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Catherine of Siena Did Not Fret, Nor Should We

October 18, 2018


Recently someone on social media asked me what it would take for me to call “heresy” on someone else in order to prove my Catholic bona fides.

Apparently, to refuse to j’accuse is to be continually vomited out of Jesus’ mouth in a lukewarm stream. Redemption can come to me, however, if only I will carp endlessly about how the world is ending and the Church is dying, and then lay the fault for it at the feet of the bishops and my own sins.

With all we know about our Church, hand-wringing and hyperventilation about its present or future has always seemed incongruous to me. It is not the way of the saints. Our early fathers and mothers preached and suffered, but they did not fret, and where they engaged in criticism they always saved some for themselves.

Where the great reformers saw problems they worked hard to correct them with a detachment that communicated humility.

Most of them, by the way, had folks in their retinues who struggled with faith. I am reading Sigrid Undset’s excellent Catherine of Siena, and am struck by how generously she dealt with those who wished to follow her example but would get distracted and wander off for a little while. One such “son” in particular did this several times, and Catherine never condemned him—always welcoming his return, accepting his contrition, and shooing him off to confession before putting him back to work. She seemed very content to pray for him and let him go, trusting that he would be brought about in God’s good time, which is indeed what happened. Catherine had lots of time for practical work, but little for fretting.

It’s hard, sometimes, to trust God’s timepiece when ours is so much more accessible (and makes everything seem so urgent). The Church is not dying, because she cannot die, but the worry is easy to understand. We see the empty seminaries of the West and sink into such a gloom that the record numbers of seminarians in the East and Africa seem not to count. Possibly our first-world conceit insists that we are the superior missionaries to the rest of the world, and it cannot square with the reality that the West has become a mission frontier.

Perhaps it is because so many Catholics currently seem to be wandering that some are panicking and reaching for their verbal cutlasses. Certainly the Church does seem to be in a prolonged season of penance, wrought by both her tragic inattention to clerical abuses and the indisputably inadequate catechesis of the last forty-or-so years. That a couple of generations of “You are special; Mass is special; God is special” CCD classes (which offered nothing to counter a deadly cultural obsession with esteem-building) has produced millions of Catholics who have no idea what makes the Church more “special” than anything else, really should not surprise.

It is a near certainty that the Church will get smaller, down the road, as Joseph Ratzinger predicted many years ago:

The Church will become small, and will to a great extent have to start over again. But after a time of testing, an internalized and simplified Church will radiate great power and influence; for the population of an entirely planned and controlled world are going to be inexpressibly lonely…and they will then discover the little community of believers as something quite new. As a hope that is there for them, as the answer they have secretly always been asking for.

If Ratzinger’s words prove prophetic, then perhaps sometime in the not-too-distant future, as governments move against her, the Church will be forced into poverty and become subject to the oppression of her earlier days. We may even see martyrs in the Western Church once more.

But that, of course, is when the Church will triumph. Even if we lose every material aspect—our buildings, and the great art vouchsafed to us—the Church will triumph, because it is greater than any structure, innovation, or physicality, which (no matter how meaningful) is nothing at all compared to Christ.

This is something a materially fixated world cannot understand: to silence a voice is not to prevent prayer; to close a parish is not to end it. The Church is built by the author of life, and is itself alive with that Divinity.

This month’s launch of the Word on Fire Institute is an exciting response to all of the negativity (and the negative possibilities) that Catholics on social media grind out on a daily basis. Call it Adult Catechesis or Ongoing Adult Formation if you like, but the Institute is an attempt to address what has been lacking in our Catholic formation and understanding for too long. The hope is that as Catholic adults learn more about the faith through her great teachers and the power of Catholic imagination, they will be prepared to become effective evangelists for the faith, not just online but in their real-life exchanges with others.

The further hope is that as people develop an Institute “community” online, they will be able to translate that into local chapters, where communal activities and fellowship can help to fortify and grow what has been begun in them—can help bring the reality of this living Church into the lives of others, in God’s time.

Life will always find a way, which is why humanity is constantly trying to keep it at bay—another conceit.

This is not the first time, or even the fifth, that the Church has seemed weakened or needful, or that worldliness has seemed to be eclipsing it; but there is no end to the Church.

The nation may tumble; nations always do. When, or if, America tumbles, the Roman Catholic Church may very well see itself superseded by a government-friendly “American Catholic Church” that marginalizes the Roman church and even sends it underground.

What a privilege it will be, then, to have to give up our comfortable notions of what “real” Catholicism is, and what the “real” Church is, in order to keep the Mass and the Holy Eucharist in our midst. Stripped to our essentials, we may actually rediscover the unity that is currently so elusive among us.