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The Pruning of the Church and Our Response to It

July 17, 2018 10 Comments

As we go through the Book of the Prophet Isaiah at Mass this week, we read of Israel’s painful purifications as well as the subsequent punishment of the surrounding nations.

God permitted the nations to persecute Israel in order that she be purified, but the iniquity and sin of the nations and of this world cannot go on forever; wickedness must be ended. The Lord did not just purify Israel, He will also judge the nations.

In a complex passage, God says (through Isaiah) that although He had used Assyria as a tool to purify Israel, Assyria would not escape punishment for her iniquity. Here is an excerpt:

Woe to Assyria! My rod in anger, my staff in wrath. Against an impious nation [Israel] I send him, and against a people under my wrath I order him to seize plunder, carry off loot …. But this is not what he intends, nor does he have this in mind; Rather, it is in his heart to destroy …. [And] he says: “By my own power I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I am shrewd. I have moved the boundaries of peoples ….” Will the axe boast against him who hews with it? Will the saw exalt itself above him who wields it? As if a rod could sway him who lifts it …. Therefore, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, will send among his fat ones leanness, and instead of his glory there will be kindling like the kindling of fire (Isaiah 10:5-16).

Although God wielded Assyria like an axe to prune Israel, that did not make the axe good. The axe must be refined as in fire.

What do stories like these have to say to us today? Quite a bit, especially if we interpret Israel as an image for the Church and the nations around us today as akin to Assyria and Babylon.

The Church has been going through a great pruning and purification in the past fifty years. The once luxuriant vine of Catholicism and Christendom in the West has been reduced. Only about a quarter of Catholics in the U.S. attend Mass; in Europe the numbers are far worse. Indifference to the faith and to God is widespread. Many are Catholic in name only.

Yet for those who remain there is an increasingly fervent experience of the faith. On account of doubt and persecution, many of us are clearer about what we believe and why than we were in the past. There has been a great blossoming of Catholic media and Catholic apologetics. The Catholics who remain are more devout and more creative. In this we see a pruning and purification that is so often necessary in the Church. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church is always in need of reform).

This purification is being effected by God, who is permitting an increasingly secular and hostile world to afflict the Church. This can take many forms: indifference to religious teaching; scoffing at religious beliefs; promulgation of error and lies in order to lead people away from the faith; marginalizing the role of faith-based organizations in charity, adoption, and foster care; excoriating and even criminalizing religious beliefs; and even outright martyring of believers. A few recent court cases that sought to criminalize religious views have gone well for believers, but the legal actions grow ever more numerous.

For the time being, God seems to be permitting the “Assyria” of modern, decadent culture to afflict us. Things do by opposition grow, however. Even if God is wielding the axe of modernity now, this does not make the axe holy; soon enough the axe will have to answer for its wickedness.

What are faithful Catholics to do under the current circumstances? The answer to this may vary based upon our state/stage in life (e.g., parent, priest, married, single, young, old). Many younger families are choosing to “hunker down” and live as isolated from our toxic culture as possible by homeschooling, restricting television viewing, and/or limiting Internet access. Others have chosen to engage the culture boldly in order to seek its conversion and to rescue as many as possible from its grip.

Another text from Isaiah seems appropriate for an increasing number of Catholics, especially those with children:

Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath has passed by. For behold, the LORD is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it and will no more cover its slain (Is 26:21-22).

In effect, this text advises the faithful to preserve the faith by seeking to live as far apart from the prevailing culture as possible. Israel’s purification was bearing fruit and God was preparing to punish the nations that afflicted His faithful there.

As in the days of Noah, some choose to hunker down and preserve the faith from the flood of rebellion.

This of course is not the usual stance of the Church, which ordinarily is to be zealously evangelical, but even the first evangelists were told by Jesus that in the face of fierce opposition to the gospel they were to flee: When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another (Matt 10:24). There are times to hole up in the enclosure of the ark in order to preserve the life and light of the gospel and then emerge again when the storms of destruction have passed by.

What does all of this mean to you? You must decide how to respond. Some may be called to isolate their families in order to preserve them from the caustic culture. Others may be called to engage with this world and seek to save as many as possible. Increasingly, the Church is simply not going to be able to make the compromises that the world demands of her.

Isaiah’s prophecies are not merely locked in the past; they are operative now as well.

