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By Fr. Dwight Longenecker, April, 2019
You’ll remember the famous legend of St Peter fleeing Rome during the persecution and he meets Jesus going the other way.
Peter asks, “Quo Vadis…Where are you going Lord?”
“To Rome to be crucified in your place…”
Where is the Catholic Church going? Christianity seems to be on her last legs in Europe and and the crisis in the American Catholic Church, while it has different pressure points, is just as acute. Cardinal Sarah, in this interview diagnoses some of the problems.
The spiritual crisis involves the entire world. But its source is in Europe. People in the West are guilty of rejecting God. They have not only rejected God. Friedrich Nietzsche, who may be considered the spokesman of the West, has claimed: “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him…” We have murdered God. In view of God’s death among men, Nietzsche would replace him with a prophetic “Superman.”
Interestingly, he sees the root of the problem in a rejection of fatherhood in the culture and the family, but ultimately in the rejection of the Heavenly Father.
The spiritual collapse thus has a very Western character. In particular, I would like to emphasize the rejection of fatherhood. Our contemporaries are convinced that, in order to be free, one must not depend on anybody. There is a tragic error in this. Western people are convinced that receiving is contrary to the dignity of human persons. But civilized man is fundamentally an heir, he receives a history, a culture, a language, a name, a family. This is what distinguishes him from the barbarian. To refuse to be inscribed within a network of dependence, heritage, and filiation condemns us to go back naked into the jungle of a competitive economy left to its own devices. Because he refuses to acknowledge himself as an heir, man is condemned to the hell of liberal globalization in which individual interests confront one another without any law to govern them besides profit at any price.
I am looking forward to reading the book and wonder whether Cardinal Sarah links the “rejection of fatherhood” with artificial contraception because the use of artificial contraception is, of course, the practical action on rejecting fatherhood. Furthermore, our society has not only rejected fatherhood. It has also rejected motherhood. In doing so we have also rejected our shared humanity.
It is easy to see these problems and drift into despair. I do not. Instead I see God doing something new in the church. One of the reasons I recorded my 23 part podcast series on church history called Triumphs and Tragedies was because I wanted listeners to see the sweep of God’s work in the world through his church. In every age there were crises of one sort or another. There was corruption and immorality within and persecution from without. Also in every age God’s spirit was at work renewing, reforming, reshaping and moving forward.
One of the things that came out of my research for Triumphs and Tragedies was the sense that the church has moved forward in 500 year cycles. The first 500 years was the Roman Empire. The second 500 was a dark time when the seeds planted by St Benedict were quietly growing. The third 500 years was the flowering of Western Christendom. The last 500 years has been a period of revolution starting with the Protestant revolution, moving to the so called Enlightenment and the revolution of rationalism, then the political and cultural revolutions alongside the revolution of liberalism, modernism and culminating in the sexual revolution.
We are at the end of that period of revolution and therefore much of the crisis we are experiencing is a crisis of transition. We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know where God is taking his church. We are confused and disturbed so what do we do? We are pretty much doing what the church has done (and what we all instinctively do) in the times of crisis and transition. We are circling the wagons. We are taking refuge in what we have always done before and we are defending those practices and doing more of the same. This is happening both within traditionalist circles and in so called “liberal” circles. We are all playing the same plays over and over again even though they are no longer really working.
What is required during a time of change is quick thinking, creativity and a pro active game plan. We need to abandon old structures and methods that no longer work and see what new things are happening and get with God’s action in the world. How do we do that?
In studying church history we can discern how God’s spirit works and therefore see what he is doing in the world today. We can see how God’s spirit works not only through church history but also and especially in the lives of the saints. We are inclined to read history through a political lens. We read history in a worldly manner–charting the rise and fall of empires, the struggles for wealth and power and the disasters that come from this. However, to truly read church history we should also read between the lines and below the surface, for that is where God is truly and most effectively at work.
