G.K. Chesterton once defined a journalist as “a person who understands nothing except how to write about everything he does not understand.” These truths we hold self-evident were particularly demonstrated in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication and the weeks leading up to the election of Pope Francis. America’s news outlets were abuzz with commentary, discussion and speculation on the implications of Pope Benedict’s decision, employing terms such as scandal, crisis, turmoil, and my personal favorite – soul-searching – when describing the current state of Catholic Church. This ought to be unsurprising, I suppose, considering that most news is at best thoughtful reporting and more often a bizarre mélange of gossip, slander, entertainment, current events, and the grandstanding of today’s dominant cultural hegemony. How are they going to sell advertising by presenting a rational analysis of events? And if they did, would Americans be interested?
It was in listening to this language of our news-brokers that I began to wonder: outside of opinions and opinion polls, have they engaged in studying the Catholic Church? Have any of the journalists covering the Vatican outside of the Vatican analysts taken even a cursory glance at the establishment of Western civilization? There is hardly a more enormous cultural and historical land mass to miss. And if any had, perhaps they would have employed different lexicon when describing the state of the Catholic Church in the world today.
Despite this troubling ignorance of the media, perhaps sympathy is in order. In light of the world in which we live today, it is understandable for most to misunderstand the ever-ancient ever-new Catholic Church. It can appear very strange from the outside.
Which is another cause for her members to deeply grasp the deposit of the faith. And in understanding it, being courageous in articulating it, in translating it – through deed and word – to the culture in which they have been placed. It is to be conversant with the culture. This is ingredient to the New Evangelization.
Had the press done the heavy lift of rational and historical exploration of the Church, and had the Church done the even heavier lift of evangelizing the culture over the course of roughly four decades in America, perhaps the media would have seen the events in February of 2013 with different eyes. Perhaps they would not have. But they may have understood that the rough seas of crisis are for the Church her familiar – even native- waters. They may have understood that turmoil and tumult were her birthplace and baptismal font. After all:
• The Church’s Founder was a layman indicted on false charges of blasphemy, dragged into a kangaroo court in the middle of the night, beaten, scourged and humiliatingly executed by the occupying government.
• The Founder’s father died when he was a young man.
• His mother was poor, young and unmarried when she conceived Him.
• Both of his parents were forced to flee their home due to a child-murdering tyrant.
• His first vicar was imprisoned and crucified upside down by a deranged emperor.
• His second successor was a former slave who was also executed.
• The rest of His cabinet were executed by hanging, torture, decapitation, bludgeoning, crucifixion, burning and flaying.
• In less than 300 years His followers converted the most powerful empire in world history and harnessed it as a vehicle for converting all humankind.
In the following two millennia the Church has been attacked from without its ranks and from within her walls. To what other institution may we look today that has endured so long? A better question: How has this institution endured so long? Why? Not to brag on Catholics here – although there are many saints and sinners who merit such bragging – this supernatural endurance is more an indication of Her Founder than of Her children. She endures because He promised his fisherman successor that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against thee.” (Matthew 16:18) She endures precisely because this is what she is: supernatural.
It is not the Church but humanity that is in crisis. Somewhere, at any moment, humanity is in a state of crisis. Since it’s inception it has loomed in what J.R.R. Tolkien termed “the shadow of the long defeat”, in which discord and evil appear unrelenting, even indomitable. The recent bombing of the Boston Marathon starkly reminds us of this reality. We do not voyage in peaceful waters but in tempests, at war. As Leif Enger writes, “We and the world, my children, will always be at war. Retreat is impossible. Arm yourselves.” Like the Church, we were born into a world at war. The world is in crisis and the Church has been dispatched into the harsh seas of this world. Indeed storm waters flood the decks and from time to time, even seep into the galley. Though she takes on water she does not sink, she cannot sink. She is the supreme paradox: the fat bumblebee that zips and darts, the aged dying grandmother that falls down the stairs and outlives her children, the colossal ship that floods and spills but is never sunk.
When Pope, John Paul II elucidated that every crisis is a crisis of sanctity, a crisis of saints. The Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of two figures: one symbol means danger, the other symbols means opportunity. The Church was born in crisis, born for crisis, and built for storms, because she was born to save the world. The Barque of Peter is the ark for the dying world. Though it enjoys still waters she was built for storms. Ever-ancient, ever-new. A cardinal taking the name of Francis is endeavoring to begin anew and re-form. By re-form I mean by holding fast to the things for which the world despises the Church – unflinching theological and moral doctrine – and changing the things which impede the Church – pride, careerism, recalcitrance, unnecessary bureaucratic machinery. He endeavors to free the Church from all that hinders her in proposing to humanity it’s singular message: Jesus the Christ is Risen from the dead!
Repent, enter into His Body, and be saved.
The days of hippie-Catholicism are waning. Young people today are hungry for orthodoxy. They want fidelity. They want the fullness of truth. They are searching for intellectual dry land amidst the deluge of pluralism. They want a fixed point around which the rest of the universe orbits. They want beauty, liturgy, tradition, roots, connectivity, sacraments, and remission of their sins. All of these are given to the world by Jesus through His Church. A boat in harbor is safe but that’s not why this boat was built. The Barque of Peter isn’t a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners, sinners who know that they are in need of rescue and desire to become saints. At the helm of Peter’s boat stands Pope Francis, the humble and holy captain she needs for the seas before her. With a smile, a kiss, his arms opened wide he summons aboard not just his own, but the world entire. For the captain himself was “Lowly, and Yet Chosen.”
Even journalists are welcome aboard.