Francis Cardinal George, former Archbishop of Chicago (d. 2015)
I have been silent in this space for a little over three months now. So much has been going on in the Church, with first the Pope's trip to Cuba and the USA, the World Meeting of Families, and then the Synod on the Family, that I've spent all my "blog time" reading my favorite commentators (and commenting quite a bit myself on other blogs) leaving little or no time and inclination to write for my own. Despite the wide and deep well of subject matter, it always seemed that I didn't have much to say that wasn't already being said by others.
So after three months, if I am going to be serious about this endeavor, it's time to get back to work. Here we go.
With all the noise generated by the Pope's trip (which I found rather disappointing, but maybe that will be grist for another post at some point) and the Synod on the Family (which was confusing, at best, but isn't really over until we get some kind of papal document, so we wait for that), I continue to be intrigued by one thread that seems to be running through many of the blog posts and comments I've been seeing: the idea that the Church is facing a crisis unlike any other in its history, and that the resemblance of the present situation to apocalyptic prophecies in 20th Century private revelations, especially Our Lady's appearances at Fatima and Akita, is strong enough to warrant the most serious concern. The End is near! Fear, fire, foes! Awake! (Apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien.)
Well, OK then. It does seem clear to many (most?) of an orthodox mindset that the Church is indeed in a state of crisis, and I have a hard time disagreeing with such an assessment. See my August 10 post, for example. To run through another brief summary of the "bad stuff": In recent times we have witnessed the violent slaughter of many thousands of Christians (mostly Catholics and Orthodox) in the very birthplace of the Faith, together with wanton destruction of their churches and holy treasures, by barbaric Jihadists bent on eradication of everything and everyone that is not Muslim; the near total collapse of European Christendom; a seeming rush of North and South America to follow suit via declining Mass attendance, millions of annual defections to "evangelical" or "none" status, the enshrinement in secular law of false marriages and the concomitant state and media persecution of Catholics and Catholic institutions who refuse to affirm them; and a papacy that praises material heretics (e.g. certain German Cardinals) while excoriating as "pharisees" those who stand for traditional doctrine and practice, and which sometimes seems more concerned with pleasing the international secular media than with the salvation of souls and the preservation of the deposit of faith. To be fair, at other times we hear strikingly orthodox statements and exhortations of the type to which we have grown accustomed over the past several pontificates. (Confused? So am I.)
Even so, however, is it really as bad as some maintain? Stated another way, whatever the magnitude of the crisis, is it in fact unprecedented? Or is it just another day in the life of the Church that Our Lord promised would prevail to "the close of the age" (Cf. Mt 16:18, 28:20), despite being constantly under attack? (Cf. Mt 5:10-11; 10:16-23).
After all, the Arian heresy had most of the bishops in the world in its grasp at one point, and it took not one, but two ecumenical Councils (Nicea and Constantinople) to put it to rest. (See here.) In fact, legend has it that the Council of Nicea included the spectacle of Saint Nicholas (yes, that Saint Nicholas) punching out the heresiarch himself, in full view of the entire assembly. Indeed, one could argue that at least a stepchild of Arianism survives to this day in certain quarters, where Modernists (see extensive discussion of Modernism here) insist upon a distinction between "the historical Jesus" and "the Christ of faith." The former, these enlightened scholars solemnly inform us, was merely a man, albeit a wise man and great teacher, while the latter, the Son of God co-equal and consubstantial with the Father, is a mythical construct of a self-interested Church fearful of "reason and truth", which virtues the Modernist claims as exclusively his own. We beg to differ.
In any case, there were other serious heresies throughout the early Church, not to mention two major schisms, first the departure of the Eastern churches in the Eleventh Century A.D., followed by the Protestant revolt in the Sixteenth. Finally, let's not forget how close Christendom came to being swallowed up by the Muslim hordes, not long after Luther and Calvin took their toys and went home. The Battle of Lepanto, at which a massive Ottoman fleet bent on the sack of Vienna was defeated by a coalition put together by Pope St. Pius V, was a close-run thing, and many (including St. Pius V) believed the victory to have been secured only through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. (See here.) Now, those were crises! Can today's situation match up, and more importantly, are we really on the verge of the Last Days?
