow at the betrayal of friends. Socrates, one of the most gifted persons who has ever lived, was a philosopher. But Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah: ambiguous, vulnerable, mysterious, salvific—and eternal. Father Buckley asks seminarians, “Are you weak enough to be a priest?”
How often in the Bible, God shocks us with the words: “I do not want your religious rituals, your holocausts and sacrifices. What I want from you is mercy for the poor, for the weak.” “You may multiply your prayers. I shall not listen,” says Yahweh.
If when they look at the institutional church, people see Jesus Christ, they are more likely to believe—the Jesus whose priorities are persons who are weak and hurting.
Some years ago, Franco Zefferelli’s mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” was televised during Holy Week. I remember picking up The Bee, Sacramento’s major daily, on Holy Saturday morning. A front page photo pictured a group of people, young, middle-aged and older, being herded into a police van. They had been demonstrating for the homeless outside the main entrance of the Federal Building on Capitol Mall. The police handled the protestors gently, but they did arrest them because they were blocking the entrance.
It crossed my mind that this scene of arrest resembled the episode of Christ’s arrest in the Zefferelli movie. In that same morning paper, another photo showed the Good Friday liturgy at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento. In that picture I saw myself in the sanctuary with the other celebrants and deacons. The sight of the elaborate vestments on all of us clergy shook me for a moment, because it reminded me of another scene in the Zefferelli film: the scene of the High Priests Annas and Caiaphas and their attendants in their robes condemning Jesus. I began to wonder which of the two scenes was closer to Christ— the protestors or we, the Christian ministers.
Because this nagging thought persisted, I finally brought the question to a spiritual director. He reminded me that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was once asked why it was that she had her sisters in the chapel praying for over two hours a day instead of spending some of that time taking care of more of the dying in the streets of Calcutta. Her answer was that if the sisters were not praying two hours a day, they probably would not go out to the streets of Calcutta at all.
Our liturgies, our prayers are absolutely essential. Actually, they have generated the church’s social accomplishments through the centuries. Anxieties about the relevance of our faith and rituals can be misleading and tempting. The world needs both service and sanctuary.
This is how the Italian writer, Carlo Carretto, put it:
How much I must criticize you, my Church, and yet how much I love you! You have made me suffer more than anyone, and yet I owe more to you than to anyone. I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me much scandal, and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous, or more beautiful. Countless times I have felt like leaving you, my Church; and yet every night I have prayed that I might die in your warm, loving arms.
The people of the church will have intermittent crises of faith. But in the new millennium we still hear Jesus saying: “Why are you fearful, you of little faith? Fear not. Be not afraid. I am with you all days, even to the end of the world.”