At times the Barque of Peter is imperiled by storm-tossed seas and dysfunctional wayfarers. These crises greatly distress those united in charity to the Church and her saving mission. Like the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, they cry out: “Lord save, us!” Sometimes the crisis passes as Jesus calms wind and waves. Other times, the crisis intensifies and that other plea—almost an accusation—is taken up: “Master, do you not care that we are perishing?” We must learn to weather these storms with the Lord, even when He tolerates their continuation and the loss of precious goods. Then His peace will safeguard us from bitterness and despair.
We know the Church must sometimes suffer in her journey. These periods can lead to purification, as when decadence preceded the rise of the Dominican and Franciscan movements in the 13thcentury and the “Counter-Reformation” in the 16thcentury.
Yet not all storms are followed by renewal. The Church in North Africa vanished after the Arab invasion of the 7thcentury and subsequent conversion of the population to Islam. The Catholic Church was almost completely destroyed in England and Scandinavia after the Reformation, often with the cooperation of bishops and clergy.
The outcome of the Church’s current crisis, decades and centuries in the making, cannot be foreseen. That the Gates of Hell will not prevail doesn’t guarantee the survival of the Church in any particular society or with a sizable membership.
The present failings and weakening of the Church as an institution in Western societies is difficult for us to bear. We love the Lord, His Gospel, His Church, and the ways our peoples and cultures have benefited from them. Watching as some of our loved ones, neighbors, and religious leaders distort or abandon the life given us by Jesus causes a profound pain that, rightly, produces grief – and anger.
Faced with this storm, we want to believe that prayer and coordinated efforts can guarantee a favorable outcome. But that isn’t true. God doesn’t grant us the ability to remove every evil and preserve every good. The experience of that limitation can lead to a frustration that warps grief into despair, and anger into rage. We must guard against those bitter outcomes.
Frustration is often fed by false hopes and false fears. These are rooted in a false attachment to a particular good we want to be accomplished or to be protected from harm. The false attachment, in turn, distorts our perception – we believe people and situations are what we mistakenly hope or fear they are.
This delusion creates a misplaced optimism or pessimism which leads, respectively, to recklessness or to paralysis in the pursuit and defense of the good. Since neither attitude corresponds to the reality of the situation, neither is capable of dealing effectively with the evils that trouble us. The consequent failure to resolve the problem increases our frustration. Unchecked, this produces despair or rage.
To abandon the delusion we must first be prepared to bear the loss of goods – goods perhaps more valuable than life itself. Only then will we be free of the false hope of preserving those goods or the false fear of their loss. Only then will we find a realistic response to evil.
In the current crisis, everything in us revolts against tolerating the degradation of Christ, the Gospel, Christian life, human dignity, and the ministry of priests, bishops, and popes. This strikes us as a form of surrender, if not betrayal. The evil here seems intolerable and our attachment to the good entirely justifiable. It seems impossible that Jesus would ask this of us.
This is the internal crisis we must each face, the moment when the crisis of the Church becomes truly our own. In that moment, Jesus draws us to himself on the Cross. He says, “Yes, I am degraded, my Word is twisted and set aside, and I am betrayed and abandoned even by my own. I bear, I tolerate this as I bear your sins and the evils you commit innocently. I oppose them and suffer them because I love you. Will you join me in this love, bearing my joys and sorrows, tolerating the evils done to me?”
This encounter changes everything without altering external circumstances or promising happy endings prior to Jesus’ return. With Him we can tolerate mistaken or wicked popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, religious, and lay people. We can bear the misrepresentation of His person and His way of life. We can tolerate the destruction of the Church and Christian culture in specific times and places – even our own.
These evils are a cause for grief and anger, but not despair and rage. They can be borne because they do not separate us from Christ or destroy our certain Hope. However great the loss, Christ and His Church will proclaim the Gospel and sustain Christian life until He returns, even if only one Catholic remains.
By bearing the present evils with Christ and knowing His victory, our anger and sorrow over the abuse of Jesus, the Church, the Gospel, and humanity are no longer distorted by a frustration born of unreality. They mature into a stable response in Christ that continually fosters the good, opposes and bears with evil, and yet remains ready to lose the good or overthrow evil when God calls for it. God’s peace, free of any bitterness, then reigns in our suffering hearts.
This is how Jesus remained free of despair or rage amid fallen and sinful people. It is how Thomas More and John Fisher faced the destruction of the Church in England. It is how Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein endured the violation of their countries and the persecution of their peoples. And it is how we will be able with patience, charity, and fortitude to weather the present storm for as long as Christ tolerates it.
*Image: Christ Asleep in His Boat (Le Christ Endormi dans Sa Barque) by Jules Joseph Meynier, c. 1870 [Musée Municipal, Cambrai, France]