In the parlor of my rectory where I meet with most of my spiritual directees, and others who come to me for counseling or instruction, there is a crucifixion scene, (see photo at right).
Among the many things means, it is for me something of a paradigm of the Church at her darkest moment. How tiny the Church had suddenly become. Gone were the crowds of Galilee which followed the Lord. Gone were the crowds of Palm Sunday shouting Hosanna. Gone were all but one of her first bishops, St. John. One of them (St. Peter) had followed at a distance, and then three times denied he knew the Lord, the rest of those first bishops fled to God knows where.
And now the tiny infant Church was gathered around her Lord at the foot of the cross. Yes, there is the Church, so tiny; only St. John, Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, and perhaps one other. So tiny now, so few.
Yet here was one of her greatest moments. The bride of Christ, the Church mystically united to her groom.
And strange, though even in this reduced and horribly suffering condition of the Church, Satan’s back was being broken, his power undermined. It is almost a Trojan Horse incident. For, even as Satan gloats over his apparent gift, a surprise waits within, a hidden power that will send him reeling.
And small though the Church has become, she will gain two surprising converts that Good Friday: the good thief, and the centurion. Perhaps not a bad day for a Church reduced to five or six: two converts, plus the breaking of the back of Satan’s power.
I often point to the statute in my parlor. For many come to me at times with great struggles, perhaps feeling defeated, or at least discouraged. I point and remind them that, for those with faith, there is something about being in the crucible, something about the cross that is pregnant with victory. Satan still has his incursions, and his apparent victories. But they are only temporary, they cannot stand. His back was broken Good Friday, and not by a large and triumphant Church, but by a tiny and suffering Church, the Church in the crucible, The Church at the foot of the cross with Christ her groom and head.
Many of us who share this blog together, are often dismayed at the condition of the Church today, and even more, the condition of culture. For those of us who are little older, our discouragement is deepened by the fact that many of us can remember a time when things at least seemed to be greater repair. Our families were largely intact, our churches filled, people seemed generally more able to make commitments and keep them…
The list could go on, but you get the point. Things were far from perfect, but things did seem to be more orderly, and the basic fundamentals necessary for culture, civilization and for the Church were more in place.
Yet, our mind should never stray far from that Good Friday afternoon, the Church so reduced, betrayed by most of her members, even her leaders; yet never more powerful.
There have been days of triumph of the Church, only to see collapse! And then, Victory again! The early days were so marked by suffering and martyrdom, and then suddenly the Edict of Constantine and the Church emerged victorious. Resurrection!
And yet, finally set free, Arianism reared its ugly presence and so many other endless fights ensued, perhaps necessary, over basic doctrines of Christology and the Trinity.
And then the sudden loss of the western flank, as the Roman Empire collapsed and moved to the east, as so-called barbarian tribes swept in to what we call Europe today. St. Augustine was so troubled that he wrote the City of God trying to explain how his beloved Roman Empire, finally having embraced the faith would now fall. St. Jerome, depressed, went to live in a cave. The Cross again.
But the Church struck up a conversation with those barbarians, and began to convert them, first in small numbers, then in waves. Resurrection!
And then, just as things seemed to be improving, all of North Africa, the great cradle of the Church, was lost, almost overnight, laid waste and mowed down by the edge of the Muslim sword. There were once 500 bishops in North Africa, some of the greatest Fathers of the Church had lived there: Augustine, Cyprian, Tertullian, Athanasius, and so many others. And now the great North African part of the Church lay beneath the sand. The Muslims made it across Gibraltar and into the Portugal and Spain before they were turned back. All of Asia Minor so beautifully evangelized by St. Paul, was also lost, lost to the Church! The Muslim invaders made it all the way to the gates of modern Vienna before they were turned back. The Cross again.
But now that North Africa was tragically lost, Europe began to flourish as a kind of Christian civilization was built there: Universities were founded, hospitals too, and the great cathedrals rose. Something called the great “Medieval synthesis” took hold. Resurrection!
And then, all of this to begin to erode with the rise of Nominalism and the Cartesian revolution it would eventually usher in. With intellectual confusion, came an epistemological revolution that severed the connection of the mind to reality, ushered in radical doubt, decadence, the rise of the individual autonomous self, and the rejection of any lawful authority within the Church. The revolution that some called the “Reformation” led to a break of unity, and the Church was once again firmly cast to the foot of the cross to search her own soul and begin a counter reformation. Ecclesia semper reformanda (The Church is always being reformed). The cross again.
Yet even as a million people left the Church in Germany in the Lutheran revolt, our Lady ushered in nine million Mexicans at Guadalupe. Resurrection!
Back in Europe, as wars, rebellion and confusion raged the Church was wracked by division, more Protestant revolts, and the hundred years war. A great darkness was gathering there that would lead to the bloodbath known as the 20th Century: two World Wars, bloody ideological revolutions, an iron curtain and an almost complete loss of faith. The lights were going out in Europe. The Cross!
Yet, even so, faith began to take hold in the New World, And, though early persecuted, waves of immigrants escaping Europe brought the Catholic faith to the United States in numbers too big to ignore. Even though Europe was racked with confusion and doubt, many fled from there and found in America a remarkable synthesis of faith and culture held in tight knot ethic communities built around parish churches….(With healthy persecution besides!) Resurrection!
But even America could not ultimately withstand the decadence of Europe and its decline in the post Cartesian centuries. America was eventually drawn into two European World Wars, and the poison of modernism reached our shores. And now there seems to be bewildering, almost demonic decline. The cross again!
And, suddenly, Africa is abloom again. There is a 7,000% increase in the number of Catholics in Africa in the last fifty years. Resurrection!
Yes, it would seem that the Church must often find herself back at the cross. Yet even as we are there now in the West, we must never forget that the Cross is pregnant with victory.
Many look to the Church now with ridicule and declare that we are done and defeated. But they have not studied history, nor do they know the power of God, and that the Cross is pregnant with victory.
Even within the Church there are naysayers who point to glory days and, in fear, announce great woe, and seek to assign blame for the current decline. “Things have never been worse,” they declare. But they too have not studied history (things have been far worse) nor do they seem to remember the power of God.
That the Church is at the foot of the Cross in many ways, at least in the West, in hard to deny, but the Cross is pregnant with victory. Just you wait and see!
Ecclessia semper reformanda! Sed Christus Resurrexit tertia die! Semper! Ubique!