The Catholic Thing
Peace: Catholicism’s Not in Total Crisis Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 04 March 2013

Last week, quietly and with essentially no media coverage, Frère Pierre-Marie Delfieux, who founded the Community of Jerusalem, a remarkably vibrant renewal movement centered in the Church of Saint Gervais and Saint Protais in Paris – with rapidly growing affiliates across Europe and Canada – died and was buried. His farewell Mass at Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral drew an overflow crowd, with lots of young people of high school and college age.  And hundreds of priests and a dozen bishops, all of whom took part in a very beautiful and moving liturgy – one of the attractive hallmarks of the Community. 

I only heard of this because a friend in Paris, who introduced me to San Gervais some years ago, rightly thought I’d want to know. Amidst all the flurry about the pope’s resignation and speculations about his successor, maybe it was only to be expected that the press wouldn’t have enough stamina left over to report on a different kind of Catholic story, a highly positive one at that, and in Europe – secular France, no less. Besides, it complicates the already established story line of a Church in total crisis.

It’s emblematic of where we are at present that something that is going beautifully right, as many things are in the Catholic Church, gets no attention while many people, including many Catholics, are obsessed with the things that have been going wrong. Scandal sells papers, and always will, of course. Still, there’s much else happening out there that needs to be reckoned with if you really want a full picture of Catholicism at this special moment in Church history.

It’s kind of the Catholic version of the sequester: despite all the apocalyptic hand-wringing about crises and institutional dysfunction, life largely goes on – and even flourishes, with many wonderful surprises. And anyway, as Ezra Pound once said, “an institution that survived the picturesqueness of the Borgias has a certain native resiliency.”   

It’s a good to keep such things in mind as the papal conclave approaches. (I myself will be flying to Rome today. EWTN asked me to be one of the co-hosts of the live television commentary, which will begin Thursday evening March 7 and then continue, following the schedule the cardinals vote on this week. I will also be writing a brief daily commentary, which you will be able to access on this page along with our regular columnists. Tune in and come back daily.) Because we need more accurate and measured assessments of this papal election.

A lot of squirrelly speculation has emerged lately ranging from the need to reform the Curia to the necessity of a pope-administrator and other mechanical fixes. Somehow this super-bureaucrat is also expected to be highly charismatic – and  pastoral – and a slew of other things that it’s difficult to imagine in one human being. The list of desiderata would be harmless if it did not seem to be setting up the next pope for inevitable failure when he can’t meet a whole series of impossibly high expectations.

Choosing a pope is important. Like an American president, a pope wields immense power over a large people, a flock about as large as the population of China spread over the entire globe. But also like a president, there are limits to what one man, even one man surrounded by other remarkable men, can achieve. And beyond simple human limitations, do we really know what will reinvigorate Catholicism now and help get us past multiple, large challenges? Most of the suggestions I hear seem good, so far as they go. But they tend to be better versions of things already being tried. That’s desirable, but not nearly enough.

Even the New Evangelization – the Vatican’s umbrella term for fresh efforts to re-convert former Christian nations especially in Europe and maybe even spur a new period of missionary labors – seems mostly to envision moving in old tracks with maybe more use of new technologies. Nothing wrong with that either, but it just doesn’t seem to take firm hold on our quite recalcitrant reality.

You can’t help feeling that we need something almost entirely new, unimagined to date. A movement of holiness – and basic instruction again, to be sure – but formulated and carried out in this day in ways not yet come to birth. Cardinal Wuerl was getting at this the other day when he said that the Church cannot do business as usual. But he wisely didn’t go beyond some general notions about what the new way of doing business will be. The older methods, which have been tried over the past few decades under two wise popes, have been rather disappointing, to say the least.

Also, the Church makes a mistake when it tries too hard to engage the world. Karl Barth, the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, pointed out after the Second Vatican Council (to which he had been invited but couldn’t attend owing to illness): “Is it so certain that dialogue with the world is to be placed ahead of proclamation to the world?” That’s a call for a prophetic stance, not some peaceful marketing campaign. Vatican II’s sweeping blueprint for Catholic social engagement, Gaudium et spes, in particular, struck Barth as not only overly optimistic, but out of tune with the understanding of the “world” in the New Testament. Historically, he pointed out, Christianity has often clashed with “the world.”

