Msgr. Charles Pope: The Pruning of the Church and Our Response to It

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By Msgr. Charles Pope • July 17, 2018

As we go through the Book of the Prophet Isaiah at Mass this week, we read of Israel’s painful purifications as well as the subsequent punishment of the surrounding nations.

God permitted the nations to persecute Israel in order that she be purified, but the iniquity and sin of the nations and of this world cannot go on forever; wickedness must be ended. The Lord did not just purify Israel, He will also judge the nations.

In a complex passage, God says (through Isaiah) that although He had used Assyria as a tool to purify Israel, Assyria would not escape punishment for her iniquity. Here is an excerpt:

Woe to Assyria! My rod in anger, my staff in wrath. Against an impious nation [Israel] I send him, and against a people under my wrath I order him to seize plunder, carry off loot …. But this is not what he intends, nor does he have this in mind; Rather, it is in his heart to destroy …. [And] he says: “By my own power I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I am shrewd. I have moved the boundaries of peoples ….” Will the axe boast against him who hews with it? Will the saw exalt itself above him who wields it? As if a rod could sway him who lifts it …. Therefore, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, will send among his fat ones leanness, and instead of his glory there will be kindling like the kindling of fire (Isaiah 10:5-16).

Although God wielded Assyria like an axe to prune Israel, that did not make the axe good. The axe must be refined as in fire.

What do stories like these have to say to us today? Quite a bit, especially if we interpret Israel as an image for the Church and the nations around us today as akin to Assyria and Babylon.

The Church has been going through a great pruning and purification in the past fifty years. The once luxuriant vine of Catholicism and Christendom in the West has been reduced. Only about a quarter of Catholics in the U.S. attend Mass; in Europe the numbers are far worse. Indifference to the faith and to God is widespread. Many are Catholic in name only.

Yet for those who remain there is an increasingly fervent experience of the faith. On account of doubt and persecution, many of us are clearer about what we believe and why than we were in the past. There has been a great blossoming of Catholic media and Catholic apologetics. The Catholics who remain are more devout and more creative. In this we see a pruning and purification that is so often necessary in the Church. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church is always in need of reform).

This purification is being effected by God, who is permitting an increasingly secular and hostile world to afflict the Church. This can take many forms: indifference to religious teaching; scoffing at religious beliefs; promulgation of error and lies in order to lead people away from the faith; marginalizing the role of faith-based organizations in charity, adoption, and foster care; excoriating and even criminalizing religious beliefs; and even outright martyring of believers. A few recent court cases that sought to criminalize religious views have gone well for believers, but the legal actions grow ever more numerous.

For the time being, God seems to be permitting the “Assyria” of modern, decadent culture to afflict us. Things do by opposition grow, however. Even if God is wielding the axe of modernity now, this does not make the axe holy; soon enough the axe will have to answer for its wickedness.

What are faithful Catholics to do under the current circumstances? The answer to this may vary based upon our state/stage in life (e.g., parent, priest, married, single, young, old). Many younger families are choosing to “hunker down” and live as isolated from our toxic culture as possible by homeschooling, restricting television viewing, and/or limiting Internet access. Others have chosen to engage the culture boldly in order to seek its conversion and to rescue as many as possible from its grip.

Another text from Isaiah seems appropriate for an increasing number of Catholics, especially those with children:

Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath has passed by. For behold, the LORD is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it and will no more cover its slain (Is 26:21-22).

In effect, this text advises the faithful to preserve the faith by seeking to live as far apart from the prevailing culture as possible. Israel’s purification was bearing fruit and God was preparing to punish the nations that afflicted His faithful there.

As in the days of Noah, some choose to hunker down and preserve the faith from the flood of rebellion.

This of course is not the usual stance of the Church, which ordinarily is to be zealously evangelical, but even the first evangelists were told by Jesus that in the face of fierce opposition to the gospel they were to flee: When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another (Matt 10:24). There are times to hole up in the enclosure of the ark in order to preserve the life and light of the gospel and then emerge again when the storms of destruction have passed by.

What does all of this mean to you? You must decide how to respond. Some may be called to isolate their families in order to preserve them from the caustic culture. Others may be called to engage with this world and seek to save as many as possible. Increasingly, the Church is simply not going to be able to make the compromises that the world demands of her.

Isaiah’s prophecies are not merely locked in the past; they are operative now as well.

In the video below, Bishop Robert Barron does a wonderful job of giving hope in the midst of affliction. Describing the stance of hunkering down, he reminds us that for those who do so it is a stance that is less one of hiding than of preserving the faith so that it can be set loose later with its purity intact.