I have often pondered how the Church has survived 2000 years. I have considered how long the Church could have survived without the promise of Christ that gates of Hell would not prevail, and without the Holy Spirit. I have concluded that we would have lasted about twenty minutes, max.
Yet here we are, a kind of miracle, so big, that no one notices. 2,000 years old, (longer if you ponder our Jewish roots). Empires and nations have risen and fallen during that time: The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the great and expansive European nations with their widespread colonies: the British empire, the Spanish and French expansions and later contractions. It was once said, “The Sun never sets on the British Empire.” Now it does. And all Europe, as we know it, may be in the late autumn of its existence. Chinese dynasties have risen and fallen, more recently the Nazi and then Soviet regimes have come and gone. In the 7th Century the Muslims came on the scene, expanded, contracted and now, it would seem, are expanding again.
But through all this the Church has withstood. Sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, but always, miraculously left standing, though all crumble around her. What other nation or organization can, as we do, trace its roots in an unbroken line of successors (Popes and bishops) back to its founder? It is true we have suffered some divisions within, some precarious moments, and it is true some have broken away from us. But the center has held, and the line is unbroken. Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia (where Peter is, there is the Church). The Church stands, while Empires, nations, movements, and fads have come and gone.
And this miracle shines forth despite significant human obstacles within her: often terrible scandals, poor preaching, bad example, abuse of power, poor priorities, disorganization, sweeping heresies, schisms, lack of faith, and just plain stupidity.
It is said that the Napoleon, threatening to destroy the Catholic Church, was scoffed at by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris in these words, “Priests have been trying to destroy the Church for 1800 years and been unable!” Words sad, but at times true. Corruptio optime pessima (the Corruption of the best, is the worst). Yet here we still are.
An old hymn (though Protestant in origin) is true when applied to the Catholic Church:
Though with a scornful wonder
we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;
their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.
Mid toil and tribulation,
and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation
of peace forevermore;
till, with the vision glorious,
her longing eyes are blest,
and the great Church victorious
shall be the Church at rest.
Until that time, we shall endure and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us. Though dismissed by many who predict our demise, it is a promise of Christ (Matt 16:18) and it has proved true despite many previous predictions of our demise.
This does not mean that the Church is not in need of purification and pruning. And we have and will continue to experience this. I am convinced that we are still in a time of pruning. The Lord has taken the tall and proud vine of the Church, so luxuriant, it seemed, fifty years and before in this land, and has pruned us, by allowing us to be tested. This is a time of purification. A time not yet complete. But, as I have remarked before, I experience the Church here in America to be in much better condition than the more terrible times of the 1970s and 1980s. The pruning may not yet be fully over, but there are signs of greater purity and intensity already in: fervent and orthodox younger clergy, fine and wonderful new religious, many new and superb lay movements, and many individual lay people powerfully dedicated, sober and clear about their faith and the need to be light, even to accepting a kind of martyrdom in this ever darkening world.
The Church is surely a miracle; one before our very eyes. The world, and even many of the faithful, may think we are on the ropes and ready to go down. But we will endure, by the promise of Christ. An old spiritual says, Get on board children, children, there’s room for many-a-more. Nations, cultures, empires, and ideologies, will come and go. But there’s one ship that’s going to make it through this old storm tossed world, and that is the Church. Get on board children, (and stay on board), there’s room for many-a-more.
Photo Credit: The Cardinal’s Portrait by Rosenthal – A wonderful diptych of sorts. On the canvas painted by the monk, we see an image of the Church as we want her to be. On the left is the all too human reality of the Church. Ah, but the Church endures, by God’s grace.
This video of the Church being (re)built in France inspired me to write this post. Enjoy the video as you see a sign of new life and a visual image of the church being (re)built.