There is a mature wisdom in these words, from which I, and I dare say many of us, can learn. Michael Davies used to encourage high-information Catholics not to become so obsessed with the current crisis of the Church that they lose their joy as Catholics. Pray, receive the Sacraments, sacrifice, and enjoy the abundant resources available for living a full life as Catholics. He would even say that it's "unhealthy" to talk incessantly about problems in the liturgy and Church, and would tell American audiences: "Go out and enjoy a baseball game with your families." Point taken.
I have a certain acquaintance from a few years back who was raised Protestant. He gradually came to see recognize the claims of the Catholic Church through independent study and was convinced that he needed to enter the Church. He knew very much about the "academic" part of Catholicism; that is, he could offer all the arguments in favor of the Church's claims, knew a lot about her history, and could explain Catholic theology better than most Catholics. He was willing to cross any river or burn any bridge necessary to come home to Rome. When he understood that Latin was the official language of the Catholic Church, he went off an enrolled in a two-year course in Latin to learn the language of his beloved. I was particularly moved by this; how many people, if confronted with a Church speaking a foreign language, would demand that the Church change rather than they change? But this individual's attitude was, "Well, if the Church of Christ speaks Latin, I'd better learn Latin." If only more people took this approach...
Unfortunately, the Church he studied his way into, the Church he fell in love with, in fact did not exist. He spent two years studying Latin because he thought Latin was the language of the Church - and in a technical sense it certainly is - but my friend gradually became saddened as he realized that Latin had been all but banished from Catholic liturgical usage.
The intellectual arguments he learned in defense of papal authority lost their edge as he witnessed the popes apparent embarrassment at the traditional teaching, and their subsequent consistent refusal to exercise the power that they spent centuries previously insisting upon. The boldness that characterized Gregory VII's interactions with Henry IV or Innocent III's dealing with King John had fled, or been banished, from the Vatican. The Church had insisted for centuries that it wielded a sword of spiritual power bequeathed to it by Christ - why now did it refuse to wield the sword that God gave it?
He was saddened and confused that the simple yet powerfully eloquent teachings of the saints found no parallels in modern writing or preaching, and could not understand why the beautiful structures that were the glory of Christendom were being replaced and in many cases destroyed in favor of ugly modern structures constructed on secular humanist principles. Most of all, he was distraught that the Church that had produced so many martyrs, who had suffered death in defense of the purity of the faith, was now no longer proclaiming the uniqueness of that Faith in undiluted purity, but seemed intent upon affirming non-Catholics where they were, implying to them that their own religious traditions were also salvific, and that there was really no need for formal union with the Catholic Church.
The fact that the above mention demolition of the traditions of the Church was not happening externally but was being aided and abetted by the Princes of the Church and the successors of the Apostles was especially devastating. He realized that the Church today is very weak, weak because it chooses to be. Weak because it will not clearly proclaim the message entrusted to it by Christ, weak because its people and prelates do not seek holiness, weak because the Church refuses to take up the weapons and armor our Lord left with it and instead tries to muddle through on its own.
I caught up with this acquaintance a few weeks ago. I honestly expected him to be the sort of person who would have gone over to the SSPX, but surprisingly enough he told me he was attending a standard Novus Ordo parish. We talked about the Church and the future of Christianity and what one could concretely "do" about the problems we are facing. He said that the Church ultimately belongs to Christ, and its destiny is in His hands, but when I asked him what he thought we should be doing to help restore our Faith, he said that years of anger and given way to a more peaceable reflection and realization that the only thing that would restore the Faith, the only thing that has ever restored the Faith, is saints. We need saints. "I am quietly striving for sanctity" he told me, "in my own way, taking the saints and the fathers as my guides, and in many respects, pretending like the current crisis is not happening."
He of course did not mean pretending the crisis isn't happening in the sense of denying it, but it did mean that whatever else is going on in the world, a person's life and destiny is between them and God alone. The path has been charted centuries ago, the road marks are all there, the saints are guiding us onward. This remains true whatever is going on in the Church. His attitude seemed to be, "If things are bad, well, this is another chance to practice detachment and another opportunity for holiness." In a certain sense, nothing has changed - the soul still must seek God, God still makes this grace available, and we still must respond to His grace as in every age.
