6 Things to Keep in Mind When (Not If) the Church’s Human Element Lets You Down
“Look to the light shining out of the darkness. For Christ crushes evil under his heel and makes all things new.”
I know a devout Catholic so angry at her bishop for closing churches during the pandemic she can’t bring herself to go back to Mass. A friend of hers grumbles it’s no wonder we have a Eucharistic crisis in America when so many bishops seemed so willing to locked our church doors with barely a peep of protest. She thinks they should have kept the churches open and soothed COVID-terrified Americans by boldly proclaiming that Christ has defeated death and the Eucharist is the fountain of immortality.
What can you say to people who feel the Catholic Church, already staggered by sex scandals, has let them down again during this pandemic? What if you also struggle with such painful thoughts?
Recently, with my latest travel plans canceled due to coronavirus, and while spending my newly acquired free time rearranging my bookshelves, I came upon a book by the late Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel. Filled with wise advice, Arise from Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn’t Make Sense provides a surprisingly prescient roadmap for Catholics going through deeply troubling times such as these.
Here in edited form are six suggestions Father Benedict offered to help us all deal with the pain of Church failures, and to find ways to move forward in peace and with love.
1. Calm down and define what you mean by “the Church.” Most of the time when we talk about “the Church,” we mean the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests and others who have responsibility. When we say “the Church” has failed us, Father Benedict pointed out, we usually mean one or more of these flawed people (sinners all) have failed or deeply wounded us. “When we are thinking clearly, we see that if Church leaders fail us ... it is not our Divine Savior who fails us,” he wrote. "Keep this is mind," he continued, "because otherwise you will get angry at God. ‘I’m not going to church anymore. God let me down.’ God didn’t let you down. Msgr. Stoopnagle, or Sister Mary Officious, or Brother Grinch let you down.”
When you’re angry at the Church, ask yourself, “Am I overly dependent on church people? Has my reliance on them caused me not to rely enough on God and his Son?” The human side of the Church can hurt everyone and break our hearts, and it frequently does. But the divine Mystical Body of Christ established by Christ and handed on by the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit remains untouched and will go on forever.
2. Realize this isn’t the first time and you’re not alone. On Holy Thursday, when Christ needed them most, the first priests of the Church (all the apostles except John) failed Jesus by running away. Noting that “the closer one is to the Church the more one is likely to be hurt by the Church,” Father Benedict suggested that probably the single person in the world “most often hurt by the Church is the pope himself, for he is constantly under criticism from all sides.” Staying within the Church, and suffering with Christ for his Church, hurts. But, in the end, abandoning God will hurt a lot more.
3. Be patient with priests and bishops. “I suggest that you be patient with the leaders of the Church, because we are in extremely difficult, confusing, and pagan times,” Father Benedict wrote. “Just like you and me, they were, for the most part, not prepared for the times we live in.” This COVID-19 pandemic blindsided Church leaders as it did everyone else. With everyone in the world caught up in scientific and social mayhem, this is not a good time for Catholics to start pointing fingers and blaming each other. (Actually, no time is a good time for that.)
4. Make intelligent noise. Having heard many complaints about the Church in his life, Father Benedict said half of them were “silly or trivial or crazy.” He recalled being severely criticized as a young priest in the 1960s for preaching in synagogues and Protestant churches (with his archbishop’s permission) when 20 years later Pope St. John Paul II himself would preach in the Great Synagogue of Rome. “If you’re going to object to something that’s out of order, you need to know how important it really is,” Father Benedict wrote. “If you dissent or complain, do it wisely, charitably and well” and “make a distinction between an abuse, an exception and a personal peeve.” He added, “There are huge dangers looming over the Church now. What loyal Christians need is perspective... Those who complain about the music while the Church is facing the hurricane that is breaking over us remind me of passengers playing shuffleboard on the deck of the Titanic.”
5. Consider moving. If you can’t stand your parish, if the priest isn’t teaching the authentic truth of the Catholic faith, Father Benedict suggests, pick up and move. “If you have a car, drive. If you don’t have one, either get one or a bicycle, or a horse, or hitch a ride with a friend. Move, or buy bus tokens. Go someplace else.” As radical as this advice may seem, during my 17 years as a Catholic I’ve actually moved twice — once 23 miles from one town to another in northern California and once more than 1,000 miles from California to Wyoming — to celebrate beautiful liturgies served by a good priest I trust to always teach the whole truth. Was moving hard? Yes. Am I sorry I did it? Not in the least. Many people move long distances to be closer to their families. Why not move to be closer to God?
6. Focus on Christ’s power to heal. Wyoming Catholic College Byzantine-rite chaplain Father David Anderson (who was a friend of Father Benedict Groeschel) recently gave a homily in which he offered soothing words for these troubled times: “Many people today seem to want to study and report how evil entered the Church, and no doubt there is value in that. But I prefer to contemplate and consider how the Church has entered into evil and crushed its iron bars. Focus on the healing power of Christ and not on the destructive power of death. We get stuck in a rut when we focus too much on only the bad news.” When the Church lets you down, Father David added, “Look to the light shining out of the darkness. For Christ crushes evil under his heel and makes all things new.”
Sue Ellen Browder writes from Lander, Wyoming.