What are the marks of God’s work in the world? Firstly, it is secret. From the story of Father Abraham onward, God’s work is hidden in the world of power. The important thing going on during Abraham’s life was not the power struggles in the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. While all that was roaring away God was with a tribe of nomads in Northwestern Arabia whose leader was this one man Abraham. This secret working of God in the world is crucial to understand everything the spirit does. God is humble. He works most effectively at the lowest level not the highest. He does not need a public relations expert. He is too busy for that.
The second mark of God’s working in the world is linked to the first. He works with individuals, not primarily with big organizations, governments and corporations. He has no time for politics because he works in the hearts and lives of individual people and changes the world through souls obedient to his will. The story of salvation is not the story of great movements, strong nations, powerful armies and political and economic power struggles. God works with individuals and with families.
The third mark is that his work is small. God exalts the humble and meek. He works with little people, and does his work through the humblest not the greatest in the eyes of the world. Do you want to see where God is truly working? Forget the activism, the political movements, the power struggles, the high finance and the great gimmicks and tricks of the world. Look for the small person who is busy doing what they can with what they have where they are. The kingdom of God is a tiny mustard seed being planted.
The fourth mark of God’s work in the world is that it is unexpected. You will not find God’s work in the world primarily in the headlines of the news, and you will not find his work in the world in the ways that you would expect to find them. The Spirit blows where it wills. You think God’s work is in this great evangelist or that great communicator, this great theologian or that wonderful priest or prelate. OK. It is not that God is absent from all that, but think outside the box. God is doing somewhere else–busy inventing and creating and moving in ways you did not expect or predict.
The fifth mark of God’s work in the world is that it is real. It is local. It is concrete. It consists of real people rolling up their sleeves and getting things done. It is not all theology and theory. It is not all committee meetings and discussion groups. It is not all diocesan organizations, lawyers, public relations official, chief financial officers and the machinery of government. We may need all that infrastructure stuff, but it should be there to serve the local actions.
The sixth mark of God’s work in the world is that it is always about people. God is in the business of saving souls. His work in the world is to rescue souls from Satan’s bondage. Everything we do revolves around that and if it doesn’t then it is a clanging gong and a crashing cymbal. Do you have the most beautiful Baroque fantasy of a liturgy? If it is about the liturgy and not about saving souls it is nothing more than an ornate piece of drama. Do you have a most uplifting praise and worship service where everyone gets high on Jesus? If it is about the emotions and not the people it is empty. Do you have the most dynamic justice and peace activist group? If it is about politics and not people’s souls, then it is empty.
The seventh mark of God’s work in the world is that it is about spiritual warfare. Jesus did battle with Satan and that is what his church does still. If this is not an important part of the ministry, then it is off target.
The eighth mark is that God doesn’t give two hoots about all the wonderful stuff we treasure from our Western Catholic heritage. Does he love Chartres Cathedral? Sure, but not for its own sake. He loves it as a beautiful temple for the presence of his Son and dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Does he cherish the art and architecture, the music and the fine liturgy? He cherishes more the sincerity of the heart turned to him in love and worship, and if all these things aid that devotion, then he approves.
Ninth: God plays a long game. He is doing something now which may not bear fruit for another five hundred years.
Tenth: God has a sense of humor. He looks on our foolishness and Satan’s pride and is even now planning some secret trick and quiet project…like that one he pulled off 2000 years ago with the little girl from the tiny farmyard called Nazareth.
Where is this happening in the world? It is happening behind the scenes and below the radar, but it is most certainly happening– for the Spirit is not spent. Discerning where this is happening is the point of my new podcast Future Church. After Easter I’ll be discussing John Allen’s book of the same name chapter by chapter. In this book he discerns what the future looks like for the Catholic Church, and I am excited about what the future holds.
It is worth remembering that the Church is “a pilgrim people”. It is no mistake that God calls nomads from the very beginning and, like Aslan, he is always on the move.
Where is the Catholic Church going? God knows, and finding out is going to be a wonderful adventure.