I was heartened by this response, because too often the mess we see ourselves in can lead us to despair. I myself have been guilty of it- focusing so exclusively on the negatives and the things that are wrong that the virtue of hope gets eaten away until we have nothing left to go on. Ironically, the destruction caused by those who view the Church merely as a human institution to be reformed at will can have the effect of leading us to the same conclusion - the Church as a human institution whose restoration depends on human will alone.
This was part of the philosophy that led me to create this blog's sister site, a place where Catholic Tradition and history are studied and reflected upon, almost without reference to the modern crisis, inasmuch as that is possible. One can never escape the age one lives in, but it is helpful to remember that God put us here for a reason. He wanted us to exist here and now rather than in some other age, and this presumes that He has allowed us to live through these times with very good reason. It is reminder of His plan, which itself is a reminder that He is in control and that we have to keep alive the virtue of hope, by which we not only anticipate the triumph of God back actually appropriate it, making it real even now in a mystical way. This is the foretaste of heaven. This is the spark that vivifies the Church, the flame that gives endurance to the saints and will give endurance to those who remember to seek God's will in all things and desire Him above all things. We must persevere in faith, yes, but allow faith to nourish the virtue of hope, and through the fire of hope to take hold of charity.
I desire the liturgy to be restored as soon as possible. But I desire God's will above that, and if God has willed for us "seventy more years" of exile as He did for the Jews, then I love His will more than my preference. I desire the Church to be glorified and grow and win souls, but God's will. We know how it ends, and knowing this, we can enjoy true rest, true interior peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, even if the Church is in turmoil, even if the faith is forgotten everywhere other than in our own hearts, even if the very world itself collapses around us. In all this, God is in control, Christ is still on the throne, and "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the coming glory to be revealed to us." (Rom. 8:18)
Having said that, I cannot help but recall how my own move to the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) was motivated, not by preference, but by the ineluctable conviction that certain things about the liturgy in my original parish, as in many others I had visited, were objectively dishonouring and demeaning to God. In this respect, when I encountered priests and others who told me to put God's will above my liturgical "preferences," I felt (as I still do) that an ineradicable incommensurability lay beneath the proposition: How could I bring myself accept as God's will what was objectively dishonouring to Him? Furthermore, the TLM was far from being a "preference" for me, at least initially: as many of you know, the traditional liturgy has a significant learning curve, and is notoriously difficult for a newcomer to fathom.
Accordingly, when we speak of embracing "God's will," we need to ask exactly what we mean. The question calls for a distinction between God's positive and permissive will, between the good that God wants for us and the evil that He permits, including our own sin and its consequences that we bring upon ourselves (both individually and collectively).
It is one thing to speak of "abandonment to Divine Providence,"to allude to the classic of devotional piety by Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussaude, S.J. This means facing the circumstances of life that are beyond one's control, whether for good or for ill, with resignation to Divine Providence, with the consolation that God knows all things, sees all things, is in control of all things, and that nothing external to us can separate us from the love of God -- neither tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, principalities, powers, things present, or things to come (Romans 8:31-39).
It would be another thing altogether to suppose that God wishes us to adopt an attitude of fatalistic resignation toward whatever happens in our life as thought it were what God meant to be. While it is true that God permits evil that He may bring good out of it, the evil is never intended as a good in itself that we are to passively accept (all felix culpas to the contrary). Under the section of the Code of Canon Law entitled "The Obligations and Rights of All the Christian Faithful," we find the declaration: "[The Christian faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church" (Can. 212, §3). Accordingly, we are obliged for the good of the Church to point out distressed conditions that need addressing.
So there are other issues here that cannot be neglected, as I'm quite certain Boniface would willingly acknowledge. Nevertheless, I am exceedingly grateful to him for the wisdom of his post in what it suggests about the importance of not capitulating to despair or recrimination, but "enduring" through growth in grace, sanctity, and that peace that passes all understanding, which only Christ can give.
[Hat tip to J.M.]
- "Does the form of the liturgy matter that much?" -- a post reviewing an article by Nicholas Postgate, entitled "Liturgy Forms Christ in Us," in the Spring 2006 issue of Latin Mass magazine (Musings, May 13, 2007)
- "Nicholas Postgate: Christ's Real Presence in our liturgies is not enough" -- a further post on the above article by Postgate (Musings, May 18, 2007).