By Fr. George Welzbacher
November 28, 2010
Now that the old liturgical year has drawn to its close and the onset of Advent marks the beginning of the new, our minds may be prompted to reflect on the fleeting nature of Time and the fragility of all things mortal. Even as the recent heavy blanket of snow might be taken, if you will, as a kind of burial shroud for a fondly remembered summer and an autumn that was golden, we, too, are reminded, at least as we reach our "winter years", that whatever we have and whatever we are is ours for only a limited slog of days and that our rendez-vous with Judgment is drawing near.
What is true of each of us, one by one, is true of institutions as well. Even a casual acquaintance with history's grand pageant offers impressive examples of powers, once mighty, that today are remembered, if remembered at all, mostly in the setting of evocative ruins. One thinks of Rome's ancient Forum, with the shattered structures of what had for so many centuries been the center of a formidable empire offering a silent comment. But to this law of inevitable decay there is an exception: an institution composed of mortal men that is NOT itself mortal, since it possesses deep within itself a power that is more than human, a power that is unequivocally divine, a power against which "the gates of hell" may indeed be permitted to score significant transient victories, but a power against which in the end the forces of hell cannot prevail. I am referring of course to Christ's Church.
In the latest issue of The Servant (available free of charge each month on the tables at the rear of the nave) my friend and colleague for many a year at the University of St. Thomas, Father James Reidy, a much beloved professor of English literature throughout most of the years of his priesthood and now taking a leading role in the local pro-Life movement in addition to serving as associate pastor of Holy Childhood parish , has offered his readers a moving meditation on the divinely sustained power of endurance with which the Catholic Church, for all of its members' many sins and stupidities, has been endowed by its Savior and Lord. May I share Father Reidy's meditation with you here.
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The Invincibility of the Catholic Church-Is She Ready to Go Under or Not?
By Fr. James Reidy
Question: Do the scandals and related troubles of recent times now foretell the end of the Church?
Musing on the troubles and scandals in the Church today, I turned to a volume of essays by the nineteenth-century British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. In one of them, Macaulay reviews a book on the history of the popes, and that history sets him pondering about what was for him a wonderful and utterly unexplainable phenomenon: the longevity of the Catholic Church. He sees that so far the Church has outlasted all other institutions in the whole history of the world. In a well-known passage he writes, "Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all....She may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's."
Macaulay is an important author of the Victorian era, and this essay is especially worth reading for its timeliness with regard to the troubles of the Catholic Church today. Macaulay describes some of the major crises in the Church's history down to his own time. From each crisis she emerged either "completely victorious or bearing the marks of cruel wounds but with the principle of life still strong within her."
The last of these conflicts in his time was the Enlightenment attack on the Faith spearheaded by Voltaire, which culminated in the devastation of the Church wrought by the French Revolution. So thorough was this devastation that Macaulay writes: "it is not strange that in the year 1799, even sagacious observers should have thought that, at length , the hour of the Church of Rome was come." The historian gives details of the depressed condition during that time of the once powerful Church, such as the pope's being carried off as a captive of Napoleon, and he concludes that "such signs might well be supposed to indicate the approaching end of that long domination."
Yet it was not to be so. The Church had been buried under a great inundation, but "its deep foundations had remained unshaken, and when the waters abated, it appeared alone arnidst the ruins of a world which had passed away." In the nineteenth century, in fact, a REVIVAL was well underway, and again Macaulay registers wonder and can only speculate about the invincibility of this "human polity," as he calls it. His view of the Church as merely a human polity prevented him from getting at the real reason for the longevity of Catholicism. He could only inadvertently hint at the divinity of the Church by the force of the evidence he gives for her endurance and the eloquence with which he describes her. But what we can be most grateful for is his appreciation of the irony in past predictions of the Church's demise. It is a nice irony indeed that she is so often said to be on the brink but never goes over. Maybe Chesterton summed it up best when he looked at what happened in several life-threatening situations throughout the history of the Church. "At least five times," he said, "the Church has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died." Not long ago I saw where some pundit or other assured us that as a result of the current sex scandals, the Catholic Church in this country was finished. Such a large corpse will remain for a while yet, he said, but the thing is surely dead. Well, Chesterton and Macaulay are more discerning observers, and here is another who has something to say about the Church's durability in the face of every recurring crisis. The Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman writes: "But in truth the whole course of Christianity from the first, when we come to examine it, is but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other and to those who live in it, seems worse, than all times before it. The Church is ever ailing, and lingers on in weakness, 'always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in her body.' The cause of Christ is ever in its last agony, as though it were but a question of time whether it fails finally this day or another."
But, again, it hasn't happened yet, and it never will So, then, in the meanwhile, "thus much of comfort do we gain from what has been hitherto-not to despond, not to be dismayed, not to be anxious, at the troubles which encompass us. They have ever been; they ever shall be, they are our portion. 'The floods are risen, the floods have lifted their voice, the floods lift up their waves. The waves of the sea are mighty and rage horribly; but yet the Lord Who dwells on high, is mightier.
At the time of his conversion Newman wrote: "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." It may be added that it is also to cease to make rash and uninformed predictions about the death of that Church whose Founder promised that He would be with her to the end of the world.
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