Over four decades ago, on June 29, 1972, Pope Paul VI noted with sorrow that the smoke of Satan has entered into the sanctuary of the Church. More recently, someone noted that one of the main reasons for the ongoing divisions between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic is the fact that the Western Church is spiritually infected with so many contagious secularly transmitted diseases (STDs) as to make reunion at this time pastorally dangerous for the members of the Orthodox communion.
Symptoms of such "STDs" include:
1) the distortion of the meaning of “compassion”, which allows pastors to capitulate to the demands of various perverse sexual practices and lifestyles,
2) the uncritical acceptance of politically correct perspectives of “Gospel principles”, whereby Jesus Christ is not reverenced as our Master, but rather as a mere mascot for the promotion of secularist agendas,
3) the degradation of “conscience” by moral relativism and by the denial of the necessity for an integral consciences to be firmly rooted in objective truth rather than on
momentary feelings, emotions or the gratifications offered habitual sins,
4) the uncritical acceptance of “evolutionary principles”, which presume that what is more recent is necessarily more developed and integral than what existed before and that Church teachings and disciplines must continually become more adept at adapting to and adopting the demands of modern society,
5) the insistence that social “harmony” and “tolerance”, guided by the ever-evolving demands of political correctness, are more important than integrity of character,
6) the insistence that good pastoral practice should help people “to feel good about themselves”, rather lead them through repentance, ascesis and solid catechesis to holiness of life, and
7) the denial that personal sin does not merely violate a commandment, but actually inflicts great suffering on Jesus and on His Mystical Body.
I dare say each of these STDs could be a theme for rather long theological treatises, but, in light of a number of concerns expressed by Pope Francis, most recently in Amoris Laetitia, I would like to briefly reflect on one important premise, which is essential for any authentic renewal of the Church and her evangelization of the world. That premise is that it is essential for the Gospel proclamation to be rooted in the transcendent mystery and the transformative ministries of Christ crucified.
With the unbridled material progress of the Western world over the past century, the importance of this sobering and dynamic reality has been seriously downplayed and neglected. And we have forgotten the fact that history has shown that , due to the consequences of Original Sin, humanity has never been mature enough to handle prosperity. With prosperity come complacency and perversity. With prosperity, humility is rejected in favor of hubris. With prosperity, the Christian community tends to become alienated from the awkwardly painful but awesomely beautiful mystery of Christ crucified.
With prosperity, we are inclined to forget that intimacy is the fruit of fidelity to truth and reverence for the sacred. With prosperity, we tend to reject repentance and to seek our salvation through resentment and excuses. With prosperity, we tend to build our moral orientation not on the truth, but on our conformity to social niceties. But all of this self-deception is challenged by the eternal dynamic of Christ crucified.
It is worth noting here that, contrary to the impression given by so many portrayals of Christ’s death, the dynamic of His crucifixion were more gruesome than we are willing to appreciate or ponder. As one man noted, so many crucifixes sanitize this awkward yet redemptive reality in ways that seem to portray Jesus as merely “taking a nap” on the cross. The harsh truth, though is that He had to endure numerous sufferings because of our sins – or, I should confess, my sins. Aside from the terrible wounds inflicted on Him by the guards at the house of Caiaphas, the brutal scourging and crowning with thorns by the Roman soldiers, His falls as He carried His cross and wounds of the nails in His hands and feet, His body was afflicted in other ways. He suffered from sleep deprivation He suffered from opportunistic bacteria that infected His open wounds (e.g., the whips used to scourge Him had rotting flesh from previous scourgings and the road to Calvary was covered with dried human and animal excrement).
His body was thus racked with fever during His crucifixion. He also suffered from convulsions and spasms, which resulted in torments from the nails rubbing on raw nerves in His hands and feet. He also suffered from hunger, dehydration and the delirium that accompanied His high fever. Likewise, He was exposed to numerous insects flying around Him and into His open wounds, stinging Him and biting Him without restraint. In addition, He suffered rejection and ridicule from Jews and Romans, from the elite and the riff-raff of society, and from citizens and criminals. It even seemed that neither heaven or earth wanted Him, as He was suspended on the cross between them.
Yet, in the midst of being immersed in these sufferings and in the sadistically derisive ridicule of so many, His fidelity to His Father and to humanity was such that His Body became a fountain of regenerative graciousness, mercy, love - and even gratitude - for all of us!
In light of this, we can see one of the major defects in so many of our recent evangelical and catechetical proclamations and programs. The proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, when not founded on a deep reverent and vibrant appreciation of His sufferings, cannot penetrate the depths of the human soul and of human society, both of which are so desperately and profoundly in need of a mercy and a love that are beyond comprehension, and thus beyond manipulation.
Thus the salvation of the world cannot be realized by merely embracing those Gospel values and Gospel principles that support the agendas and attitudes of our politically correct society. Aside from the personal mercy, truth, fidelity and love offered by the Person of Jesus Christ crucified, all we can do is abide in a myriad of subjective self-deceptions, which can only distract us from the self-deprecations that abide in our hearts. Indeed, as St. Augustine pointed out, our hearts are restless until they rest in Christ. But this rest is not the worldly “rest” of comfort, convenience and complacency. Rather it is the rest that flows from abiding in fidelity to Christ’s conviction about the sacredness of each human being and to His commitment to reverence and enhance that sacredness through persevering humility, docility, repentance and reparation.
Salvation is thus realized through a humble, grateful and reverent communion with Christ crucified. As we allow the Holy Spirit to faithfully and graciously draw us more deeply into this awkward yet awesome mystery, we also begin to appreciate the beauty of our Catholic Faith more deeply. On the other hand, if our teaching and disciplines as Catholics are tweaked to conform to what is relevant to the world, rather than to what God has revealed, we de facto deny or downplay the sacred and sanctifying dynamic of Christ crucified.