We’re going to have to think through this and many other challenging truths in the days and weeks to come. But as Frère Pierre-Marie Delfieux and the Community he founded show, there are answers, good ones, to current challenges. They may come with a great reforming pope like Gregory VII, or maybe – as at Cluny and Clairvaux, in the founding of the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits – they will rise up from spiritual impulses no one can anticipate – until they actually appear.

It’s happened both ways in the past and, no doubt, will again. Oremus.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, March 04, 2013
There is MUCH good news to be shared about what is happening in the Church - Catholic Church, that is. But you will not locate it in the secular press which, as a tool for Satan, seeks to destroy her. That is why the Church needs to take full charge of Her own information dissemination which is only part of her evangelizing mission anyway.

As an aside, if you're ever in France spned a few days in Vezelay with the Jerusalem community. You will be exposed to transcendent liturgies, as well as remarkable 12th c architecture and a rich history. It was from here that St. Bernard preached the 2nd crusade.
written by Manfred, March 04, 2013
Thank you for a frank assessment of the current state of the Church, Dr. Royal. Small communities, such as this one you point out, are part of what Fr. Joseph Ratzinger foretold in his 1969 book "Faith in the Future", where small communities would be all that would remain of the Catholic Church. The members would be filled with Faith and zeal and, as time went by, the larger world would realize how empty the lives of its members had become, and the Church would flourish again. In the meantime.....
written by william manley, March 04, 2013
Thanks for pointing out the perils of "engaging the world." I never thought I'd see that admission here in this website. Ironic that you quote a "faith only" Protestant theologian to get that point across. There is much in this essay to ponder. Thank you for a superb effort.
written by athanasius, March 04, 2013
Thank you, Dr. Royal, for a thought-provoking article. There is indeed much good going on under the radar.

I don't know what the answers to the current challenges facing us are, but let me offer this thought. In my life, my faith has probably been most strengthened by my mother, who passed away this past April at 88. She was a devout Catholic who lived her life joyfully. I am one of 9 children, and my parents sacrificed much to raise us. My mother had her share of hardships growing up. Yet my mother actually used to say that she felt guilty for having it so good. She loved her family, and she loved her Church. She taught me to live joyfully.

I am all for proclaiming the Good News to the world, but we need to do so joyfully, because it really is "good" news. We need to explain that Catholicism is not the Church of "no", but the Church of "yes", that is "yes to God".

I am not saying we don't talk about sin. Of course we need to point out the ugliness that sin really is, and how it leads to sorrow. But we can't stop there. We must always finish with how God's love and truth lead to joy. Evil can appear glamorous, but we need to show the true beauty of goodness.

Nasty old scolds won't bring anyone to Christ.
written by Mack Hall, March 04, 2013
Dear Dr. Royal,

Thank you for your excellent article. I submit, though, that we have been blessed by reforming Bishops of Rome in Blessed John Paul II and (surely) Blessed Benedict XVI.

But recall a line from A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS when Thomas More thunders to Norfolk something to the effect of (I haven't the text to hand): "The nobility of England would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount!"

That might well apply to some of our bishops and, I confess, to me.
written by Aloysius Duque, March 04, 2013
We need a Year of Holiness.... good article
written by Matthew, March 04, 2013
The Church has followed a tragic path in following Rahner's advice to throw open the stained glass windows of the Church to the world; to invite the world's fresh air replace the stale air inside the ancient Church.

The stench of the world has indeed replaced the air of incense inside the Church.

The answer is for the next Pope to close the stained glass windows, clean out the filth, and make the structure of the Church a fitting tabernacle of God. Only then will a New Evangelation to the world become the New Springtime. The next Pope needs to be a man of governing action, words of diagnosis alone will not do.
written by Arnold, March 07, 2013
I had the opportunity in the 1980s during visits to Paris to attend a number of the Sunday and Holy Week Liturgies at St. Gervais and can attest to their beauty and solemnity, especially their version of harmonic chant in a Byzantine influenced style. One Easter I was amazed when the three concelebrants chanted the Eucharistic Prayer in three voice harmony. The congregations were made up mainly of young adults including young families with the best behaved children I have ever witnessed in church. The fact that the movement is growing so rapidly and spreading to such former Benedictine strongholds as Vezelay and Mont St. Michel and more recently Santa Trinita in Rome show that there is a hunger for trascendence among many youth in western Europe. I hope that we experience new foundations in this country too.
written by Katie, March 09, 2013
The amazing liturgy from Notre Dame for Fr Pierre-Marie Delfieux can be seen via the French Catholic TV station KTO. Last week it was on their front page; if not, it will be under their video listings.

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