In my view, the most likely answer to both queries is "no." Nevertheless, it is not hard to understand why people are fretting. I find myself doing it too, more often than I care to admit. See that August 10 post again, for example.
Of course, I wasn't there for any of the events just listed, so I don't know what it was like for the lay faithful in those times. But it seems pretty certain that most of them, given the absence of any sort of rapid communication over long distances and the general illiteracy of the vast majority of the population, didn't even know anything was wrong. Taking the Arian case for example, if your average layman was told by his bishop that Jesus was not really a God-man, but a mere creature given great power by God the Father, he probably just shrugged or nodded and kept praying, and going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. Ignorance was bliss, one might say with some degree of assurance.
For better or worse, we no longer have this luxury. In our day and age, when even the most trivial matters can gain world-wide attention via social media in a matter of minutes or hours, we have immediate access at any given moment to more information than, until very recently, even the most industrious seeker of knowledge could have acquired in a lifetime. We know of many things occurring in the Church at large and in the Holy See in particular that were never before open to all the world as they are now. Frequently, the result is information overload, and unless we are very careful we can find ourselves, in the classic idiom, unable to see the forest for the trees. In a more recent idiom, we suffer from "TMI", or "too much information." In this light, it seems prudent to keep in mind the following:
First, we have the aforementioned guarantee of Jesus himself that his Church will survive until his return, and we should take some comfort in the fact that the Church has survived for nearly two millennia despite all the challenges She has faced. This is not something to be taken lightly. No human institution has ever lasted more than a few hundred years, and most didn't make it that long. Only a Divine institution could still be around after this much time. God is in charge; let him take care of it!
Second, recall the vast time scale of the Church and of Salvation History. Even if we go back to the very dawn of humanity, we are only talking about a few thousand years. This is nothing in the sight of God. Man has a natural tendency to view all things through his own extremely limited lens, where around eighty years is an average lifetime and even a single hour, if spent with, say, an extremely boring speaker, can seem interminable. When we add up all the bad news available to us now, we conclude rather easily that things could not possibly ever have been worse, so the end must be near. But in the "big picture", we exist in a blink of God's eye. Father John Zuhlsdorf, a/k/a Father Z, a prolific and excellent blogger of traditional bent, recently exhorted his readers:
I am trying to take the longer view. I remind myself that each pontificate is a parenthesis in the long history of the Church and of our Salvation. This parenthesis will close one day and another will open.Wise advice from a wise and holy priest.
Third, recall and heed the advice Jesus gave the Apostles just before his Ascension:
So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." Acts 1:6-8 (Emphasis supplied.)It is not for us to know when the Last Days will come. In the meantime, we share in the Great Commission given by the Lord here and in Mt 28:18-20. See next point.
Fourth, there are only a few things we lay members of the Church Militant can do, and we ought to be doing all of them anyway. We can share the Gospel of Christ with the world. We can obey the Commandments. We can pray, a lot. We can fast. We can perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We can (must!) continue going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. We can attend weekday Mass. We can go to Confession regularly. Cardinal Burke has encouraged us to stay faithful! The great Twentieth Century Saint Pio (Padre Pio) frequently advised everyone to "Pray, hope and don't worry."
If we do all these things, we can rest assured of Christ's promise: the Church will prevail over the gates of Hell, and those who persevere will be saved. In the end, it doesn't really matter when the Great Tribulation and the Second Coming will occur. What I do know is that my Day of Judgment is coming, and even assuming I survive to a ripe old age, it's coming a lot faster than I like to think about. The same applies to every one of us, regardless of age.
I conclude with another Scriptural quote, one of my favorites:
"Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him." Jn 14:1-7.Laudator Jesus Christus!