All this has special significance as we seek to deal with the various dilemmas presented by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia. While time and space prohibit adequately addressing all the specific problems enumerated by our Holy Father, it is possible to note some basic facts that can assist in getting these issues in proper
The first of these is the tendency to view the sacraments as objects, rather then as divinely transformative dynamics or mysteries, into which souls are brought through the ministry of Christ’s Mystical Body. For example, while it is true that a person does receive Eucharistic Christ in Holy Communion, the reality is that, through this
sacrament, a person is drawn into a holy communion with Christ’s sacrifice for the world’s salvation. Merely receiving the Eucharistic Christ does not guarantee that one is actually in communion with the sanctifying and saving dynamic of that sacrament. It is possible for a person to eat and drink unto his own condemnation (I Cor 11:27-32). And it is worth noting that there is a big difference between examining one’s self with a sincere conscience and doing so with a sin-seared conscience.
Ironically, then, it is possible for a person trapped in the delirium or dilemma of sin to be, by the gracious mercy of God, in profound communion with Christ crucified by refraining from sacramental communion until he is able to sincerely repent and to make a decisive break from enslavement to that sin. Such humble reverence for the sacredness of the Eucharistic Christ is more likely to lead to eternal life than the practice of sacrilegiously abusing the Eucharistic Christ in an attempt to cover up or validate a perverse lifestyle. And by his reverently refraining from receiving sacramental Communion, such a person de facto begins to show docility to the Holy Spirit by offering to God’s mercy the humble hospitality of repentance.
A second fact that needs to be recognized is that sacramental incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ is essential for a person’s salvation, both here and hereafter. The tendency to appeal to a secular mindset that is only willing to accept some “Gospel principles” that support the secularist agenda is very dangerous. All ministry in the Church must be in full harmony with the mission of Christ Jesus. That mission is to glorify the Father by cooperating with the Holy Spirit in the ministries whereby God’s image and likeness are restored and brought to fruition in all dimensions of our shared humanity. Without drawing souls into full communion with Christ, any social ministry is doomed to merely helping souls move from coach to first-class on that “long black train” headed toward eternal perdition.
A third fact that seems to be overlooked is that the mystery of salvation and the ministries of Christ crucified are multidimensional. As was indicated above, the ministries of divine graciousness are not mechanistic, but dynamic in ways beyond comprehension and manipulation. Sadly, in recent years, many in the Church have been denied access to the deeper wisdom offered through the awkwardly beautiful mystery of Christ crucified.
For example, it is worth noting that we were saved from the pollution of sin only when the Precious Blood of Christ was first polluted by the sepsis infecting His wounded Body. Likewise, it was only through the open wounds on His Body that His Precious Blood was able fall upon and regenerate the dust of fallen humanity. And the spasms and convulsions of His crucified Body reveal His loving and redemptive communion with sinners, even as they suffer the convulsions and self-deprecation caused by their sins and the sins of others.
Coptic Christian martyrs to the faith, murdered by Muslim fanatics in Libya.
Yet the overwhelming and redemptive conviction that guided and strengthened Him through all His agonies was that what sin said about humanity came from the Father of Lies, whereas what the Father was having Him confirm by shedding His Blood was truth itself. While sin said humanity was totally unworthy of such a sacrifice, Jesus, Who is Truth, affirms that we were worth that sacrifice. This conviction of Christ Jesus, faithfully proclaimed throughout and beyond His ordeal of crucifixion, is the salvation of the world. As members of His Mystical Body, Catholics are only able to be true to themselves by being true to living out this same proclamation with Jesus as they deal with the delirium and dilemmas of their own crosses.
When our appreciation of salvation is sanitized, it becomes alienated from the true mystery of faith that Is realized only by abiding with Christ in compassion, mercy and love toward all He entrusts to our care.
A fourth fact that needs to be reaffirmed is that graciousness can only bear fruit when it is watered by gratitude. It is sad that so many people seek to find the strength for their gracious fidelity to others through will power, rather than through gratitude. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that so many do not realize that the only Reality on Creation that is to be adored, because that Reality is God Himself, is the Eucharistic Christ. What makes this so tragic is that these people are not aware of the eucharistic nature of Christ. The word “eucharist” means thanksgiving or gratitude. Thus the most perfect mode of God’s presence in the universe is His Grateful Presence. This Gratitude, though beyond all causality, is the means by which God wills to create us, redeem us and sustain us. Through Him, God makes all things work together for good and makes even our brokenness, failures and frustrations fruitful beyond comprehension. As Jesus looked down from His cross, He sad, “I thirst.”
Icon of Coptic Christian martyrs of Libya.
What He was really thirsting for were souls willing to receive His grateful. As He hung in agony because of my sins, He was not saying, “Look what you put Me through!”. Rather, He was pleading with me, “O you of little faith, won’t you now finally believe how deeply I love you, I reverence you and I am grateful for you!”
St. Theresa of Calcutta once noted that people would be conquered not by the ones with great power, wealth, prestige and influence, but rather by the One Who loves them, reveres them, and appreciates them most purely and perfectly. The true joy of love can only be discovered in that One, Who by so graciously and gratefully suffering for us, enables us to be freed from our enslavement to sin, so as to live and love in purity of mind, heart, soul, body and in relationship. But apart from Him, we can do
nothing. May all find their joy in Him!
Spero columnist Rev. Tom Collins is a Catholic priest who serves the people of Virginia.