Monday, August 21, 2017

The Lord does not abandon His Church

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

One of the weirdest movies I’ve ever watched is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on the Douglas Adam’s trilogy of books. The setting of the story is simple, the planet Earth is faced with destruction by an alien race as it wants to make way for an inter-galactic super-highway. At the beginning of the movie, we are treated to a strange commentary of dolphins being the most intelligent beings on Earth. Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending demolition of Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger.  The funny thing was that most of their communications were misinterpreted, and as a result, you see amusing attempts to punch footballs, or whistle for titbits, so they eventually gave up and left Earth by their own means - shortly before the aliens arrived. The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double backwards somersault through a hoop, whilst whistling the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’.  The simple message was, in fact, “So long and thanks for all the fish”.  In short, “It’s farewell and goodbye!”

Many Catholics who seem to have an apocalyptic bent in reading the signs of the times may feel like the dolphins. There is no doubt that we live in troubled times: times that can challenge our faith. It is wearisome to be constantly reminded of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, terrorism, uprisings, wars and rumours of wars and so on. In recent years even the spectre of schism and new apostasy has been added to this litany of woes. The faithful are abandoning the Church in droves! The number of priestly and religious vocations are plummeting! Let us not forget the two shafts of lightning that had struck the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica just hours after the previous Pope announced his resignation. These doom-sayers have been trying to communicate their concerns about the imminent destruction of the Church to their fellow Catholics, but their feeble attempts have come across as hysterical rantings and over-exaggerations about the actual state of affairs. Thus, many are on the verge of bailing out, if they have not already done so, before the barque of St Peter, the Catholic Church capsizes.

Recently, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI paid tribute to his friend, the late Cardinal Meisner, one of the four dubia Cardinals, in a message read out at the latter’s funeral mass. “He learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.” Many had latched on to the last part of the quotation, about the Church capsizing, whilst conveniently ignoring the rest of the message. Some take it as a subtle slap-down of the present administration of the current Pope, whilst others see it as an admission that the Church is indeed in trouble, and we are all threatened with a sinking ship. What most Catholics fail to recognise is that throughout its 2000 years history, the Catholic Church has always been threatened with the risk of capsizing. And yet, with all the odds stacked against it, she has somehow miraculously remained afloat!  In paying so much attention to this last part of the message and in giving it an ominous interpretation, these commentators failed to give due attention to what I believe to be the most important statement in this message, “The Lord does not abandon His Church.”

This resonates with the promise given by our Lord to St Peter in today’s gospel, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.” Saint Ambrose said: “The Church is like the moon; it may wane, but never be destroyed; it may be darkened, but it can never disappear.” Another great saint, Saint Anselm said that the barque of the Church may be swept by the waves, but it can never sink, because Christ is there. When the Church is in greatest need, Christ comes to its help by miracles, or by raising up saintly men to strengthen and purify it. It is the barque of Peter; when the storm threatens to sink it, the Lord awakens from His sleep, and commands the winds and waters into calm: “Peace; be still!” Yes, the Lord does not, and will not abandon His Church because the Lord always keeps His promises.

This is the meaning of the doctrine “indefectibility”, a term which does not speak of the Church’s lack of defects but confesses that, despite all its many weaknesses and failures, Christ is faithful to His promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The First Vatican Council declared that the Church possesses “an unconquered stability” and that, “built on a rock, she will continue to stand until the end of time”. The Church's indefectibility, therefore, means that she now is and will always remain the institution of salvation, founded by Christ. This affirms that the Church is essentially unchangeable in her teaching, her constitution, and her liturgy. It does not exclude modifications that do not affect her substance, nor does it exclude the decay of individual local churches or even whole dioceses.

Historically, when the Church was just beginning, the Roman emperors vowed to destroy it. Nero, Domitian, Diocletian and others tried to exterminate the Church. It could have died. In the early Christian centuries and throughout history, there have been so many heresies and schisms that had threatened to destroy the unity and integrity of the Church, but they failed.  Many of these heresies and schisms still continue in different forms today. In the 16th century, the Protestant reformation seemed to have succeeded in diminishing the Church’s numbers and even sucking life out of it.  In the same century, it spread to America and Asia.  In the 18th century, the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution was aimed at destroying the Church in France. The Church survived and the French Revolution is now history, though Enlightenment ideas are still here with us. In the 20th century, fascist, communist, socialist, secular regimes have tried to ban and destroy the Church, but in many of these countries, the Catholic faith continues to thrive in spite of the persecution and widespread restrictions.

So please, my fellow Catholics, the proper response when reading headlines about the corruption or destruction of the Church due to the mismanagement by her leaders is not panic or rage or despair, and definitely not to join the chorus of dolphins in singing, “Farewell, so long and thanks for all the fish.”  Rather, it’s a yawn, an eye-roll, and a resigned sigh and to be reminded once again of the greatness of Our Lord’s promise to St Peter. Catholics should not allow distress over the present situation, to shake their faith in Our Lord’s promise to preserve the Church from damnable error and to provide a trustworthy barque for the salvation of souls. They mustn’t succumb to the temptation to turn their frustrations, with fellow Catholics and even Church’s leaders, against the Church of Christ herself. Every Catholic should resolve to live as a saint, growing in charity of words and behaviour, keeping faith in the midst of a godless society and never letting go of the hope that looks to the return of Our Lord in all His glory to judge the living and the dead. Finally, they should never cease or slack in praying for our Holy Father, the successor of St Peter, and for the unity of the episcopate, the successors of the Apostles.

Perhaps, it’s good to remember the words of the late Cardinal Meisner in his Last Will and Testament. The words are beautiful, powerful and timely:
"Christ gave the Petrine office to the Church in order to give an orientation and support to the many people in the different times. That is my last request to you all for your salvation. Stay with our Holy Father. He is the Peter of today. Follow his guidance. Listen to his word. Peter wants nothing for himself, but everything for the Lord and for his brothers and sisters… I do not desire the grace which the Apostle John received, nor the forgiveness with which You pardoned Peter. I only desire the words which You said to the robber on the Cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”"

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