In the video below, Bishop Robert Barron does a wonderful job of giving hope in the midst of affliction. Describing the stance of hunkering down, he reminds us that for those who do so it is a stance that is less one of hiding than of preserving the faith so that it can be set loose later with its purity intact.

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Comments (10)

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  1. Sue Zappa says:

    Be very cautious about “hunkering down” & isolating your children from the world completely. You may raise very weak, sick plants by doing so.

    We have six children, ages 20-32. The oldest three were homeschooled & then went to the most orthodox, solidly-Catholic parish & school in our archdiocese. If I said it’s name, all of you would recognize it immediately. Unfortunately, it’s another “white washed sepulchere.” Do our three oldest kids know the Faith? Inside & out! Did they live it? Yup, at home & school! Did they fall away as adults? You bet they did! Two have come back. Our oldest son was sexually abused by a Legionnaires of Christ priest. He’s yet to come back.

    Our three younger children were homeschooled, & then went to this Catholic school from grades 6, 3, & K, respectively. None of them have fallen away, all are very strong Catholics, & our youngest son (the middle child of this group) is discerning a priestly vocation at present. Why the difference? Because the younger three ended up in a public school in our smallish city. they were forced to learn & defend the Faith to their teachers & peers! We spent many evenings looking up answers for them, teaching them the Faith on an adult level, so they could catechize their Catholic classmates as well as defend the Faith to those who would attack it! They never, ever backed down from a challenge! I heard from our town’s Catholic Confirmation director that parents would call her to ask if our son, Tim, had her permission to be teaching the Faith at school. She had no problem with it since the kids were learning the Truth! None of them would go to our parish programs because they were empty & stupid. All “fun & games,” & no content!

    Don’t raise weak little lambs who will never leave their parents’ sides! Doing this will help no one. Our family may be the exception, but when my older kids talk about how most of their Catholic school classmates have left the Church, I suspect we did the better thing with our younger kids.

  2. Bob P. says:

    Good post, Sue. I agree. These days, there seems to be more harm in sending kids to a Catholic school which teaches the faith poorly than there is in sending them to the public school and making sure they attend Mass and passing on the faith at home. And let’s be honest, it appears that many “Catholic” schools these days are struggling to teach even the basics of the faith. The Catholic college network, save a handful of orthodox schools, is beyond repair. I’m not going to spend $10,000 per year for a Catholic school (on top of taxes) when I can teach the faith better myself at home or surround my children with faithful family, friends, and fellow parishioners. To be quite honest, our money would be better spend in most cases by abolishing the Catholic schools and reinvesting the money in parish religious education, outreach, etc.

  3. It sounds like you did a beautiful job, congratulations! Five out of six with one considering holy orders is better than good.I’m sorry for the sixth. I understand the grave injustice to your faithfulness and the pain caused by individual members of his body. I believe, sometimes, he offers us an opportunity to receive Judases kiss of betrayal. In this way, we can truly grieve with him. Don’t lose faith, Jesus is the great shepherd, and he will go, leaving his flock, throw you son upon his shoulders and bring him home. I know because I to was betrayed, not by our church but by one individual and Jesus pursued me relentlessly. He will not stop until your son is too weak to resist the shepherd’s love.
    Public schools have begun to indoctrinate children in elementary school with the LGBT and homosexual agenda. They are being instructed to “welcome as different” what God considers unacceptable. This is much different than they were when your youngest was in public school. The train to kill ideas of the traditional family structure is moving fast. Public school now should be the last resort, and decontamination nightly needs to occur.
    God Speed

  4. CoramThoma says:

    Thank you for offering your personal experience. I will pray for your oldest son.
    I would respectfully offer that perhaps it wasn’t the temporary homeschooling that afflicted your older children but the Catholic school they attended.
    It sounds like you were “homeschooling” your public-schooled children after hours – good job – teaching them what was lacking in their faith-formation.
    One of the main reasons I am homeschooling my children has been an opposition to the “kid culture” found in all schools. This “kid culture” forms children primarily by their peers.
    Children are learning who they are – and what they ought to be – by the constant feedback they receive from their peers, and forming themselves according to their peers’ opinions.
    We must be a shield and protect our children from the temptation to “fit in” – fit in to what? The toxic culture filters down every where, including every school. Other families may not be as vigilant as your own.
    In youth, who were those influencing any foolish decisions you may have made? Your friends and classmates. Who was it counseling you to live higher and better? Your parents and grandparents.
    Homeschooling allows for a better set of influences to form your children – friends that you choose (not those stumbled upon by your children at school), lives of the saints and martyrs, our Eucharistic Lord Himself at daily Mass and frequent holy hours of adoration.
    Fr. John Hardon, S.J., said that homeschooling was the future of the Church.

