All's Right With The Church?
by Fr John McCloskey
First, what is, by definition, right with the Church? Most importantly we have to remind ourselves that the Church is the immaculate Body of Christ "without stain or wrinkle." It is a divine Person with a human nature. The Church stands alone in the world as a moral authority, bloody and sometimes bowed like our crucified Lord, but also glorified like his Body in heaven. All of us who strive to be faithful Catholics, with all our so human weaknesses, are on the winning side, sure victors after the Resurrection. The clear remedy for pessimism, besides the sacraments and prayer, is to gain perspective by simply reading the history of the Church (try Warren Carroll's magisterial work). After two thousand years, here we are ready to enter another "springtime of the Church," whether we see it from below here on earth or from an infinitely better vantage point (binoculars provided) from heaven.
The only thing wrong with the Church is that on this earth it is made up of sinners. To be shocked, scandalized, or otherwise disappointed by the reality of the human element of the Church here on earth before the second coming would reveal an angelic view of human nature worthy of Rousseau. I asked him if he had changed his mind about human nature when I visited his tomb in the Pantheon of Paris last August, but he refused to answer. I suspect he has, however.
What is right with the Church at the end of the twentieth century is that after the uncertainty and confusion which historically often has followed an ecumenical council, we are now more ready to apply the teachings of the Second Vatican Council to the Church and the world. Vatican II's essential message concerns the baptismal call to holiness of all the faithful and the inherent necessity of all in the Church to be evangelizers. In other words, the Church is about "person" and not about "structure." It is about the "sincere gift of self" of the Christian in and to the world and not about power plays or gender wars inside the Church. As John Paul II reminds us in Christifideles Laici: "Holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal." This is not an easy message for people of a certain generation and pre-Vatican II formation to absorb, whatever their degree of faithfulness to the Church and its teaching. However, the message is what lies at the heart of the mission of John Paul II, as reflected in his writings and his world-wide trips.
It is why the Holy Father has spent his pontificate in a positive manner, teaching, and watering the healthy seeds and plants of the Church, some of them still underground or just emerging. He has not wasted precious energy in disciplining those unfaithful who would not obey anyway. The Pope sees further and deeper into the future of the Church and the world than we and has acted unswervingly according to this vision, not unassisted, we trust, by the Holy Spirit. The Pope, with a supernatural outlook, thinks in terms of decades and centuries as should we who are also immortals.
A snapshot of what is right with the Church as we end this millennium and begin another was the closing Mass on Sunday August 24th of the World Youth Days in Paris. This was the largest Mass in the long history of France. A million young people, double the number expected, gathered together, in the most stifling heat Paris has experienced in this century, to endure discomfort, lack of sleep, and thirst in order to praise God and worship him in the Eucharist. One out of every thousand Catholics in the world was present at this Mass. They no doubt represented millions more in their adherence to the Church and its teaching as represented in the person of the Roman Pontiff.
Many tens of thousands of these young people would not have been there ten years ago. They came from Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and so on, countries that had been under the yoke of Communist domination. They were drawn by the charismatic figure of a man described in a French newspaper as "precarious (in) step, shaky voice, features riddled with weariness, struggling pathetically with a merciless Parkinson's at the end of an exhausting Pontificate." In short, these young people recognized the holy features of Christ in his Passion in one of the greatest Popes in history.
Among the crowd one could count tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of young people associated with the new institutions, religious congregations, and lay movements which the Holy Father has so strongly encouraged during his pontificate. He relies upon them for the spiritual energy directed towards building "the civilization of love and truth" that he foresees for the next century. Many were from the largely secularized West, including North America, and most notably, France and Italy. These are the young people he counts upon now and later to effect "the re-evangelization of the West," another central theme of his pontificate.
Also present were some 7000 priests and 500 bishops from all over the world, who concelebrated Mass with the Pope. In many cases they spent the week in catechizing in Parisian Churches and living together with the young people in hostels on the Ile de France. The great majority of these priests were noticeably young themselves, no doubt products of that constant annual 10% increase in vocations that has been universal (excepting in the decadent West) during the Holy Father's pontificate. These priests are the future pastors, seminary teachers, and vocation directors in the dioceses of the world. They will help to insure that what is right with the Church will only get better. The present Pope has appointed perhaps a majority of the bishops present, and all the active cardinals. In them, we also see so much that is good in the life of the Church. Think of Cardinal Lustiger, the amazing story of his conversion, his re-opening of the seminary of Paris, and all that he has done to serve the Church. While we pray for many more years of life for our exceptional Holy Father, could it be that this Jewish convert, at the side of the Holy Father during all of those glorious days in Paris, might be his successor? I wouldn't bet against it.
In the austere, cold Church of the Dome in Les Invalides I wondered what Napoleon thought as he watched French helicopters ascend and descend right in front of his tomb bearing the Polish Pope preparing to march a million of his "troops" into Paris and then marching them out again into the third millennium. What did he think of his countrymen St. Therese of Liseux, a contemplative nun, being proclaimed a Doctor of the Church and Frederick Ozanam, a pioneer of the lay apostolate in France and an outstanding statesman, being beatified at Notre Dame where once the Goddess of Reason was worshipped? Did Napoleon remember that moment a little less than 200 years ago when he boastfully crowned himself Emperor in front of the Pope in Notre Dame, or later when he sacrilegiously imprisoned the Vicar of Christ to further his own grandiose ambitions? Perhaps he asked himself, "What is right with the Church?" and answered himself at last from Scripture, "Upon this Rock I shall build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."
E-mail this article to a friend