I don’t know about all of you, but lately I’ve not been in a very good state of mind. Everything feels harder than it used to. The battle, which was always fought uphill, has begun to appear almost futile. Trials and difficulties have seeped into all the various facets of life — work, family, expenses, the lived experience of the faith — making each burden feel heavier than it would have felt alone. I have the sense — and I know that I am not alone — that chaos and discord are being intentionally sown right in the midst of the people I hold most dear, all while something cruel and defiant whispers in my ear that none of it matters. Nothing matters. Just give up.
The writing that once came almost effortlessly for me has turned into an elusive craft. If it isn’t interrupted by an unexpected phone call or email about some new, negative development, it’s thwarted by an oppressive feeling of near-total malaise. Anger. Frustration. Apathy. It alternates, but it’s rarely conducive. My spiritual life has taken a noticeable beating as well. I have never more desperately needed to pray, and pray fervently, than I do now…but the desire to do so has been stripped out of me like marrow sucked from bones. I’ve resorted to simply forcing myself through the motions of prayer, knowing, more than caring, that to enter this daily combat without the benefit of armor or armament is suicide. So I mumble the words, reading them without feeling or even, sometimes, comprehension. Invoking saints and angels and the Blessed Mother, making consecrations to God, summoning divine bastions against the daily siege, trusting that there is an efficacy in these rituals, however poorly performed, an ex opere operato defense against the tireless wiles of the enemy.
When the time comes to put fingers to keyboard, I sit and stare at my screen, listless. I need to write, and I know it, but what to say? How do I encourage those who come to me, asking for counsel? I find myself in a perpetual quest for the answer to the question on everyone’s lips:
“What do we do now?”
“Why are we still fighting this fight?” I wonder. “Does it even matter anymore? What more could we say that hasn’t already been said? What could we expose that lies hidden?” Deep down, I know the truth: it does matter, and doesn’t, and really, it’s both things at the same time. It’s not as though God needs me to help Him carry out His work. But He seems to have wanted me to. Does He still?
I got an email recently from someone in Catholic academia. On the first read, it was the most encouraging thing I’ve received in a long time:
I wanted to take a moment to thank you for your tireless work on behalf of the Church. And my thanks is long overdue. When most of us were still dazed, unsure what was happening with Pope Francis, and paralyzed by fear, you launched this project not just of journalism, but of filial support. Make no mistake: Bishops, priests, theologians, and others have been supported and encouraged by your work. Your courage has helped us to find our own courage. I am sorry that one layman had to take all of this on — but I am nonetheless personally grateful for all of your good work. Thank you for it. I don’t know how else to say it without revealing what I cannot reveal — but know that your blog has had an undeniable impact, particularly on the resistance to Amoris Laetitia among some Bishops.
It moved me almost to tears. But then why, I found myself wondering after I’d let the words sink in, if they see it too, am I still fighting so very nearly alone?
I am, of course, not alone. There are others, and if we are not numerous, we are strong. And there are more of us than there were two years ago, but still, I see a certain trepidation, a fear that to say too much too honestly will somehow cause the balance to shift in a way that is wrong. That some invisible boundary will be overstepped. As though the benefit of the doubt must still be given long past the point where there is any further doubt.
I spend hours on the phone, consulting with people I trust. We talk about the things we are hearing from sources close to the action. We discuss the stories we we should and shouldn’t cover as we try to discern what we can trust. We question everyone, and everything, a kind of paranoia about what should be believed and what discarded drifting through our conversations like a cloud of noxious gas. We ask ourselves what we should focus on, and how much, and why. We delve into theology, seeking to trace out the contours of how a Catholic should act in moments like these, and who we can look to as examples, and whether anything in the entire history of the Church can really be seen as a precedent for what is happening right now.
We wonder how to help people and not just discourage them. We ask if maybe we should talk less about what is going on, and more about what should be, because to tell the truth right now is almost to administer a beating to the fallen man; the darkness within the Church is so profound that simply to shed light on it seems, at times, as though it risks scandalizing people right out of the Mystical body of Christ and into clutches of despair.
One commenter here recently put the sum total of these things quite poignantly:
I think really for all intents and purposes we must be practical sedevacantists. I myself am not one formally, but the daily business of working out our salvation and picking up the pieces of faith and moving on is one which must decidedly exclude any place for Francis in our lives, other than the nod that he is the one in Peter’s see.
With John Paul II I could spin most of what he said as orthodox. Much the same with Benedict XVI. But this guy…I got nothing. And so all I can do is render him nothing in my life. For me, the see is empty practically speaking because it is devoid of what ought to be there – orthodox catholic leadership. It really is up to us finding good priests on our own, if possible, and God bless the small remnant who can find a Catholic Bishop in America who stands by tradition. There are a few, but not in my life.