    As far as homeschooled children being “weak little lambs who will never leave their parents’ sides,” every child is a weak little lamb, susceptible to be preyed upon by wolves – the sinful and base influences all over our culture.
    But I pray every day that my children will remain in the fold of the Good Shepherd, that their faults will be patiently honed away by the practice of the opposing virtue, which I can influence at home. How can a teacher of one year’s duration, with 20 others in her charge, know your child as well as you?

    To those for whom homeschooling is still a possibility I would add:
    Instructing my children at home about their Western and Catholic patrimony is bequeathing it to future generations, like the Irish monks transcribing the Church’s learning and culture during the Dark Ages.
    Sharing life together side by side bonds us as a family. We share so many experiences and memories together. My children know each other and are comfortable with all age-groups, not having been artificially segregated by age in the schools – Catholic or otherwise.
    I am happy to think of our homeschool as mini-monastery giving glory to God. The autonomy allows us to choose what forms our children best.

  5. Antonia says:

    By homeschooling, I’m trying to shield my kids from the culture (and slowly teaching them how to fight it and live a faithful life), while evangelizing as many people out there as I can. Thanks for the encouragement, Msgr. Pope! I really needed it.

  6. Bill says:

    Your insight is one of the best I’ve heard for the recent scandals and problems. Thank you for giving us hope and encouragement in the trials of these times. Our Lady was right in warning us to repent and pray.

  7. Israel B says:

    Too many parents make the mistake of assuming that Catholic parochial schools are the “one stop shop” for their children’s spiritual formation.

    The truth is that if children see their parents living their faith…day-to-day, that will touch their subconscious spirit eventually. Children innately sense sincerity and shallowness. Msgr. Pope can attest to the burden those who “talk the talk” must bear.

    Anybody with a sense of Church history knows the Faith carries forward in the homes of the Faithful. Sometimes church hierarchy contributes; more often sadly it does not.

  8. Pattie Brown says:

    I understand your point, and am horrified to hear of the assault on your elder son! However, my sons are all very close in age, and half are extremely devout, the others cultural Catholics who simply got “too busy” for Mass and prayer. I see the differences in my adult children as mainly related to their God-given personalities and ways of engaging with the world. The ‘easy-going’ ones are the ones who have drifted away, while the boys who made us NUTS with their strong wills and need to argue about everything have turned this strength toward living out their faith.

  9. Sheila L. Smyth says:

    Dear Sue Thanks so much for your post. I am so sorry to hear about the state of Elementary/College Catholic schools today. Glad I was able to go 1950’s thru 1970″s.
    As for abuse, I will pray for your Son. I was incested by my Father for about 6 yrs, then he went on to my sister. I’ve been recovering for 26 years (since recalling memories at age 42).
    While horrible, it afforded me the opportunity of diving deep into my faith-frequent Mass/Communion/Confession/Rosary/Eucharistic Adoration/Pilgrimages/Retreats and well as 12 Step recovery. I’ve forgiven him-he imparted the faith to me (along with Mom) that led me out of the horror of it all. So God can use ALL things to the good, as the saying goes. Next to the Mass/Communion, I’ve found Eucharistic Adoration very powerful-just being in the Presence of Jesus-was taught to breathe in saying “You love me”, then exhaling, saying “I love you” doing this again and again. And the blessings showered down by Confession! Amazing God Bless

  10. Rob W says:

    Amen Father. My “kids” are adults now, 23 and 24 yrs old, and the culture is way worse then even 15 yrs ago when they were young. If I had young ones now I’d home school and definitely “hunker down.” The culture will get worse not better and while we cant smother our children we should so everything possible to shelter them from the filth of the world. As for me I’m hunkered down in my own way, got rid of cable TV a cpl years ago and dont miss it at all. I can watch EWTN online. This world needs to be shaken up to get right with God…its coming count on it. Meanwhile I’ll stay close to Jesus and Mary, go to mass as much as possible, take advantage of the sacrament sand pray my rosary daily. Jesus I trust in You. Ave Maria.

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