There is a notion that ushering in reform or change requires large numbers, majority percentages, and the like, but a passage from the First Book of Maccabees reminds us that Heaven’s math is not always ours:
But Judas said: “It is easy for many to be overcome by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few; for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven. With great presumption and lawlessness, they come against us to destroy us and our wives and children and to despoil us; but we are fighting for our lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us; so do not be afraid of them.” When he finished speaking, he rushed suddenly upon Seron and his army, who were crushed before him. (1 Mac 3:20-24)
Intensity, dedication, perseverance, and fortitude often win the day even when sheer numbers are lacking. Water spread over a large area quickly becomes a stagnant pond but focused in a narrow channel it can be a mighty stream.
Another well-known story is that of Gideon, whose army of 30,000 was outnumbered two to one. Despite this, God told him his army was too large! He instructed Gideon to dismiss the cowards, those who did not feel up to the battle—20,000 left. God said that 10,000 was still too many soldiers and told Gideon to keep pruning. Eventually, the army was reduced to a mere 300 men. Those 300 defeated an army of 60,000; they won the day because God was with them.
In the Church, reform often comes quietly at first, through individuals who gather a small colony of Heaven about them by God’s grace. As the Church was exposed to the corrupting influences of the world, monks fled to the desert, and others joined them. Monasticism grew like embers in a darkening world. At other times of darkness and uncertainty in the Church, individuals like St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross appeared, as if out of nowhere, and small colonies of Heaven grew up about them.
In times like these, remember the mathematics of Heaven, which often uses remnants and tiny mustard seeds to accomplish its purposes. We may have grandiose visions of how God should fix the Church and may want God to bless the things we are doing to try to fix it, but another approach is to find out what God is blessing and then do that. It could be things as simple and old fashioned as getting married, staying married, having many children, and raising them well. It could be Eucharistic adoration, fasting, praying the rosary, teaching the faith, and fighting the battles right in front of us, just as Judas Maccabeus, Gideon, Catherine, and others did.
God has a plan to restore His Church in times like these. Is there perhaps a Catherine, Francis, or Teresa walking in our midst even now? Meanwhile, God reminds us to walk humbly with Him, live the faith, and tend the vineyard He has given us. Perhaps these are small things, but with God small things can bring about great ones.
St. Augustine wrote,
Quod minimum, minimum est,
Sed in minimo fidelem esse,
What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing, But to be faithful in a little thing, is a great thing.
The week in the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours we are reading from the books of Haggai and Zechariah. Both these prophets wrote at the time of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, which had begun in 587 B.C. The Jewish people were permitted to return to the Promised Land beginning in about 538 B.C. Haggai wrote his book in the summer of 520 B.C. and in it he scolds the people for concentrating on their “paneled houses” while the Temple is in a ruinous state. He ties their weak piety to the failure of crops, their inability to enjoy what they have, and other calamities.
Zechariah, who wrote in the autumn of 520 B.C., also expresses concern for the poor state of the Temple and ties its rebuilding to future blessings, including the coming of the Messiah. Later in the week, we will examine Zechariah’s writing.
In today’s post we look at a passage from the Book of Haggai and ponder what it means for us:
This is what the LORD of Hosts says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.’” Then the word of the LORD came through Haggai the prophet, saying: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” Now this is what the LORD of Hosts says: “Think carefully about your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but never get warm. You earn wages to put into a bag pierced through.” You expected much, but behold, it amounted to little. And what you brought home, I blew away. Why? declares the LORD of Hosts. Because My house still lies in ruins, while each of you is busy with his own house (Haggai, 1:2ff).
God does not need a fancy temple, but we do. The building of beautiful churches says a lot about our priorities and where our heart lies. Churches express our love for God and our desire to honor and thank Him. They need not be extravagant, but they should be adorned with a beauty and form that stands out as sacred and memorable, as an expression that we love God and take Him seriously, that He is a priority in our lives. In the Middle Ages, the town church was usually centrally located and was the tallest and most prominent building. By the 16th century, palaces and government buildings began to take that place. Today, the skyscrapers of our cities are named for investment banks and insurance companies. Yes, our buildings say something about our priorities!
