Venerable Fulton J. Sheen once wrote, “The Church knows after 1900 years’ experience that any institution which suits the spirit of any age will be a widow in the next one” (War and Guilt, OSV Press, 1941, pp. 138-139).
This is a clear admonition to the many who demand that the Church update her teachings, particularly (1) her moral doctrines, and (2) the dogma that salvation is exclusively through Jesus Christ. Some say that the Catholic Church is hopelessly out-of-date and irrelevant. Some point out that even her own members disagree with a large number of her teachings. But the role of the Church is not to reflect the age or even the views of her members; it is to represent the teachings of her head and founder, Jesus Christ. The Church cannot love or admire the world if she is to remain the Bride of Christ. Scripture says,
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).
Much is made of the declining numbers in the Catholic Church. The loss over the past fifty years has been staggering. Today, fewer than one fourth of Catholics attend Mass each week. But if the Church were to become the world, the number of Catholics would go to zero. Mainline Protestant denominations have tried just this method—giving the world what it wants—and their services are far emptier than our Masses. Some of them are in so steep a decline that it is hard to imagine them even existing in twenty years except on paper or in tiny pockets.
As Sheen notes, the Catholic Church brings two millennia of experience to this modern problem. That experience says, in effect, “This too shall pass.” In the age of the Church, empires have risen and fallen, nations come and gone, heresies have flourished then decayed, enemies have advanced and then retreated; but we are still here preaching the same gospel. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon now? Where is the Soviet Union now? They are all gone. So shall it be with the scoffers and deceivers of this age. When this present foolishness has passed, the Church will still be here, preaching, teaching, and celebrating the sacraments.
The teachings of Scripture stretch back some 5,000 years to the earliest writings. They have perdured for a reason: they are true, and they work to bring us the greatest fulfillment possible in this world. These time-tested truths wait patiently while trends and popular notions pass away like mist at dawn.
In Sheen’s time he spoke of the Church knowing this truth, which implies that this was widely understood by Catholics of his era. Sadly, that is less true today, when many in the Church—right up to the highest levels in the hierarchy—have tried to adapt, compromise, and even discard ancient, tested doctrines in favor of worldly preferences, errors, and trendy notions. Many people today, even within the Church, need to rediscover Sheen’s maxim.
One of the (many) troublesome aspects of the modern age is the demise of friendship. While the terms “friend” and “friendship” might be bandied about rather easily today, they do not usually mean friendship in its deeper and original sense. Rather, we use the terms to refer to “acquaintances” rather than friends. True friendship has a depth, history, and stability. It involves some sort of commonality of life and a deeper knowledge of the other.
Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, drawing on the Thomistic tradition, has this to say about friendship:
Every true friendship, St Thomas tells us, implies three qualities: it is first of all the love of benevolence. By which a man wishes good to another as to himself … [Further] Every true friendship presupposes the love of mutual benevolence, for it is not sufficient that it exist on the part of one person only …. Lastly … friendship requires a community of life (convivere). It implies that people know each other, love each other, live together, spiritually at least, by the exchange of most secret thoughts and feelings. Friendship thus conceived tends to a very close union of thought, feeling, willing, prayer, and action (Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, Vol II, pp. 188-189 Tan Publications).
Notice the emphasis on sharing private thoughts and feelings, as well as the close union of thoughts, feelings, actions, prayers, and wills. True friendship involves more than the knowledge of acquaintances.
A director of a clinic for the treatment of psychological matters once recounted that as he conducted entrance interviews for those beginning an inpatient treatment program, he would ask them how many friends they had. He would often receive expressive answers such as “Oh, I have lots of friends!” Their answers indicated that they did not really understand what he meant. So he would rephrase the question: “How many people do you share deeply with? How many people on this planet know almost everything about you? How many know that you’re here at this treatment program and why? Did any of them help to get you here?” Questions like these tended to generate blank stares.
Fewer and fewer people have relationships of this deeper nature. True friendships, with all the qualities described above, are increasingly rare in our culture today.
There are many reasons for this.
First, many people today are quite mobile. It is not unusual for people to move several times during their life. Fewer and fewer people grow up, live, and die in the same town. And even those who do have long roots in a certain community will tell you how dramatically it has changed over the years.
We are also very mobile in terms of our daily activity. Because of the automobile, trains, and especially planes, many no longer limit their activities to their home town or places nearby. They may commute a couple of hours each day and be involved in activities far away from their neighborhood churches, schools, doctors, and hospitals. They may not even frequent the neighborhood shopping centers. It seems there is little opportunity or need to interact with people who live close by.
And then there is the pace of life. We all seem to be in a big hurry to get somewhere else. The idea of lingering over a cup of coffee seems rare. The few times we do take our time to converse and such things, it is usually in loud bars where communication is actually quite difficult. And if perchance we are in a setting where we are in the presence of others for a lengthy period (e.g., a subway, train, or plane) most people are focused on their cell phones. We seem more interested in information about people far away, many of whom we have never even met.
None of these factors is the stuff that leads to the development of deep, lasting friendships. Most people in our lives are merely acquaintances. We know very little about most of the people we interact with, even those we encounter every day. Even family relationships are often cursory and shallow. Long dinners or extended conversations are rare as family members run off to practices, meetings, shopping, and work.
The lack of deep friendships in the true sense of the word causes many issues. True friends help form our personalities, completing what we lack. True friends rebuke sins and other troublesome quirks we can develop. True friends encourage and enrich us. Without true friends we remain incomplete. Without the necessary rebuke that friends can give, we suffer from pride and other egotistical character defects.
Scripture both commends friendship and warns against regarding mere acquaintances as friends.
Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:11).
Let your acquaintances be many, but your advisers one in a thousand (Sirach 6:5-6).
A faithful friend is a sure shelter, whoever finds one has found a rare treasure. A faithful friend is something beyond price, there is no measuring his worth. A faithful friend is the elixir of life, and those who fear the Lord will find one. Whoever fears the Lord makes true friends, for as a man is, so is his friend (Sirach 6:14-17).
Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (Prov 27:6)
A true friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity (Prov 17:17).
A man of too many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov 18:24).
Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away (Prov 27:10).
Therefore our friends should not necessarily be numerous. We ought to be selective in what we share with whom. But all the more reason, then, that we should have close friends with whom we share almost everything.
Do you have close friends?
Are there people who know almost everything about you?
Are there people who can rebuke you, correct you, or summon you to humility?
Are there people about whom you know almost everything and whom you can rebuke with love for their own good?
Is there anyone who looks to you for advice, and who can turn to you for necessary encouragement?
Is there anyone whom you love and esteem for his or her own sake, not merely for what you can get?
Is there anyone whom you are not anxious to impress, to whom you can speak the truth, and who will speak to you truthfully?
Is there anyone who would care enough about you to be present with you in great adversity?
Is there anyone whom you would gladly assist in his or her time of need?
If so, who? Please consider naming your true friends in your heart.
I pray that you do have true friends. But true friendship is rare in this changing, hurried, and polemic culture. Consider well the need for true friends, for deep friendships that are stable and lasting. We all need friends for the reasons stated and more.
What has happened to friendship in our culture? How do you see it?
This song is a rather good description of true friendship.