Noelle Mering is the Arts and Culture editor and social media manager for helenadaily.com. She studied philosophy and theatre at Westmont College in California and did graduate work in philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Noelle and her husband live in Southern California with their six children.
On a recent trip to San Francisco I was struck by how much it’s a study in extremes: incredible wealth juxtaposed with rampant destitution, a sky-scraping metropolis on the precipice of a horizon of wild ocean. Even walking the steep city hills will remind you that there’s little space here for middle ground.
A city that now publicly celebrates not humility but it’s opposite couldn’t have a more needed patron than St. Francis who left a life of wealth and prestige to live humbly in both circumstance and soul.
Despite visiting San Francisco all my life I don’t remember the poverty and cultural disorientation being so extreme, but maybe I was shielded from it.
Now both permeate the city. It might be a bit easier to become inured to it as a resident, or at least not to feel the punch of sadness of it all, but for a visitor it feels a bit like walking through tragedy.
During our time there we visited a local church. The liturgy was fine, the sacrament was a great gift, the priest said something vaguely heretical... in other words a common Mass experience in modern America.
It’s easy to become blasé about all this: the wealth and destitution, the miracle and the heresy.
So much of the spiritual life is seeing beyond the everyday so as not to drown in the complacency of a comfortable evil or become indifferent to a transformative grace. Surfaces are deceiving; we forget that there are depths of evil as well as an abyss of grace, and the extremes exist not just visibly in a city, but very painfully inside our Church.
If you’ve ever doubted the existence of the devil just read the recently released Pennsylvania grand jury report. If you’ve ever doubted the complicity of some in the hierarchy just read Archbishop Vigano’s 11-page testimony. Both are astonishing in their details, but sadly neither is quite as shocking as it should be. Any Catholic paying attention has known for decades, even if vaguely, that the Church was full of shepherds who didn’t believe in her teachings. We’ve all heard whispers about rampant debauchery in some seminaries, we’ve felt the surprise and unique consolation of finding good priests, knowing all the while that we’re too accustomed to the bad.
In many ways it’s an old tale. The Church has always been a place for all people at all stages of the spiritual life from St. Francis, to Flannery O’Connor, Chris Farley to Andy Warhol... all creatures, saints and sinners, some struggling, resisting, revolting, and returning over and over until their last breath.
But this is different. Like the poverty spreading in San Francisco, it seems like evil is permeating the body of the Church and reaching institutional levels we’d not suspected before. When did our shepherds become princes of this world, with all their displayed piety and careerism? They look the same as other shepherds on the surface, but there’s a disfigurement and heaviness to the man who wears the robe but refuses to be transformed to suit it, his corruption rendering a grotesque mockery of his calling.
The good priests I’ve known have shared a common characteristic: lightness. Not in a superficially sunny way, but a lightness born of great depth. They reflect Christ back to us so that we might grow in love for Christ. They are light, and in that light we see him.
Sin is heavy; it weighs a person down. And right now, and sadly for decades past, the institutional Church has been heavy with a planet of evil.
In the wake of all this the Church must seem to the world like a dungeon, dark and damp with spores rapidly multiplying. We need to demand that light shine in every corner of every diocese and at every level of the hierarchy to root out every last spore. Blow every whistle, embrace every investigation.
Flannery O’Connor said, “...the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”
She looked at the everyday and saw disfigurement and grace. Some of our shepherds look at disfigurement and grace and see the everyday.
As we walk through this diabolical tragedy inside the Church, the horizon of eternity stretches before us. There’s no space left here for middle ground between the devil and Christ. Both are hard at work for souls, one by subversion, the other by light. Each of us, the religious and the layman, the priest and the Pope, must serve one or the other. Let the light be relentless, revealing in its clarity (sometimes painfully so) that the stakes are high and the risk eternal.