WASHINGTON — As the new year proceeds apace, an unprecedented crisis continues to roil the Church, stoking anger, cynicism and dread among the faithful and demoralizing their pastors.
Yet even as the scandals tempt some to register their disgust by leaving the Church, many active Catholics see this moment as a time of much-needed “purification” and are looking for a path that will keep Christ at the center of a world turned upside down.
“We are going through a terrible purification of the Church, and we need to encourage members whose faith is weakening,” Mary Ellen Bork, a Virginia-based writer and lecturer on issues affecting Catholic life and culture, told the Register.
“The answer is not to walk out,” she said, “but to go deeper.”
For Bork, going “deeper” means devoting substantial time to contemplative prayer and approaching Scripture and the lives of the saints as a pathway to the Lord.
“We need to let God speak to us and shape us,” said Bork. “But he can only do that if we open ourselves to him. Then he will guide us, be our light, and give us everything we need to get through this crisis.”’
Bishops and missionaries, spiritual directors and lay Catholic writers echo this guidance, as they offer an array of established practices that help the faithful reach the finish line.
Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, California, told the Register that, in tough times, “I find myself going to St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother more and more with my problems and difficulties.
“When in trouble, use the Novena to St. Joseph or say the Memorare to Our Lady three times a day for nine days.”
Bishop Barber also recommended the “practice of making a spiritual pilgrimage to a religious site or sanctuary within your means.”
“The spiritual fruit and lifetime devotional impact usually justify the sacrificial cost,” he said.
In the United States, he recommends Chimayó in New Mexico; and in Mexico, he directs the faithful to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Pilgrimages “to Rome and Jerusalem make a lifetime impression, and have for centuries,” he said. “You come home changed.”
But if some Catholics need to disrupt their pattern of life to re-engage or deepen their bond with the Lord, most spiritual directors underscore the importance of daily and weekly practices that ground the faith and instill a sense of joy and gratitude.
“If we wake up in the morning giving thanks to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and Mary, asking for acute alertness to divine guidance and Mary’s intercession, we’ve got some protection against what seems to be the epidemic lie that we are alone,” Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor-at-large for National Review, told the Register.
An inner life anchored in regular prayer “makes joy plausible because we know where we come from and are going,” she said. “We don’t have to make it there by our own designs.”
Lopez reads and rereads inspirational works like Conversion by Father Donald Haggerty, who urges readers to continuously bring their friendship with Christ to another level.
And she turns to the Divine Mercy Chaplet and asks for healing and divine assistance for “those who have been hurt by the Church, including those who are trying to renew the Church.”
These practices have helped Lopez discern the need for penance.
“Are we really preparing to die by thinking about giving up chocolate for Lent?” said Lopez. “This Lent ought to be more serious than any Lent we’ve ever lived in our lives. We should be asking questions like: What can I personally do to sacrifice for the holiness of my bishop?”
California-based convert Heather King, a columnist and the award-winning author, most recently, of Holy Desperation, echoed this guidance. King told the Register that she has switched off news reports on Church scandals and filled that time with prayer and spiritual reading.
The result, she reported, is a growing awareness of “God’s infinite mercy vis-à-vis the many sins I’ve committed for which I never ‘got caught’ and/or against which there is no civil law — but that are nonetheless offenses against love.”
Time with the Lord has helped King resist the temptation to point the finger at others and prompted her to look for opportunities to do “silent penance and secret almsgiving.”
“[W]hat’s wrong with the world is what’s wrong with me, not what’s wrong with everyone else,” she said.
A Catholic who received the gift of faith as an adult and takes nothing for granted, King has every intention of weathering the storm pummeling the Body of Christ.
“As a convert, my central response to any doubt or fear is ‘To whom else should we go, Lord?’” she said.
At this moment of crisis, Catholics need to draw closer to Christ, not farther away.
“Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis,” said King, repeating the motto of the Carthusian order: “The cross stands still while the world revolves.”
Leading With Faith
Curtis Martin, the founder and CEO of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), trains young missionaries to share Christ’s message of repentance with cradle Catholics and the unchurched at U.S. universities. But he presents the path of Christian discipleship as a “radical adventure,” not a burdensome duty or an investment that yields predictable dividends.
This message has inspired thousands of young people to return to the sacraments, despite the drumbeat of scandal. And it just might be that older Catholics need to ponder this same truth: Christ never said his disciples would have it easy.
The world tells the young, “We are here by accident,’” said Martin. “But we know that God has chosen us to be here at this moment. If we collaborate with him, we can create an army of goodness.”
Prayer and the sacraments remain the primary “building blocks” for personal sanctity, he said.
At the same time, Martin stressed that a rich spiritual life not only brings an individual closer to the Lord, it should enrich family life and friendships, counterbalancing the often-isolating effect of modern technology.
In his apostolate, Martin has trained college students to nurture the bonds of Christian fellowship and so become fishers of men.
But seasoned pastors are still indispensable guides in every period, and they are needed and cherished more than ever today.
In The Last Homily: Conversations with Fr. Arne Panula, Catholic author Mary Eberstadt reminds the faithful that they have much to learn from the gifted shepherds in their midst.
“The extraordinary life and death of the late Father Arne Panula, an Opus Dei priest who died in 2017,” reveals that “true self-sacrifice is possible — and that it yields joy, luminosity and untiring love for others,” Eberstadt told the Register.
Inspired by Father Panula’s example and teaching, during his years leading the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., Eberstadt decided to record his insights and recollections in her new book. She discovered that his life was an antidote to the cynicism that increasingly pervades Catholic circles.
“It’s the story of a bracing, joyful race to the spiritual finish line by someone who meant every word of his own counsel — someone who never ceased reflecting on the beauties of the faith, the path to a life of sanctity, and the joy of bringing new souls into the light,” said Eberstadt.
Ready for the Journey
Prayer and reconciliation, the Holy Mass and evangelization, pastoral outreach and Christian fellowship — all are essential to a faith life strong enough to endure and even thrive in difficult times.
“A tough year lies ahead,” George Weigel concluded in a column timed for the start of 2019.
“Yet Christ,” Weigel writes, “risen and triumphant, remains present and available in the Eucharist, to which serious missionary disciples will have ever more frequent recourse for strength and courage. May his Kingdom come.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.