In a sense, the Church shows more unity when it is breaking down, than when it is not. Whether in Rome, or in the most distant parish, we see signs of her disintegration.
This may of course be only apparent. Readers of Church history will recall the times when dissolution was upon us. The means by which the Church is “righted” or “corrected” is outside normal human control, as is that remotest parish. It is serene.
To the human observer, including one historically and theologically informed, a great number of things change over a generational period of time. It is not so much specific events, but time itself that seems to keep moving. We were in dreadful peril, and then we were not. “Normality” has crept back, by devices no one can understand.
Or, I cannot understand, and have not met anyone who does.
We cannot really define what is “normal,” in all of its implications. Yet we know it when we see a Catholic who is obedient to the teaching of Our Lord. His, or her, behavior is so simple, that the possibility of questioning it will not arise.
This is one of the things I learned from Saint Thomas More, and a few like him, going to their deaths by martyrdom with, to my view, very little drama. He left the student with the impression that he had work to do that day – it was a day like any other – and he went about it with his usual calm, efficiency, and good humor, down to a joke with his executioner.
Christ Himself, I will say, didn’t make a fuss about His Passion. He made such practical arrangements as he could still make in his last moments of earthly life, such as His provision for Mother Mary.
Dying, He plunged down into Hell, and yet not visibly to such spectators as were gathered around the Cross. This I presume, since they could not see Hell to start with, from their “peanut gallery” in the everyday world. Indeed, men see no farther than death until, being dead, their blindness is lifted.
I’ve been reading, at Sandro Magister’s website (click here to read), the document he says is being passed among the Cardinals who will make up the next Conclave. Being no expert on the byways, or even the highways through Rome, I’m in no position to comment on the reality of the document, or the identity of its author (who signs himself, “Demos”). Perhaps he is, as some suspect, a Cardinal himself.
Other recent news from Rome is that this consistory is approaching, because the Holy Father is mortally ill. Again, I have no inside information.
But I am shocked, and genuinely heartened, by what I read. If you will, the document is a manifesto from which the drama has been removed, for while it does an adequate job of summarizing the causes of the desolation into which Holy Church has lapsed, under the present pope and in the convulsion of public events, it merely checks them off.
Nothing on the list is controversial, or can be surprising to anyone who is reasonably well-informed. The author describes a Church that, to “reform,” has simply withdrawn from its ancient mission “progressively,” so that heresies, idolatries, faithlessness, and lawlessness have become her new characteristics. We simply endure.
This is known to the world in the news, and noticed by Catholics in every parish. For two years, under the (unrelated?) tyranny of lockdowns and masks, the Mass has been under siege, in consequence of universal, profane, local arrangements.
The coincidence of this chaos, with attempts to enforce unprecedented tampering with all the Sacraments by Pope Francis, has created a condition of disorder in which bishops have no choice but to scramble awkwardly.
Generally, in the past, the Church carried on with her mission peacefully, from week to week and year to year. It was seldom necessary for a Catholic to consult authority, especially extra-liturgical authority, to know what comes next. His prayer book was all the bureaucracy he needed, and the well-educated Catholic did not always need even that.
But now I am describing “normal,” while longing for it as never before.
The document making the rounds, by “Demos,” longs for the same. It in effect pleads to all those who will attend the next Conclave to reinstitute “normal” – which they might do by choosing a new Peter resembling most of the past ones. I am imagining a learned and traditional father, while there are still some to choose from.
Indeed, what I am advocating is the least controversial possible course, involving disturbance of only those who are already disturbed, in the sense of demanding changes.
I admit that fashionable clerics in Germany, and in other post-modern parts of the world, would be scandalized by the absence of scandal, and other returns to order and discipline. But here, too, the least explosive of the many explosive alternatives will commend itself, on multiple intersecting levels.
For in addition to putting out fires, a period of quiet and dedication will do more to attract the confused people currently living in this world to religious participation than any more specialized, and feverish revolution.
The “Demos” document describes the low ebb in the Vatican’s political prestige, that follows from all the experiments and novelties introduced into the Church. We need an immediate holiday from the desiccating effect of political awareness.
The next Conclave will be, some expect, the most unpredictable in modern times, for it will be formed from the present pope’s numerous eccentric appointments, and they are from territories and stations so diverse that they may not be (as previously) familiar with each other. They may select a new pope who is equally unfamiliar.
But paradoxically, this is a reason to hope. For the Cardinals themselves will have many clashing interests. The aspiration to Catholicism might suddenly emerge as the most compelling force.
Images: Illustrations from Le Petit Journal, 9th August 1903. Depicted are the *funeral of Pope Leo XIII and the **conclave that elected Pope St. Pius X.
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Robert Royal’s The Devil and Pope Francis