Churches are also meant to remind us of Heaven. Until recent decades, they were built along lines that spoke to the heavenly realities both Moses and John saw as they were shown the heavenly worship and vision. Churches have high jeweled (stained glass) walls because Heaven does. Churches have glorious throne-like altars with the tabernacle at the center amidst tall candles because in Heaven there is a throne-like altar with the Lamb upon it and Jesus stands among the lampstands. Paintings and statues of saints and angels, incense, priestly robes, standing/kneeling appropriately, and singing of hymns all remind us of the communion of saints and angels in the heavenly worship. All of this is revealed in the heavenly visions contained in the Bible. (I have written more on this topic here and here.)
Haggai’s opening vision also says a lot about our inability to enjoy even the good things we have without God at the center. We all have a God-sized hole in our heart and only He can ultimately fill it. Trying to get created things to fill that gap is both frustrating and futile. The good things we do have point to God, the giver, and should inspire in us a gratitude and longing for Him. If we remove or marginalize God, our disorder affections gnaw away at us; no matter how much we get we remain dissatisfied.
God says through Haggai that fixing the ruined Temple is the way to fix their hearts. It is less about the building than about hearts. It is interesting that some of the most glorious and beautiful churches in this country were built by poor immigrant communities. We now live in times of comparative affluence, especially in America, but although incomes and home sizes have grown our churches seem to be built on the cheap, lacking both the nobility and glory that belong to God and which poorer generations produced in the churches of their time.
The problem has both theological and liturgical roots. A flawed notion of the liturgy claimed that churches should look more like living rooms or dining rooms than Heaven. (N.B. Some more recently built churches are returning to more traditional forms, but the reform has been slow).
Another problem was/is the “poverty of Judas.” This is the idea that money spent on buildings would be better used by being given to the poor. There may be a little truth to that, but the poor also want and need beautiful churches that remind them of Heaven and give due honor to God. A church is a space of beauty that all can share.
Yet another reason is that we just don’t value or prioritize the Lord and the liturgy as highly anymore. If we give less to the church perhaps we can buy a nicer car, a boat, or a vacation home. How is that ephemeral stuff working out for us? Are we happier? Haggai says no: You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. Exactly! All our blessing point to God and should instill gratitude and a longing for the true completion of an eternal relationship with Him.
Enough said for now. The point is not so much a building itself but what the building says about our hearts. God says today through Haggai, in effect, “Your paneled houses and the ruined Temple are a testimony to the condition of your hearts and your flawed priorities.”
Indeed, God should get the first fruits of our harvest, our best and highest effort. This is not because he needs them but because we do.
On this significant day for the Archdiocese of Washington and the universal Church, I want you to know that I receive the news of the Holy Father’s acceptance of Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation with mixed feelings.
I hope you will understand that he has been a spiritual Father to me since 2006 when he came to Washington as our Archbishop. I have flourished under his leadership. He appointed me in 2007 as pastor to my current parish, which I love so much. I have served him and the Archdiocese on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, the Priest Personnel Board, and as a Dean. I have also been the coordinator for the Traditional Latin Mass and worked closely with the Communications Office for many years. He called an Archdiocesan Synod in 2014 and has carefully implemented its decrees, and drafted many helpful policies, both financial and pastoral, that have assisted this archdiocese to be ship-shape. He has also founded a minor Seminary here and our vocations to the priesthood are vigorous, currently 75 men are in formation for us.
This very blog of the Archdiocese was his idea and when he asked me to write for it I had no idea that it would reach so far. My writing has never been micromanaged and only twice in ten years was I ever asked to remove a post I had written. I am grateful for the support, encouragement and platform I have received.
In all these ways and more I found him to be a top-notch administrator, careful, just, cautious and measured; even if, at times to a fault. Sometimes I wanted him to be passionate and fiery about this or that issue! Though some in recent news cycles have called him arrogant and extravagant, I have found him to be often shy and very aware that a bishop does not have unlimited powers. His lifestyle, from my limited vantage point was not extravagant but simple, even austere.
In this sense, it causes me special sadness that he resigns under a cloud where many see only what they know from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. We can never forget the victims of sexual abuse by clergy and we owe them every effort to eradicate predators from clerical ranks. And whatever the findings of the Grand Jury, accurate or inaccurate, I can say that, in his time here in Washington, Cardinal Wuerl has been very serious in enforcing the policies of the Dallas Charter and ensuring the safety and flourishing of the young people under our care.
However, even prior to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report there were problems that arose with Cardinal Wuerl’s response to the revelations about Archbishop McCarrick. He presented an institutional and legal face and spoke mostly by issuing disclaimers. He seemed to see the crisis as something to manage as an administrator more than a father and shepherd.
