When Mother Teresa of Calcutta was once asked about tearing down walls, she responded by saying that it begins with you and me. Maybe the questioner had in mind the walls that the church has built to protect itself, or walls of clericalism that many Catholics hit but cannot break through, or walls listing endless rubrics and precepts rather than acts of love and deeds of mercy. Though you and I may feel helpless to begin the process while the governing church struggles with issues of governance, we must also understand that we have a voice and should use it to make our church better. One thing that people of every generation can do is call us back to the essential message of Jesus and away from the million laws that have blurred that message.
At the center of the dilemma is that the church has made itself, not Christ, the central mission and key messenger. By way of example, as part of the annual Easter Vigil—most important liturgical feast of the church—newly initiated Catholics, before being officially welcomed, make a Profession of Faith. They say: “I believe all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims…” At an area parish, as one candidate after another made the statement, one guy hesitated. The presiding priest asked him, “Do you believe this?” to which he responded, “Most of it.” The congregation burst out in laughter, aware that he voiced what many of them thought.
The Profession of Faith reflects a longer Oath of Fidelity that priests and deacons sign before getting ordained. I struggled quite a bit before signing the Oath over thirty years ago because I didn’t believe all that is taught by the holy Catholic Church’s errant magisterial leaders and fallible ecclesial officials who sometimes advance their own version of God’s teachings. My spiritual director at the time said that I was over-reacting to an internal document of loyalty common in many organizations; he told me that we should simply accept that this divine institution has been laid upon weak human shoulders and placed into well-intentioned but sinful hands, that our fidelity is to God—not to church leaders who’re not aligned with God’s spirit. He convinced me that it is the spirit of the law and oath that is important. He was essentially saying: “Believe most of it.” I do.
When Bishop John Sullivan’s big hands engulfed mine as I knelt before him on my ordination day and, looking me square in the eyes, asked: “Do you promise obedience to me and my successors?” I knew he wasn’t kidding. Yet, I also knew that he was very aware of the foibles of the church and often joked about God entrusting the church to such flawed humans. A spirit-of-the-law kind of guy, he trusted that the Holy Spirit would guide us, as a church, in spite of our weaknesses. He also understood that our church which calls itself The One True Church, though enriched with great tradition, is in need of constant reform. When people told him how great they thought the church is, he would smile and say, “Yeah, it’s one of the best.”
The church has been blessed with great reformers throughout history, from Catherine of Siena to Francis of Assisi to John XXIII. Saint Catherine lived in a time when church hierarchy was confused, misguided, and entangled in a nasty power struggle; she complained that the stench of Rome’s corrupt leadership wafted all the way to Siena. In a time not unlike today, she called for radical change. British author, Austen Ivereigh, wrote a biography about Pope Francis entitled, The Great Reformer, in which he notes that while serving as cardinal in Buenos Aires, the future pope went to Rome as infrequently as possible. He usually went just once a year, in February, which his staff joked was his Lenten penance. His press secretary said that, to him, Rome represented everything that the church should not be: ostentatious, bureaucratic, self- referential… I suspect this is part of the reason his fellow cardinals elected him to lead us now. They are aware of the huge walls erected by Vati-leaks, Marcial Maciel, the Vigano report, Vatican bank scandal, sex scandals, and polarization, illustrating that the corrupt church of Catherine’s age has resurfaced in our own time. The cardinals realized that Catholicism needs a radical leader and reformer to tear down these walls.
Let us pray for the Holy Father in the ominous task that lies before him and do our little part to get the church back on track, focused once again on the message and mission of Christ instead of its own self-protection and promotion. With all of its faults, it’s a great church—one of the best! You may not believe everything it teaches and stands for but believe most of it.