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Catholics: The Hard Slog of Sanctity Starts Here

February 21, 2019


“I am so done.”

“I just can’t anymore.

Some variation of these two phrases are littered throughout the email and private messages I’m getting from fellow Catholics who have been “hanging in and hanging on” since last summer’s revelations about both the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and the ongoing saga of former Cardinal, former Archbishop, former priest Theodore McCarrick. Faithful Catholics who have been doggedly digging in their heals and refusing to be driven away from the sacraments despite the ongoing and often horrifying headlines of longstanding evil being tolerated within our Church are suddenly feeling defeated—too overwhelmed to remain as, seemingly every day, there is another demoralizing tale.

“The Church I thought I would never leave again is pushing me away; we are on a break, and I don’t know when I can return,” writes one friend.

“Treachery—at best,” writes another.

One friend, made ill by the story of deaf students being helplessly victimized by profoundly evil men, wondered, “What, were these kids not far enough to the margins” to be seen and rescued?

It was a horrible, and horribly valid, question.

For the sake of justice and to effect healing, what has been hidden must be revealed, and we shall all have to look at it in stunned disgust. Yes, it is straining our faith. These are difficult, challenging days, and the utter fury roiling through our guts, our hearts, and our minds as we read these stories is understandable. The rage is righteous, and its energy is real.

Still, all of our anger will count for nothing if we do not channel that energy into action that goes beyond venting on social media and declaring that we’re “done.” Rather than walking away, we—each one of us—will have to roll up our sleeves and teach the institutional Church how to actually be a church again.

As in our earliest days, that means promoting an authentic encounter with Christ through simple outreach to one another, without waiting for direction from our leaders. Truth be told, real “leadership” is in short supply, everywhere. If our hierarchy seems to be tone deaf and playing endless defense, the secular chiefs are likewise lacking, worldwide. Media is dishonest and enthralled to its own narratives. Grassroots outreach and prayer may be all that’s left. We committed layfolk (and our faithful, hardworking and much-put upon ordinary priests) must—with the help of the Holy Spirit—take the lead in repairing a Church being shaken apart from the inside.

All it will cost us is our selves, powered by the Christ who resides within us but is too infrequently activated.

How much of ourselves depends on our willingness, and our circumstances. One of my sons spent a recent national holiday at a Catholic Worker outlet, serving coffee and sandwiches to people in need and—just as importantly—conversing with them about more than their need. He and his wife are like that. In the dungeon of Penn Station, he once saw a disheveled middle-aged woman asking people for change because she was hungry. He walked her to a food stand, bought her a meal and a drink, and then, as she ate, casually chatted with her, just keeping her company. When she had finished, she asked if she could hug him before he took his leave. He didn’t mind that.

When I asked him why he didn’t simply hand her a few dollars and keep walking, which is what I would have done, my son said it would have seemed “dismissive”—that the woman was as deserving as anyone else of being seen, heard, and known, even if just for a few minutes.

Seeing, hearing, knowing another, even for just so long as circumstances allow, is the way we bring forth the power of Christ, the force and the foundation of all of our efforts to be, and to re-build, the Church.

All of us can do this; all of us can, within our state in life, learn how to become truly present to others. The universal call to holiness, which has grown dim in our fractured and overbusy world, demands it of us, actually. And if that seems outside your comfort zone, try easing into it another way.

Regular readers know I have been hard on social media (and troubled by how it seems to bring out the worst in most of us), even to undertaking, and recommended to others, a Sabbath fast away from social media.

And yet the very platforms that have seemed such a devil’s playground are demonstrating to me precisely how important they will be to recreating a Church that looks like the early Church, in all of its vibrant energy and its reliance upon providence. Through social media I learned how one Catholic family, whose kids have Down syndrome, helped a pregnant woman abandon her fears (and her thoughts of abortion) to give life to her own son who has Down syndrome—all by the simple act of going to Mass.

What a witness to so many! And how might your own presence at Mass, however reluctant, make a witness that—all unknown to you—strengthens someone else? That’s a start.

Recently I’ve watched people tweeting out prayer requests to strangers, trusting that the plea will be met, and seen that trust rewarded. Last night, I did the same on behalf of a neighbor with a medical emergency, and yes, people prayed. That’s an encouragement.

On Facebook, a small group of Catholic writers, none of them rich, have pooled resources into a modest “fund” through which they help out others as they can. Their group started out as a place to vent. Then it became a place to pray—and they became real prayer warriors, indeed—and out of that prayer came their little “collection fund” by which they help others.

Perhaps that little Facebook group is a good model for all of us, a three-step Way of Willingness by which we may fix what has become so broken:

1) Let us be willing to gather together, even to go to Mass when we would rather not, that we may rediscover our community.

2) Let us support each other with authentic and generous prayer, that we may restore our spirits.

3) Let us permit that prayer to lead us into productive action, that we may rebuild our Church.

The institutional Church is afflicted with a systemic poisoning that is creeping toward a deadly sepsis. A few weeks ago, I considered that we Catholics must be willing to rescue each other. While we are at it, equipped with Christ’s own power, let’s rescue the Church. It’s all about our willingness, not our worthiness.