Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, and hosts The Popecast, a podcast about papal history. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew, his wife, and their unborn child make their home in Spokane, Washington.
In the second book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, we find the Ents – the ancient humanoid race of tree-like creatures, the oldest beings in Middle Earth, and the shepherds of her forests – gathering themselves to decide whether or not they should wage war on the evil Saruman, who had lately been gathering an army of Orcs at a place called Orthanc, and using their fellow trees as fuel for its fires.
Most strange about this, readers will remember, is that this was quite unusual behavior for the Ents. Treebeard, the oldest living creature in Middle Earth, had been recounting the Ent’s history to the hobbits Merry and Pippin, and spoke of time in terms of decades and centuries, instead of months and years. Further, the Ents moved incredibly slowly and methodically, never hastening to do much of anything. Such was their nature, after all.
But the time in which the reader encounters the Ents is no ordinary age. As Treebeard narrates to the hobbits his knowledge of Saruman’s scheming, he erupts very suddenly:
“Curse him, root and branch! Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost forever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves. I have been idle. I have let things slip. It must stop!” (emphasis added)
As Treebeard exclaimed:
“[He] stood up, and thumped his hand on the table. The vessels of light trembled and sent up two jets of flame. There was a flicker like green fire in his eyes.”
After his initial burst of anger, Treebeard tempered himself somewhat, and said to the hobbits, “I have become too hot. I must cool myself and think; for it is easier to shout stop! than to do it.”
In the ensuing pages we find Treebeard gathering the Ents to discuss their plan of action. Three days they deliberated (a rather speedy meeting, to them). While it was in session, Merry and Pippin were remarking to one another about the Ents – that though they seemed slow, patient, and even a bit morose, “I believe they could be roused. If that happened, I would rather not be on the other side.”
And so we come to our own American shepherds, who as we speak are gathering in Baltimore for what is perhaps the most important USCCB General Assembly in recent memory. Fallout from this latest scandal is likely to be even worse than that of the “Long Lent” of 2002 – made worse in recent days by the decree from Rome that the bishops not vote on concrete measures for both clerical accountability and lay oversight of past and future episcopal misconduct. The “smoke of Satan” spoken of by Pope St. Paul VI appears to have so clouded the barque of Peter that her shipmates can hardly see from port to starboard.
Normally, the bishops (as a body) are slow-moving, intentional, and patient – and for good reason. It is the shepherd’s job as a guardian of his flock to make sure that the sheep do not stray, are well fed, and are properly tended to, but to otherwise sink into the background, letting them go about their business.
The bishops are an ancient body, members of an office founded by Christ himself, and custodians of a Church that came long before them and will last long after their deaths. Again, it is good that they are, by nature, not hasty in action. The Church, like the Ents, thinks in terms of decades and centuries – not weeks and months.
But sometimes the times are dire enough that even the most deliberate of bodies must act swiftly and decisively – even if the group itself does not like to be roused into such action. And when it does happen, as with Jesus fashioning a whip of cords and flipping tables in the Temple, the strength possessed by an otherwise serene and austere bunch can easily catch its enemy off guard.
Indeed, when asked by Merry and Pippin if they will really break the doors of Isengard (the fortress which they sought to destroy), Treebeard says:
“You do not know, perhaps, how strong we are … We are made of the bones of the earth. We can split stone like the roots of trees, only quicker, far quicker, if our minds are roused! If we are not hewn down, or destroyed by fire or blast of sorcery, we could split Isengard into splinters and crack its walls into rubble.”
Alas, Treebeard followed this speech with a wise word to the hobbits:
“Of course, it is likely enough … that we are going to our doom. But if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later.” (emphasis added in both)
The body of bishops possesses a strength that perhaps even most of their number has forgotten. Short of open doctrinal dissent from Rome (which is, of course, in no way a good idea, under any circumstance), there is much the bishops can still do, even to their own demise. One only has to think of the unprecedented mass-resignation of Chilean bishops earlier in 2018 for suggestions.
Our bishops have a choice – one which has the potential to change the course of the next generation and beyond. Much of their trust is lost among the faithful, and the Church’s reputation as a defender of truth and goodness is dwindling further still. They now face a fork in the road, as it were: A decision to sally forth and continue managing our decline, or to choose the narrow path – the one of mission, of a defense of the right and just, of a care only for the faithful, and not for their own skin.
May we all pray that our bishops heed the words of St. Catherine of Siena, written to Pope Gregory XI:
“I have prayed, and shall pray, sweet and good Jesus that He free you from all servile fear, and that holy fear alone remain. May ardor of charity be in you, in such wise as shall prevent you from hearing the voice of incarnate demons, and heeding the counsel of perverse counselors, settled in self-love, who, as I understand, want to alarm you, so as to prevent your return, saying, ‘You will die.’ Up, father, like a man! For I tell you that you have no need to fear.”