We live, I think no one would deny, in perilous times. I am speaking primarily about the Church, but not only, for all those concentric circles that comprise our communal lives, the family, the nation, seem to be collapsing all around us. The current leadership in Rome thinks doubling down on every failed progressive cause of the past fifty years will somehow save the Church, even as church attendance, vocations to the priesthood and membership crater. Most bishops seem to care little about their flocks, even as the world grows more hostile to the Church every day. The Western Church is dying, in other words.
Is this a hyperbolic description? Perhaps. One of my weaknesses is an excessive pessimism, even fatalism. Nonetheless, the situation is truly dire. How do we find reasons to hope in our situation? What reasons are there to believe, beyond the assurances of Scripture and Tradition that the Church will survive? By asking that question, I do not mean to call the Lord’s assurances into doubt. As Josef Pieper noted, every Christian is a status viator, living between despair and presumption. But we can assent to this without feeling very certain in our immediate historical situation that this is the case, because the evil that envelopes us is so easy to perceive, and the good so difficult.
Pascal wrote that man is merely a reed in the grand scale of the physical world, but he is a thinking reed, and that our first task as human beings is to think well. My fears about the future, I have found, tend to lessen, when I force myself to think practically about what I can do. Whatever our abilities and station in life, I think it is imperative that we learn to ask the right questions about what we can do personally, individually, communally, to ensure the Catholic Faith has a future.
What is worth preserving from the past, given limited time and resources needed to preserve and transmit them? Which parts of the Church’s Tradition should be prioritized? Which de-emphasized? As the relation of the Church to its past is a major cause of controversy today, thinking through exactly – and honestly – what was good and what was not in the Church’s past, and how the good might be carried forward. My friend, Fr. Robert McTeigue, has written a fine little book, called Christendom Lost and Found: Meditations for a Post-Christian Era, which does something like this admirably well. He gives some preliminary answers to these types of questions, but more importantly asks the types of questions those with authority in the Church should be asking but aren’t. Even lay men and women, however, have a stake in this, and I believe it is their duty to think about these things as well. They are part of the Church, too, and they can contribute to its endurance into the future as well.
So much for the past. What about the present? What hopeful signs can we see right now that give us some hope? I would like to offer, as much as I am able, some reasons to hope for the future of the Church that I can see in the Church today, in no particular order.
The first might seem trivial, but is actually crucial: technology. It may seem counter-intuitive to cite technology as a reason for hope, given that the internet and other technologies have been a major contributor to the disintegration of our social life. But such technology also means that it is much easier to preserve knowledge too. It is impossible for those who want to erase the Tradition of the Church completely to do so, because often such knowledge is only a mouse click away. No matter how hard progressive faction in the Church works to pretend otherwise, we do have knowledge of what the Church has taught and believed. Our technology makes it practically impossible to erase, even if they control most of the administrative apparati of the Church.
Another more important reason most will recognize are those generations of priests ordained under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. These priests were inspired by their example of fidelity to Christ and to the Apostolic Faith, and though I don’t think their presence by itself will be enough to resurrect the Church from its decline, I firmly believe they are the foundation stones for such. I say this not just because of their orthodoxy, but because of the type of person and type of priest they seem to be, at least the majority of them.
When I first became Catholic, I was blessed to be at a state university with a very lively Catholic student center, one committed to orthodoxy. The pastor of the center, who had been there for many years, had undergone something of a conversion during his time, being influenced by the example of John Paul II to become more orthodox as the years went on. He was a great man in many respects, dynamic, charismatic, the kind of person who naturally drew people to him. When he eventually left the student center, it remained solid, but lost a good deal of what made it special.
I mention him because I used to think this was the type of priest the Church needed in our current situation. I confess to measuring younger priests I met, who tended to be more reserved, less outgoing, against this pastor and finding them wanting by comparison. I felt sure that what was needed was more leaders like him. Now, I realize my vision was somewhat skewed. This pastor, great as he was, possessed some faults I glossed over because of his charisma, but more to the point, I have come to believe that his virtues were not the necessary ones in this hour of crisis.
The young priests I have met have not been as personable or charismatic, but they are dedicated to the priesthood Christ and serving his flock. They are less outgoing, but more self-effacing, and most appear to have no desire to be the center of attention or to seek recognition. It is just my impression, but these seem exactly the kind of qualities we need in priests today, because those who wish to see the Church healthy and flourishing once more will have to build communities, religious orders, parishes, under the most fraught circumstances, perhaps without ever being able to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
And some of these are being built even as we speak, or already in being, however embryonic. I believe part of Joseph Ratzinger’s prediction about “creative minorities” being key to the future of the Church. I have personally visited several monasteries and convents where one can see this in action, and there are parishes in several dioceses in the United States that are oases in the desert.
But my greatest hopes are for those communities that are more outside the mainstream. I have personal experience of Latin Mass Traditionalist communities, Charismatic Catholics, Ordinariate groups and parishes, even that of Eastern Catholics, and I have found in these places the faith and authenticity that is sorely lacking in much of the Church elsewhere. These communities of course all have their faults, and some of them might clash with one another, but sometimes growth comes with a certain amount of conflict. Whatever else can be said of such communities, they have life within them, and I believe they all have a role to play in the Church’s future.
As for practical advice in cultivating a more hopeful attitude, much of what I would suggest you have doubtless heard elsewhere: a greater, more intense devotion to prayer, particularly interior prayer, is always the starting point. For myself, I would recommend familiarizing oneself with the Desert Fathers, for they are the masters of ascetic spirituality, and in the times ahead ordinary devout Catholics will be forced to forgo many things (money, advancement, the esteem of our neighbors) to keep the Faith, and no one ever put into practice this kind of self-denial like the Desert Father. I have also found that public devotions – processions, Eucharistic adoration – are also essential, lest my piety become too private, too individual.
Besides personal devotion, I would suggest seeking out those “creative minority” communities mentioned above, especially if you are at home in an ordinary parish. Seeking out those who differ in spirituality, and perhaps personality too, is healthy I think. In that vein, having friends outside the Church is a crucial thing in these times when the Church is finding itself increasingly the target of persecution or of those who desire to do so. Having a circle of friends who are not intimately involved in Church affairs and therefore are detached from its difficulties, can be a blessing, I have found.
There is a pattern of death and rebirth in the history of the Church that sometimes we take too much for granted. The Church in parts of the world has died or been killed off before, and even the papacy has been close to death’s door several times. The resurrection of the Catholic Church from its current spiritual death will require the loss of much we hold dear in our lives. But if our distress overwhelms us at times, yet God’s grace is still bounteous, His mercy infinite. If we can but stir ourselves to look for them, we will find signs of rebirth all around us, so that we “may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”