I would have preferred if he could have been less protective of the institution of the Church and been more like a grieved shepherd, angry that one of his predecessors had abused some of his flock, even his seminarians and young priests; angry that two other bishops had paid hush-money and not informed him or warned him. I wish I could have heard him tell God’s people that he was angry and disgusted and was going to move heaven and earth to get to the bottom of this scandal; that he would lead the charge to fight for us all so that this would not happen again.
Only late in the crisis did Cardinal Wuerl come to see that such a stance was what people needed and looked for. A few weeks ago, he wrote to God’s people in the Archdiocese a letter asking forgiveness for anything he had done to cause hurt. It was a beautiful letter and many in my congregation wept as I read it, (including me); others applauded. It was a breakthrough and a time of healing.
Yet from early on, Cardinal Wuerl became the national face of this crisis and a kind of lightning rod for people’s justified anger at the McCarrick case. At some point being the face of the crisis took on a life of its own and there was little or nothing the Cardinal could say or do to ameliorate this. I think, in many ways, a number of other bishops and clergy deserve greater scorn and scrutiny.
It is clear that there were numerous attempts to inform the Church of the concerns regarding Archbishop McCarrick that were brushed aside or received scant attention from bishops and Church officials both here in this country and going right to the top in Rome.
Only recently has Rome agreed to allow a thorough investigation to begin. I applaud this, since the allegations are serious and need investigation. This is not merely so that justice will be done, but also to be sure that clerical abuse is no longer tolerated or overlooked at any level. The current victims of clerical sexual abuse surely deserve such an investigation to be thorough and credible.
About a month ago, Cardinal Wuerl asked to meet with us, his priests, to discern with him if resignation was the best path forward for healing and progress for the Archdiocese in this situation. We sadly, and with great respect for him, came to the consensus that such a time had come. We were moved to be included in that discernment and he was clearly moved as well. It was a time of truth, but also of respect, concern, admiration and mutual charity.
As you can see, in his statement this morning Cardinal Wuerl reiterates his apology and his request for pardon for any past errors in judgment. He also wishes to present his resignation as a sign of love for the people of this Archdiocese and prays it will be a way forward toward healing for victims and resolutions that will further protect God’s good people.
I pray that none of you will forget the many ways the Lord has blessed us through Cardinal Wuerl. It is too easy to demonize people we have not met or when we are angry, even justifiably so. But the Cardinal is a human being, and one of God’s sons. He deserves and requires our love and prayers as he departs. Whatever errors in judgment have occurred, please remember his request for forgiveness.
I have known and worked with Cardinal Donald Wuerl over the years and it is very painful for me to see him go, especially under these circumstances. As I said, he has been a spiritual father and leader, and has confirmed me in my own ministry for the past 12 years. Go with God, Cardinal Wuerl, go with God.
Many Catholics have struggled to find a voice that has been nearly washed out of us by our training. We remember a time when it was unthinkable to criticize a priest; those who did were quickly rebuked, with little opportunity for explanation. Bishops and especially the Pope were not to be questioned let alone criticized. We have now seen the sometimes-horrifying toll of unhealthy deference, of setting a class of men apart from critique or accountability.
Respect surely has its place; we should not correct with unneeded harshness, personal attacks, or demeaning words. However, we must regain a healthy sense of the need to hold our clergy accountable and to insist on what is right. Canon law states the right, duty, and modality of this among God’s Faithful.
According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons (Canon 212.3).
God’s faithful are struggling to find their voice, long suppressed. We must find this voice, even regarding the Pope. He has said some alarming things, hurtful things, and has shown little concern for serious charges against Church officials at the highest levels. Even in this case we must find our voice. We must respectful but firm and clear that we expect a full investigation of the charges so that this does not happen again.
All of this feels awkward. It touches some of our oldest training against criticizing popes, bishops, and clergy.
In times like these, we need a Catherine Benincasa.
We know her as St. Catherine of Siena. Though renowned for her love, generosity, and humility, as well as her power to heal, console, and cast out demons, she was no shrinking violet. If she saw something in your soul that was unholy, you were going to hear about it, no matter who you were.
St. Catherine would meet with anyone, from the poorest beggars to kings, governors, bishops, and popes. None of them were denied her love and encouragement. Neither were they spared the hard truths that God gave her to say. Only God was to be pleased, not man. Spiritual truths were to be extolled over every temporal matter (e.g., safety, comfort, pleasing worldly powers).
