Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
Recent passages in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of Hours have seemed ominously applicable to the Church in our current crisis. Although these readings are part of a repeating schedule from year to year, they speak powerfully at this current time. Their perennial call to repent or else suffer grave consequences cannot simply be locked in the ancient past.
We have read from the prophets such as Isaiah, Zephaniah and Jeremiah, who warned ancient Israel and Judah of an impending destruction that would be near total. Like us, the ancients could hardly imagine that God would ever permit the demise of the glorious Temple and the holy city that bore his name and presence. However, God does not need buildings, land, earthly wealth, or worldly power to be the basis of his glory. He admonished ancient Israel in this way:
Reform your ways and your deeds, so that I may remain with you in this place. Put not your trust in the deceitful words: “This is the temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!” Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place, in the land which I gave your fathers long ago and forever.
But here you are, putting your trust in deceitful words to your own loss! Are you to steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, go after strange gods that you know not, and yet come to stand before me in this house which bears my name, and say: “We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again”? Has this house which bears my name become in your eyes a den of thieves? I too see what is being done, says the Lord (Jeremiah 7:3-11).
The Lord further reminded them of other shrines He had allowed to suffer ruin:
You may go to Shiloh, which I made the dwelling place of my name in the beginning. See what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel.
And now, because you have committed all these misdeeds, says the Lord, because you did not listen, though I spoke to you untiringly; because you did not answer, though I called you, I will do to this house named after me, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, just as I did to Shiloh (Jeremiah 7:12-14).
Indeed, the Lord permitted the destruction of the great Temple of Solomon in 587 B.C, and in A.D. 70 the even greater Herodian Temple (arguably one of the great wonders of the world at the time) was utterly destroyed and never rebuilt. Today a Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock, stands in its place.
We rightly speak of the Church as indefectible, for Christ said to Peter, And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:18-19).
Be careful, though: The indefectibility of the Church does not pertain to land, building, power, or glamor.
Consider, by contrast, the Church at her most victorious moment: Good Friday on an ugly hillside called Golgotha. Only one clergyman, St. John the Apostle, and four women were there with Christ. The Church was very small at that moment. There were no marble altars, no stone churches or basilicas, no papal estates or gold-embroidered vestments. It was just Jesus, the head of the body, and a few of his members. The rest of the clergy and disciples, even Peter, were hiding in fear, disavowing knowledge of him and standing a safe distance away. Yet this small gathering of the Church saw the greatest victory of all: By dying, Christ destroyed death and broke Satan’s power.
Yes, sometimes the Church gets small and seems quite powerless. Sometimes the Gospel is preached from a jail cell or at an execution site. The blood of martyrs is seed for the Church.
So, we ought not to imagine the indefectibility of the Church as something rooted in external glories such as power, land, buildings, titles, golden chalices or elaborate vestments.
The Liturgy of the Hours has been warning us of the possibility of disaster if we do not repent. If you think St. Peter’s Basilica could never be taken or the pope exiled from Rome (or even killed), think again. Of the first 33 popes, 30 died as martyrs. Two others died in exile. Only one died in his own bed. The Church had no basilicas or land until A.D. 313. Popes were exiled numerous times during the Middle Ages. They also took refuge in Avignon for far too long a time. If you think St. Peter’s will always be there, consider that the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, a basilica arguably as glorious as St. Peter’s, became a mosque and is now a secular museum.
Yes, God’s warnings are as real today as ever. He is more interested in our souls than our buildings. Our museums and works of art are trinkets to Him compared to the holiness of our lives, which he seeks. We are too easily mesmerized by the worldly splendor of such things and think it can substitute for the holiness and truth to which it points.
During this painful crisis of clergy sexual abuse, vague leadership, and lack of accountability, the call goes out with an urgency that rivals the greatest cries of biblical times: the Church must repent. This cry is addressed to all, from the laity and the lowliest of clergy to the Pope himself. Serious sins must be acknowledged and repented of. The Church must accept a deep purification that, though sure to be painful, is necessary.
For too long we have tolerated sin and toyed with compromise and heresy. Too many Catholics, even high-ranking bishops, have sought to excuse sin and have even tried to alter the very words of Christ. Some have stayed silent or turned a blind eye to sin and dissent. Still others have “majored in the minors,” focusing on matters of lesser importance.
