There are people sitting in the pews right now who are considering leaving the Church because of the constant confusion and chaos within the Church. There are priests struggling with the weight of everything that is going on who are trying to hold onto their priestly vocation. We live in a time when it is very difficult to see the divine origin of the Church. Scandal after scandal combined with confusing teaching coming out of the hierarchy is making it very difficult for many people to trust in Christ’s promises for the Church. In order to remain faithful to Christ and His Church we need steadfast faith.
One of the reasons people falter during times of corruption in the Church is because they often are ignorant of Church history. The Church always does battle with the spirit and heresies of each age, including from within at the hands of those members—lay, religious, and clergy—who turn from orthodox teaching. In other words, the Church has been here before many times. The heresies and Zeitgeist may be different, although many are dressed up re-inventions of previous heresies like Gnosticism and Arianism. We live in a difficult age, but the verdict is still out as to whether or not this will be the worst in Church history.
The Arian heresy saw a majority of the world’s bishops become Arians. St. Athanasius was exiled on at least five different occasions and largely abandoned by his brother bishops. He stood alone defending the divinity of Christ. He suffered tremendously for it, but he stayed firm. The Arian heresy spread far and wide and it has been one of the most difficult and virulent heresies to root out. It still exists in various forms today. The idea that the clergy have always lived in unity and holiness quickly falls away upon studying the Arian heresy.
On more than one occasion I have reminded my brothers and sisters in Christ—and some spiritual fathers in the priesthood—that the Passion is being relived in the Church today. Only one Apostle stood fast at the foot of the Cross. St. John was the minority, not the norm when Christ’s hour came. St. Peter chose worldliness, comfort, denial, and distance from the Lord in His hour. Judas betrayed Our Lord with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver. The other 9 Apostles fled. The Apostles then locked themselves in the Upper Room out of fear. This same thing is playing out today.
There are those clergy who stay close to Christ all the way to the Cross and who faithfully lead the Church through the Passion. There are those in the clergy who stay somewhat near Christ, but who prefer worldly comfort to being out in the cold with Our Lord and end up denying him in countless ways. They aren’t willing to suffer much. There are Judases—as the many scandals we are inundated with reveal—within the ranks betraying Our Lord for money, sex, power, esteem, anti-Gospels, or any other manner of worldly things. There are others who have essentially fled and are hiding. They don’t want to rock the boat because they are not yet willing to suffer for the Lord and His Church.
For those who are struggling in the pews, watching what is playing out in the hierarchy is deeply scandalizing. It is a trial for all of us to be sure. I have been on the phone on more than one occasion trying to help people—both lay and clergy–weather the hurricane we are embroiled in while trying not to drown in all of it myself. We are undergoing a major test of faith and it is faith that will keep us with Christ and His Church.
When we struggle or those around us struggle with the unending scandals and confusing teaching coming out of the hierarchy its essential that we root ourselves in faith. Understanding Church history is one way to grow in faith by coming to understand that the Church has weathered deeply difficult seas before and survived. She will survive this storm as well, even though, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI prophesied decades ago, her numbers will be much smaller when it is over with. She survives by trusting Christ in faith.
In the book The Religion of the Day by Monsignor James Shea and Dr. Jonathan Reyes with University of Mary the authors explain the difficulty we face:
Yet there is a special challenge in seeing the divine in the Church, a sharper difficulty perhaps than that of a first-century Jew seeing the divine in Jesus. Although Jesus shared our condition of humanity and all the consequences of our fall, he himself never sinned. In the Church, Christ has taken another step in his solidarity with fallen humanity by making his presence known through obviously sinful humans. When we encounter the human and sinful side of the Church—the scandalously bad behavior of some, the mediocre spiritual life of many more, the often unimpressive and small-minded ways some in the Church go about their business, the faults and limitations of even its best members—it can be difficult for us to perceive the presence of Christ.
This difficulty can only be overcome through faith in Christ. He is trustworthy, even when our leaders are not. He is operating in His Church through us sinners even when it is difficult for us to see. We can trust in Him and this requires faith in Him, not men:
As with Jesus the man, so with Jesus in the Church: only faith can open our eyes to the presence of the divine mysteriously united to the human. Faith looks for the signs, hears the voice of God in the Scriptures, hungers for the bread of life in the Eucharist, and knows that Christ himself is present. Illuminated by the vision of faith, we see that the fate of the Church is not decided by appearance, by public relations, by political or social machinations and manipulations. It is not upheld by money, by influential connections, or by human laws. Any of these factors may play a secondary role in a given strategy that Christ is using, but the strength of the Church is found in its heavenly divine life…Without the vision of faith, all that can be seen is a gathering of humans and their various organizations and activities, humans who are often unimpressive and who are sometimes downright evil—humans like us.
They go on to define faith with St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of faith which is “a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, allowing the intellect to assent to what is not seen.” Faith is a supernatural gift given to us through the Sacrament of Baptism that is strengthened in all of the other Sacraments; however, we cooperate with faith when we habitually assent to what Christ has taught us through Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. We may not see it with our physical eyes, but we know through faith that the Church is a divine institution that goes far beyond the sins of human beings because Christ Himself instituted the Church and is her Eternal Head who is operating in astonishing ways.
This supernatural vision of the Church helps us weather difficult storms, confusion, and competing ideologies among those men who were set apart by God to teach, to govern, and to sanctify the People of God, but who may or may not be fully living the vocation they have been given. There is little doubt that worldliness has infected the hierarchy at a distressing level, but the Lord is not done, yet.
Some of the Judases have been rooted out and the Lord will continue to shed light on those who have chosen evil within the hierarchy. As painful as this is for all of us, it needs to be brought out into the light in order for healing to begin. The 10 Apostles who abandoned Our Lord during His Passion all repented and followed Him all the way to their own martyrdoms. The Lord is not done with anyone, even those in the clergy who are hiding, locked away in Upper Rooms of their own making paralyzed by the diabolical fear that is so rampant among the ranks of the clergy. There are many St. Johns faithfully staying with Our Lord and Our Lady throughout the Church’s Passion leading all of us to follow Christ all the way to Calvary. The Lord is operating in the clergy and in all of us, even though we are all sinners.
For those who are considering leaving the Church, the answer is faith. We must turn our gaze away from the corruption, confusion, and chaos back to the Lord who is working in His Church. The same Lord who has made Himself small and silent in the Holy Eucharist. He is with us. This alone should keep us in the pews no matter what happens. Remind those who are struggling that Church history is not a sentimental, rose-tinted story. It is filled with the worst of fallen human beings and the greatest of saints. It’s filled with sinners like you and me.
The Church is our home. There is nowhere else to go. We must all pray for faith and for our leaders to be filled with faith, courage, charity, and burning zeal for Christ and the salvation of souls. The Lord is still at work. Don’t walk away from Him.