She loved the Church but remained gravely concerned with the condition of the beloved Bride of Christ. Particularly egregious to her was the condition of so many clergy, right on up the ranks. Even the popes of her time, whom she acknowledged as the sweet Vicars of Christ, and her beloved father could not escape her expressions of grave disappointment and her calls to conversion.
Of special significance for us today is her exchange of letters with Pope Gregory XI. Though he led an exemplary life in many respects, he was a weak, shy, even cowardly man. He was deeply compromised by his temporal ties to power, wealth, and protection, without which he feared that he and the papacy could not survive. Nepotism was also a terrible problem; his own family members kept him wound around their fingers.
Most of the early popes died as martyrs, but by the time of the Avignon Papacy, popes had become very tied to the world and had “too much to lose.” They had fled to Avignon and had been in residence there for decades, living behind fortified walls, protected by armies, and compromised by alliances with secular rulers. It had to stop.
Gregory XI was the last of the Avignon popes. He only returned to Rome at the prodding of this young woman, not yet thirty, who told him, in effect, to go back to Rome or risk Hell. In 1377, after much delay and fretting, Pope Gregory left for Rome.
Below are some excerpts from a letter she wrote to Gregory XI, just prior to 1377. I think her words speak loudly to the clergy of today. The specific issues that beset clergy today are somewhat different but not that different. The Church no longer commands extensive temporal power or rule, but too many clergy are still unwilling to maintain holy discipline or enforce canonical penalties on malefactors.
I have already said too much; I will let Saint Catherine speak for herself. (If you think my blogs are long, try reading St. Catherine’s letters!) I present here only excerpts of a much longer letter to Pope Gregory; she wrote several others as well. The translation I am using here is from Letters of Catherine Benincasa.
In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and of gentle Mary, mother of God’s Son.
Very loved and reverend father in Christ Jesus,
I Caterina, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ and your poor wretched unworthy daughter, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you the sort of true gentle shepherd who takes an example from the shepherd Christ, whose place you hold. He laid down his life for his little sheep in spite of our ingratitude …
You know that the devil is not cast out by the devil, but by virtue. [Mt. 12, 26-27] … You hold the keys, and to whomever you open it is opened, and to whomever you close it is closed. This is what the good gentle Jesus said to Peter …
So take a lesson from the true Father and Shepherd. For you see that now is the time to give your life for the little sheep who have left the flock. You must seek and win them back by using patience and war—by war I mean by raising the standard of the sweet blazing cross and setting out against the unbelievers. So, you must sleep no longer, but wake up and raise that standard courageously. I am confident that by God’s measureless goodness you will win back the unbelievers and [at the same time] correct the wrongdoing of Christians, because everyone will come running to the fragrance of the cross …
By the fragrance of their virtue they would help eliminate the vice and sin, the pride and filth that are rampant among the Christian people—especially among the prelates, pastors, and administrators of holy Church who have turned to eating and devouring souls, not converting them but devouring them! And it all comes from their selfish love for themselves, from which pride is born, and greed and avarice and spiritual and bodily impurity. They see the infernal wolves carrying off their flock and it seems they don’t care. Their care has been absorbed in piling up worldly pleasures and enjoyment, approval and praise. And all this comes from their selfish love for themselves. For if they loved themselves for God instead of selfishly, they would be concerned only about God’s honor and not their own, for their neighbors’ good and not their own self-indulgence.
Ah, my dear Babbo (Father), see that you attend to these things! Look for good virtuous men and put them in charge of the little sheep. …
Up, father! Put into effect the resolution you have made concerning your return and this crusade. You can see that the unbelievers are challenging you to this by coming as close as they can to take what is yours. Up, to give your life for Christ! Isn’t our body the only thing we have? Why not give your life a thousand times, if necessary, for God’s honor and the salvation of his creatures? That is what he did, and you, his vicar, ought to be carrying on his work. It is to be expected that as long as you are his vicar you will follow your Lord’s ways and example.
So come, come! Delay no longer … Take courage, take courage, father! Stay away from the bitterness that cripples but take hold of the bitterness that strengthens—bitterness at seeing God’s name insulted, and strength in the trust that God will provide for your needs. I’ll say no more, for if I followed my inclination I wouldn’t stop as long as I had life in my body!
Forgive my presumption. Let my love and grief for God’s honor and the advancement of holy Church be my excuse in the presence of your kindness.
This is all I can do now. Have pity on the sweet loving desires being offered for you and holy Church in continual tears and prayers. Please don’t treat them with indifference, but act on them vigorously, for it seems that spring is ready to burst into bloom, and soon the fruit will come, because the flowers are beginning to blossom. … As for whatever I can do, I would gladly give my life if necessary for God’s honor and the salvation of souls. Gentle Jesus! Jesus!
