Wednesday, April 28, 2021

What About Us?

Pay attention to the bishop, if you would have God pay attention to you. I offer myself up for those who obey the bishop, priests and deacons. May it be my lot to be with them in God. Toil and train together, run and suffer together, rest and rise at the same time, as God’s stewards, assistants and servants. Please the leader under whom you serve, for from him you receive your pay. May none of you turn out a deserter. Let your baptism be ever your shield, your faith a helmet, your charity a spear, your patience a panoply. Let your works be deposits, so that you may receive the sum that is due to you. In humility be patient with one another, as God is with you. May I rejoice in you always.


—St. Ignatius of Antioch


One temptation Catholics face was described by the future Pope Benedict XVI as taking the prayer in the Communion Rite, “look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church,” and changing it, by practice, into look not on the sins of our Church, but on my faith. In other words, we subverted the recognition of our sins and the holiness of the Church by elevating our own perceived superiority to the flaws of the sinful members of the Church… in other words, if the Church does not work the way we think it should, we take it to mean the Church is in the wrong and that is the fault of somebody else. The Catholic who thinks that the Church would be fine if those in charge would do things their way have fallen into the trap. 


We have seen this in articles that portray legitimate incidents of confidentiality as “secret” or decisions to make no changes as “neglect of important issues.” Such people selectively cite Canon 212§3 to justify their actions. Yes, Canon 212§3 exists for us to respectfully express our concerns about the needs of the Church. No, it does not mean we can rudely dismiss the actions of those who are tasked with making decisions on how to handle things.


Of course, the individuals within the Church from the laity to the Pope can and do sin. They can make errors of judgment in the administration of the Church. We should be praying for them because of that fact. But we all too often focus on the actions on the part of them—the “Pope and/or bishops,” while ignoring our own role among the laity. Many seem willing to gleefully cite the sentence—falsely attributed to St. John Chrysostom or St. Athanasius—that “The road to hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lampposts that light the path” when we dislike the things the Pope and bishops have done, while ignoring Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16, and John 14:15 that remind us that our failures of obedience are not a minor matter.


We are all called to follow the Christian life and the specific vocation that God may call us to. That calling may be something official within the Church, or it may be a private action. We do need to act in communion with the Pope and the bishops in doing so. If they should rule that a ministry must be done one way, or must not be done another way, then that should be a huge clue that we cannot impose that conflicting vision on the Church. But, if we take the “look not on the sins of our Church, but on my faith” approach, we will fall into error… perhaps even into heresy or schism if we become obstinate enough.


I recognize that readers might immediately think of the behavior of an individual among the clergy who does wrong and think, the author wants us to follow blindly! No. I do not call for that. I can legitimately express concern about the German bishops for example, because they appear to be in opposition to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. But I do think that when we get indignant over the legitimate exercise of authority in the Church and are tempted to say that the Church is the one in the wrong, we have the obligation to ask ourselves: What About us?




(†) It seems that the origin of the saying was John Wesley who apparently wrote that St. John Chrysostom should have said it: “A lifeless, unconverting minister is the murderer-general of his parish. . . I could not have blamed St. Chrysostom, if he had only said, ‘Hell is paved with the skulls of such Christian priests!’”

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