I am blessed to have very engaged, intelligent, and orthodox parishioners. Recently, more than a few have expressed a deep anxiety about things that are taking place within the Church at the episcopal level. These are faithful people — yet they have become confused, discouraged, and fearful about the future. As I was discerning how best to respond to their concerns, a passage from the Book of Sirach came to mind:
My son, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
What is too sublime for you, do not seek;
do not reach into things that are hidden from you.
What is committed to you, pay heed to;
what is hidden is not your concern.
In matters that are beyond you do not meddle,
when you have been shown more than you can understand.
Indeed, many are the conceits of human beings;
evil imaginations lead them astray. (Sirach 3:17; 21-24)
We have all become aware of serious debates, even divisions, right now at the highest levels of the Church concerning very important matters. That such things exist is nothing new — what is new is the average Catholic’s access and exposure to them, thanks especially to electronic media. Never before have ordinary people devoted so much time and interest to the daily, even hourly, words and actions of the pope and bishops of the Church. I doubt that most Catholics throughout the ages even knew the pope’s name! But now, everything is analyzed, speculated upon, and forwarded ad nauseam. I ask you, is this healthy?
Some might respond, “But is it not unavoidable?” To which I would say, it is entirely avoidable. I choose to avoid it entirely. Who among us could honestly say, “I have prayed and served so adequately today, that the best thing I can do with the free time I now find before me is to jump online and indulge in the latest hierarchical gossip, conflict, or scandal?” Certainly not I.
If there are problems at the Church’s highest levels, I can say the following three things: (1) It wouldn’t be the first time, (2) I’m happy to be only a parish priest and not a bishop, cardinal, or pope, and (3) I trust that the bishops, cardinals, and pope will work things out. Why? Because I trust the Holy Spirit. That’s why I’m a Catholic. Were I not — if my church had been founded by men rather than God — I would have good reason to fear that men could corrupt it. But I am not an Episcopalian. I’m a Catholic. If I hear of things that are troubling to my spirit, my response should be to pray, but not worry. Should our Catholic faith not immunize us to anxiety resulting from suspicion that God’s providence is not sufficient to protect his Church from fallen humanity?
Simply put, if my position within the Church is at the highest level, then matters at that level should concern me. If not, then they shouldn’t. Each of us has more than enough to accomplish on a daily basis that we needn’t take on Vatican intrigues as an extracurricular activity.
The Church has been here before. In her long history, she has known innumerable periods of confusion, disagreement, discord, and scandal — some so grave that they don’t bear mentioning in mixed company. What is remarkable and unique about the Catholic Church is not that her members have been any less fallen than others, but that she has endured, by God’s singular grace, precisely in spite of the fallenness of her members, including her leaders.
If you are one of those good people who has become troubled or anxious — perhaps due to an inordinate diet of electronic media concerning Church politics — I would ask you to step back, re-evaluate, and refocus on God’s providence this Lent. He is in charge of His Church. That is what allows us to have peace in our hearts rather than fear, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit rather than the distractions of the Evil Spirit.
And remember the advice of Sirach: what is committed to you, pay heed to — but in matters that are beyond you, do not meddle.
Fr. Eric Gilbaugh is a parish priest of the Diocese of Helena.