(St. Catherine of Siena, Letter 74 to Gregory XI at Avignon)
Such words still ring true today! We must exhort Pope Francis to hear our cries for investigation and reform. We must speak in love and with respect, but we must also speak insistently and with clarity. The very credibility and fruitfulness of the Church is at stake. We have a duty and a right to speak to him in this way—so do our bishops. In Catherine’s words, “This is all I can do now.” The Pope must decide whether to hear our heartfelt cry or ignore it, but we cannot stop. All we can do now is to cry out insistently for justice and for a purification of the Church.
Thank you, Mother Catherine. May you, who converted the heart of Pope Gregory XI and summoned him to courageous manhood, now imbue us, the clergy and people of today, with that same fortitude and determination to call for what really heals, even if the honesty hurts.
In times like these, you need a refuge, a place to rest.
There is an old African-American spiritual that says, “Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock-a my soul!” At first glance its meaning may seem obscure, but it speaks to a deep tradition and a kind of spiritual strategy that has great wisdom.
Biblically, the “bosom of Abraham” referred to the place of rest in Sheol, where the righteous dead awaited the Messiah and Judgment Day. It is mentioned once: in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke16:22-23). In it, Lazarus is said to rest and abide in the bosom of Abraham awaiting the Messiah’s full redemption, while the rich man is in Gehenna, a place of torment.
More generally, though, the image of resting in the bosom of Abraham is rooted in that of a sick, frightened, or wounded child in the arms of his father. Most people can remember awakening from a bad dream when they were young and running into their parents’ bedroom for refuge.
Spiritually, Abraham is our father in faith; he also symbolizes the heavenly Father. The ancient Jews considered the bosom of Abraham a place of security, both in life and after death. Resting in the arms of Abraham meant being where the evil one could not reach and the just rested securely.
Christians, too, have taken this image of safety and rest in the arms of Abraham. It finds expression in the beautiful hymn “In Paradisum,” in which Christians are commended to the place (the bosom of Abraham) where Lazarus is poor no longer. One of the antiphons in the final commendation says, “May angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.”
Then came this African-American spiritual that added a rocking motion to the beautiful rest in Abraham’s arms. The spiritual life is likened to the action of a father rhythmically rocking his child in his arms. The rocking is soothing and reassuring, and (if one is attuned to it) adds a necessary spiritual rhythm to life.
Yes, rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock-a my soul. In a world of injustice and great darkness, we need the soothing rhythm of the Father’s love. We need to learn to dance and move to its rhythms and not be overcome with the tremors and evils of this world.
Consider the graceful dance in this video and seek to imitate its wisdom. Learn to move to the rhythm of the Father rocking us in His arms. Learn to move to the gentle and steady beat of God’s love as He holds us close.
Rock-a my soul …
Enjoy this video, featuring an interpretation of this beautiful and rhythmic spiritual. It is a graceful and exuberant dance showing security in God’s love and embrace.
As a priest and pastor I work very closely with others: clergy, religious, laity who work for the Church, and laity who volunteer. We all work for the Church because we love her and her people.
At times, though, there is disappointment, hurt, or even disillusionment. Perhaps these feelings result from issues in the wider Church: sexual abuse by clergy, the lack of courage and leadership from some bishops and priests, the scandal of dissent at the highest levels, questionable partnerships with anti-life and anti-Catholic organizations, the breakdown of discipline, and the strange severity of response to some infractions contrasted with the almost total laxity in the face of others. Perhaps they are the result of local problems found in any group of human beings: gossip, hurtful actions, hypocrisy, power struggles, misplaced priorities, favoritism, and injustice.
While these things happen everywhere, many hope that there will be fewer occurrences in the Church. Some who come to work for the Church begin by thinking, How wonderful it will be to work for the Church instead of out in the cutthroat business world! Maybe they envision a place where people pray together and support each other more. Perhaps they think the Church will be a place with less competition and strife.
Alas, such hopes are usually dashed quickly. We are, after all, running a hospital of sorts; and just as hospitals tend to attract the sick, so the Church attracts sinners and those who struggle. Jesus was often found in strange company, so much so that the Pharisees were scandalized. He rebuked them by saying, People who are well do not need a doctor, sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous (Mk 2:17).
