This is, no doubt, an awfully difficult period in the history of Catholicism. Whether the church implodes at this time because of our scandals and sins, or limps along into the future in spite of them, one thing is immensely clear: this ecclesial institution cannot continue to operate in the future as it has in the past. Another thing is clear to me as well: The Holy Spirit will not abandon us.
Our church, placed upon frail human shoulders and into the hands of sinful creatures, has seen difficult times through the centuries, starting 2,000 years ago when it was established. Though it frustrates and angers us at times, we love it dearly. Many of us believe that Jesus intended to establish the Catholic Church when, in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, He said to Peter, “You are the rock upon whom I will build my church.” But many others of us don’t believe that His intention was to establish a church—at least not the sense of church that most of us carry in our minds.
The Gospels were recorded in Greek, the written language of that time. But Jesus didn’t speak Greek, so we don’t know exactly what He said. The word used in this instance is “ekklesia”; it is not a reference to cathedrals, bureaucracies, discasteries, chanceries, basilicas, hierarchies, or any other institutional image. Rather, it’s a reference to a way of living, a way of loving, a way of following His example. Jesus was Jewish. It becomes clear to anyone who reads the Gospels that He challenged His Jewish church—and Jewish culture, because the two were inseparable at that time—to get its priorities right, to be better than it was, and to get right with God again. If it is true that the church Jesus intended to build is more of a way than an institution, Christ and the church cannot be separated.
I believe that the church was born on Calvary, through an act of forgiveness, when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And it was created by the Holy Spirit fifty days later when the breath of new life and fire from heaven reigned down, alighting upon our church founders, giving them courage beyond their imagining and dwelling in the hearts of the faithful—those faithful to His way. If we want to fight for the church in this troubled time of turmoil, this is the church we ought to be fighting for—not the maintenance of a construct with disordered priorities. Jesus challenged His own religious institute because it got way off track, much as ours has today. We need to get right with God again.
R.E.M. lead singer, Michael Stipe, in his 1997 ballad, It’s the End of the World, after belting out all that brings forth destruction and despair to earthly enterprises, surrenders his own emotional state of being and confesses: “…and I feel fine.” We could add to his lyrical litany of maladies a melodic list of our own current heartbreaks: Vati-leaks, sex scandals, cover-up crimes, Maciel, Legionaries, Vigano and McCarrick, Vatican bank felons, Boston Globe, Grand Jury reports, spotlight, Cardinal Law, a kick upstairs, lamentation prayers, Father, forgive them… It’s the end of the church as we know it.
As an ecclesial organism, the institution has no choice but to operate differently. Structural and canonical changes are imperative. We must bring more diversity to the decision-making tables. Those lay leaders who resigned from the Pontifical Commission for Protection of Minors because they kept hitting brick walls in the Roman curia should probably lead us. Some of our dioceses and parishes can model how to return to “the way” at the expense of offending the institute and, in the process, remind us all that what Jesus established long ago and far away as a way of living and loving and leading others to fulfillment will have no end. When He left earth, Jesus promised that He would not abandon us, that the Holy Spirit would remain with us until the end of time.
With that trust, I could join with Stipe to confess my emotional state and face the end of the church as we know it. From the ashes—or the cross—something better rises. I feel fine.