Reform in the Church does not usually begin at the top. That is why it is so important for the hierarchy to listen, as never before, to the cries of the lay faithful, who plead with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Vatican to take reform seriously, reassert the truth of the Gospel with clarity, and rebuke dissent. While no one in the Church lives the gospel perfectly, the outright denial of central truths of our faith without any reproof from the Church hierarchy has been a source of great scandal and confusion. Silence from shepherds, who should be chasing the wolves away, is malpractice of the worst kind. There is simply no acceptable excuse for the deafening silence that has come from too many in the hierarchy in the face of dissent and even outright heresy. It is being taught routinely, openly, and ever more boldly by renegade theologians, wandering clerics, and even certain conferences of bishops. The faithful are bewildered, saddened, and justifiably angry.
Of especially destructive potential are errors regarding the nature, sanctity, and indissolubility of marriage; the worthy reception of Holy Communion; the nature and purpose of human sexuality; and the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. The faithful have long urged that bishops lead fearlessly, teach with clarity, and reprove those who teach errors in these matters. Instead of being listened to, they have seen their pleas too often fall on deaf ears and have even been rebuffed as intolerant, pharisaical, and overly narrow in focus.
All the while, the number of practicing Catholics has plummeted. In the U.S. barely a quarter of Catholics attend Mass. In Europe it’s closer to 10 percent. Every year the numbers drop more and yet it is still “business as usual.”
There is a judgment on the Church today as there was in biblical times. Steady erosion doesn’t seem to have awakened us, so God has “turned up the volume” and shown us our sins. He has had us—especially the clergy—experience a kind of last (?) warning call before a collapse of biblical proportions comes upon the whole Church. Either we will be the salt of the earth or we will be good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (see Matthew 5:13).
If it happens, will the Church survive? Most certainly, but more likely in small, persecuted pockets — perhaps in exile or in prison cells. I hope that we can reform before an almost total loss is required to do so. As the wounds get uglier, the debridement required gets worse and more painful. More flesh — even whole limbs — must be sacrificed to save what little remains.
Will we repent in time? I don’t know. At this point an awful lot depends on the Pope. As an indication of the work we must do to gain his attention, several days ago (Sept. 1) he called plastic trash in the ocean an “emergency” yet refuses to answer the more serious questions about marriage and divorce or address egregious clerical sexual abuse. Of the current crisis he has stated that he will say not one word. Certainly Archbishop Viganò’s testimony was irksome to the Pope, but serious investigations must be initiated from Rome and permitted by the Pope if reform is to gain any traction.
I am convinced that Pope Francis will speak, but only if the remnant—the lay faithful and lower ranking clergy—pray, fast, and make an untiring and insistent cry of the heart that moves him not only to speak but to act for the reform, without which we may well suffer the massive losses that God has had to inflict in the past to purify His people. I wholeheartedly support the various petitions current circulating that ask the Pope to permit and initiate investigations at every level.
Call me an alarmist, but I am responding to what God’s own word says to us in this very time in the Liturgy of the Hours. I cannot pray and read these words without a special sobriety. It was not just this week but the last two weeks as well. The Liturgy is replete with ominous warnings if there is no repentance. We are not simply reading of the ancient past. God’s Word still speaks to us and warns us.
I have already said too much, but consider another passage we read last week and let God have the final word. While the threat in the following passage came from the north, in today’s world it comes from the south, from Muslim lands less known for their tolerance. Christian Europe is largely being replaced by both Muslims and fierce secularists who have little room in their world for the Church. The last vestiges of Christian privilege may soon be replaced by hostility and confiscation. We read:
Thus says the Lord: Proclaim it in Judah, make it heard in Jerusalem; Blow the trumpet through the land…Evil I bring from the north, and great destruction. Up comes the lion from his lair, the destroyer of nations has set out, has left his place, To turn your land into desolation, till your cities lie waste and empty. So gird yourselves with sackcloth, mourn and wail: “The blazing wrath of the Lord is not turned away from us.” See! like storm clouds he advances, like a hurricane his chariots; Swifter than eagles are his steeds: “Woe to us! we are ruined.”
Cleanse your heart of evil, O Jerusalem, that you may be saved!
The besiegers are coming from the distant land, shouting their war cry against the cities of Judah.” Like watchmen of the fields they surround her, for she has rebelled against me, says the Lord. Your conduct, your misdeeds, have done this to you; how bitter is this disaster of yours, how it reaches to your very heart!
[Jerusalem cries] My breast! my breast! how I suffer! The walls of my heart! My heart beats wildly, I cannot be still; For I have heard the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Ruin after ruin is reported; the whole earth is laid waste. In an instant my tents are ravaged; in a flash, my shelters.
Fools my people are, they know me not; Senseless children they are, having no understanding; They are wise in evil, but know not how to do good. I have spoken, says the Lord I will not repent, I have resolved, I will not turn back (Jeremiah 4:5-8, 13-28).
Oremus pro ecclesia et pro invicem! (Let us pray for the Church and for each other!)