According to Bishop Robert Barron in his new series The Sacraments: “The Sacraments are the most important things in the world.” If so, why are so many of the faithful lacking in this understanding and why have many of the faithful been denied access to the Sacraments during this pandemic while priests continue to have access? The latter is not a matter of entitlement since the Sacraments are meant for all of the People of God.
Millions of Catholics around the world will not be able to celebrate a single public Mass in the Easter season this year. We have been exiled during the highest days of the liturgical year. There is deep spiritual significance to all of this that I cannot presume to fully understand or have knowledge of, but it is clear: Christ is calling us to conversion of heart and repentance.
How do we know this to be the case? Throughout salvation history, God has wounded in order to heal. From the Israelites frequent exiles due to their sins to periods of affliction throughout Church history, God has sought to draw His people back to Himself through affliction. He uses instrumental causes in both nature and through angels in order to bring about greater ends. His ways are not our own. We flee from suffering, while God uses it bring about his Divine plan for our salvation.
The very center of this life is the Cross. Rain falls on the good and the evil alike and given our own propensity for sin, failings, and weaknesses it is often difficult to tell which category we each fall into on a given day. This is a truth about ourselves we must once more embrace in order to become the saints Christ wants us to be in order to renew His Church.
We are called to be saints. Every single one of us is called to sanctity. It is not a path reserved for a chosen few. Lumen Gentium states in paragraph 42:
“…all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive.”
What does this call to holiness have to do with the present pandemic? Everything. The starting place for growing in holiness is confronting our own sin, weaknesses, and failings. It is time for all of us in the Church to make a thorough examination of conscience. The problem is, for decades the faithful were instructed on how to be of this world, rather than on how to become saints striving for eternal life.
For decades—and throughout Church history—many members of the Church have espoused ideas and beliefs that are diametrically opposed to the Gospel. In previous ages, the necessity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation was preached constantly, but in our own, the infrequency of this call is evidenced by abysmally short Confession lines. We have rarely been called out for our unfaithfulness to God whether by priest, layman, or religious.
It is this repeated unfaithfulness that has led Christ to forcefully call us to conversion of heart, repentance, and the abandonment of our sinful ways. He often uses or allows suffering to accomplish conversion within us and the Church. This exile is an opportunity to examine when we have chosen the world, the flesh, and the devil over Christ.
A collective examination of conscience is desperately needed within the Church. Where has the hierarchy failed to teach, to govern, and to sanctify the People of God and the world? How has self-love and comfort kept our leaders and the flock from living the radicality of the Gospel? How has our worldliness hurt the world around us and kept us from inviting others into the Mystical Body? When and how have we betrayed Our Lord?
We need to look at the festering, putrid wound that is the clergy sex abuse scandals and seek to truly make amends. It has caused immense damage to the Church. Men who stand in at the altar as Christ abused the people entrusted to them and committed great acts of sacrilege in the process. This wound cannot be healed through more bureaucratic red-tape, legalese, and sweeping under the carpet. It must be brought out into the disinfectant light of day. Yes, it will be agonizing, but it is only through the suffering of the Cross that we are healed.
We must examine where we have given into the prevailing culture of materialism, consumerism, hedonism, nihilism, utilitarianism, moral therapeutic deism, and the mediocrity these prevailing philosophies lead us to. The Church has betrayed Christ repeatedly, as have each one of us as her members. This should cause us pain and discomfort. That is a good thing. It is the first step towards healing and renewal.
Throughout half of Lent and all of the Easter season the faithful have been separated from the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Nearly 70% of Catholics deny the Real Presence. This number is staggering. It is not incidental that we have been separated from Him in the Holy Eucharist and the other Sacraments. Now is the time for the flock to consider when we have received Him unworthily, taken Him for granted, or denied Him.
The astonishing numbers pertaining to the Real Presence are also an indictment of the priesthood. The Sacrament most directly tied to priestly identity is denied by the vast majority of Catholics. The Real Presence of Christ who the priest confects in his anointed weak, vulnerable hands through the words of consecration is desecrated by countless members of the flock across the globe on a regular basis with little outcry.
It is not incidental that priests have been exiled from their flocks. The priesthood cannot be fully understood apart from the flock Christ entrusts to each priest. The clergy sex abuse scandals reveal the evil and corruption within the hierarchy, but so does the fact fact that far too many Catholics are sacramentalized—they’ve gone through the motions—but they’ve never had a personal encounter with the Risen Lord.
The Sacraments are directly tied to the priest’s identity as an alter Christus, and yet, the faithful don’t understand they are conduits of the most tangible encounters with Christ we experience on this side of eternity. These are the most important things we have been given in this life— which we have failed to see—but then we wonder why we’ve been exiled from them and why priests are exiled from their flocks?
It is time for a renewal of the priesthood and for priests to boldly and courageously re-claim their identity in Christ. Holy priests lead to a holy people who truly love the Real Presence. Holy priests lead us to encounter the Risen Lord. Holy priests lay down their lives for the flock. We want to be a holy people and we want our priests to lead us to holiness by their example.
None of this is meant to lead us to despair. The acknowledgement of our sins and failings should renew our devotion and love for Christ. He wounds us by opening our eyes to our sin and failings, so that He can heal the brokenness within the depths of our being. This should lead us to humbly seek His forgiveness and mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so that we can love Him as we ought to. It is in our weaknesses that Christ reveals to us how our strength and goodness come from Him alone. This realization and acceptance of responsibility should lead the Church to vivified faithfulness to Her Bridegroom.
This exile is a gift, albeit a painful one. If we are honest with ourselves and God, then we will come to see that—much like the Israelites—we deserve to be exiled due to our unfaithfulness. Christ is giving us an opportunity to fully return to Him and to grow in deeper love of the Sacraments. In order to do so, we must drink this painful chalice and allow Christ to renew us at the foot of the Cross. In so doing, the Church will once more become His spotless Bride, adorned in splendor, living the joy of the Resurrection while seeking to draw all nations to the Most Holy Trinity.