Idealistic notions of working in and for the Church evaporate quickly when the phone rings with an impatient parishioner on the line, or when two group leaders argue over who gets to use the parish hall, or when the pastor is irritable and disorganized, or when the maintenance engineer is found to be drinking on the job, or when certain members of the choir are making anything but harmony, or when some favored parishioners get attention from and access to the old guard leaders while newcomers are resisted.
For all these sorts of situations that engender irritation, disappointment, or disillusionment, I keep a little prayer card near my desk. Sometimes I read it for my own benefit and sometimes I share it with those who feel discouraged at what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Church. It is a beautiful mediation; it recalls that although great love often generates the deep disappointment, in the end love still abides.
Consider, then, the following words. They are perhaps over-the-top in places, but love has its excesses. Take these words as a kind of elixir that speaks to the pain that love can cause.
How baffling you are, Oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.
No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go?
Would I establish another? I would not be able to establish it without the same faults, for they are the same faults I carry in me. And if I did establish another, it would be my Church, not the Church of Christ.
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.
Many years ago, I saw the movie True Confessions (1981), which was about an ambitious priest who discovered the truer meaning of the priesthood. Although the film was seedy in places, the outcome for the main character, Monsignor Spellacy, was salutary.
Robert DeNiro (who was more discreet and refined in those days) starred as Msgr. Spellacy. It was well acted, but it was the liturgical scenes that were especially noteworthy: they were beautiful, meticulous, and accurate. The movie was set in the 1940s and so the older Latin Mass was depicted in all its solemn, high glory (see the movie clip at the end of the post).
The church itself was gorgeous as well. Over the years I could never identify the church, despite asking many people. No one seemed to know. The movie credits made no mention of the parish where the Mass scenes were filmed. Even people I knew from the Los Angeles area (where the move was filmed) did not recognize the church. This was well before the Internet was in common use, so there was not the ability to pose a question far and wide. Until a few months ago, there just seemed to be no information available.
Mystery Solved – I finally stumbled upon the answer, completely by accident, about a month ago when I read about a fire that had destroyed St. Joseph Church in downtown Los Angeles in 1983.
The article mentioned that St. Joseph had been seen in several TV shows and movies, including True Confessions. The cause was said to have been an electrical fire. The roof collapsed, and only the towers and some of the brick walls remained. What a loss! A smaller, modern church was subsequently built on the site to replace the older one.
The exterior of the old St. Joseph Church is seen above. It was a truly magnificent German Gothic structure. Its interior is seen in the photo on the left, from 1960.
The following description of its beautiful interior was made upon its opening in 1903:
In the vast interiors of the great church … one may discover a wondrous work of gilt, and the deep tones of reds, greens, blues and yellows assembled with an artist’s touch into a magnificent whole.
This extensive fresco work [is] said to be the finest on the Coast. … For almost three months these men have toiled on the extensive work at St. Joseph’s sometimes far into the night…. … [I]t is said there will be no finer church edifice on the Pacific Coast. The whole building is to cost $100,000, and aside from this the furnishings make no small item.
Seven beautiful altars will be placed in the new building. These have been made in Munich. They are of white walnut and finished in white and gold. The main altar, of pure Gothic design, is forty-seven feet high, and the side altars are thirty and twenty-eight feet high.
The communion rail is also to be of polished walnut, with marble top; and the pews will be of white oak.
Most of the large windows are memorials, and they are to be of the richest colors in cathedral glass. These alone will cost about $6000. The Stations of the Cross are in bas-relief and set in alcoves in the walls. These are also products of Munich artists.
The main body of the church is 150 x 66 feet, and the transept is ninety-six feet wide. Back of this are the sacristy and rooms for altar boys, etc. The building has a large basement, fitted up for a hall, Sunday-school rooms, etc. Attached to the church on the east is the house of the Franciscan Fathers, which they now occupy.
All of this succumbed to the fire of Sunday morning, September 4, 1983; it was indeed a tragic loss. The current structure, though not ugly, is unremarkable. I have included additional pictures of the old and new churches here: The Church Where True Confessions Was Filmed.
I have written before about the sad fate of St. Vibiana, the former cathedral Church of Los Angeles (My Father’s House Has Become a Marketplace). I do not suppose that we can save all our beautiful structures, especially given the decline in the practice of the faith among Catholics, and although the damage to souls from this decline is far worse, the loss of these beautiful works that faith once produced is still lamentable. Accidents such as fire will cause losses as well, but they are still losses.
Below is some footage from the movie True Confessions, showing St. Joseph Church less than two years before its total destruction by fire.