The See may be possessed physically, but my heart is vacant, devoid of any earthly shepherd and must rely on the one true shepherd and bishop of our souls.
I don’t know whether to thank God that I have lived to see such times or to curse the darkness for the confusion it rains upon millions who want to be of goodwill. I don’t know whether I will ever see the Church restored to her former glory, or if I am doomed to watch the bishops all topple like bowling pins, the fall of each spinning and knocking over his fellows.
When did we imagine that we would look upon a Pope and wish that God would take him from our lives? When did we imagine that we would cringe to hear the voice of Peter, knowing it was Judas, fearing to say it aloud.
This is what it must have been like to be gathered around the campfire in the courtyard on that dark night, knowing Peter, waiting for him to defend his master, and to hear him not once, not twice but three times deny the man he swore he would die for.
“Get behind me Satan, for you are an obstacle to me.”
Get behind me Francis. You are an obstacle to me. Your thoughts are not his thoughts neither are your ways his ways. I want to be Catholic and you want me to sing the praises of Luther, I want to be Catholic and you would hand me over to the Greeks, I want to be Catholic and you will not genuflect before the eucharist, I want to be Catholic and you curse the Roman Rite, you mock the faithful, you call us heretics, you open the doors of heaven to unrepentant Jews and grant the grace of baptism to those who have separated themselves from Holy Mother Church.
What have I to do with you? And what can you be to me? How can I help but be tempted to declare the see vacant when you have vacated Christ? What is there in you or the exercise of your office that would inspire the faithful to greater fidelity?
But sweetest Christ, though you hang dead upon the cross, lifeless in the arms of your mother I believe, I believe, I believe and confess that there is no flesh but this flesh that will grant us life, that there is no body but this which will be our salvation and that only in the tear stained face of your Immaculate Mother will my tears find their purpose.
Oh Jesus meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto thine.
Note the important qualifier, “practical.” We are not sedevacantists. Not sedeprivationists. These things would be easier. It is a far less traumatic thing to believe that the reason a pope is doing these things is because he is not really a pope at all than to believe that somehow he can be the legitimate successor of Peter but take on the mantle of Judas. We are instead forced to accept that there is an emptiness in the See of Peter that the formal reality of papal legitimacy cannot wipe away.
So we scan the horizon for something, anything, that will encourage us.
Last week, I watched the video of Cardinal Burke talking about — still after all this time — the mere possibility of a “formal correction” of the pope. As if it isn’t already long past due. As if, in addition to Amoris Laetitia, which is itself now almost a year old and metastasizing through the Church like a theological tumor, there weren’t dozens of other things that Francis has said or done that demand correction. As if we don’t need quite a good bit more than to have a small handful of cardinals and bishops consider a public re-statement of what the Church believes.
Last year, I remember candid conversations with friends and family and colleagues. “There can be no human solution to this,” I told them. “I think that God is going to let things get so bad that when He at last intervenes, there will be no question that it’s from Him.” I had been staring at the darkness long enough, and I saw no way out.
But then the dubia came, and there was a flicker of hope. Whispers of formal correction fueled that hope further. The prospect of a reconciled SSPX shed light on a possible source of encouragement and strength. A spreading metanoia began taking root in more mainstream Catholic media outlets, seemingly indicating that at last, reinforcements had arrived.
But in their turn, each of these things has disappointed. While far from worthless, each of these things has, in practical terms, been little more than the furtive ping of a pellet gun against the thick, dense armor plates of an on-rushing tank. Or as one friend of mine always puts it, “Like fighting a dragon with a toothpick.” And each time these initiatives have been revealed as something far less than the answer we were looking for, hope burned a little less brightly in our chests.
The chorus of, “The [insert your favorite group/cleric/initiative here] will save us!” has grown fainter and fainter, the exuberant idea that help was coming having diminished to nothing but a bitter, embarrassed memory of wishful thinking.
At some point, the foxhole grew quiet as the realization set in: help was not coming.
But in the soul-crushing darkness that has fallen heavy and rueful across the faithful, a thought re-emerged like a pinprick of light:
There can be no human solution to this. God is going to let things get so bad that when He at last intervenes, there will be no question that it’s from Him.
All of these hopes were false hopes. All of these saviors were false saviors. And all of this was according to His plan. There is only one Messiah, one hope, and His name is Jesus Christ — a name which sounds not like a timid whisper, but a peal of thunder, before which “every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth: And that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11)
I wish I had wisdom to offer you. I wish I had answers. I wish I could tell you what is next. But the fog of war has grown so thick that we are stumbling forward in total darkness. We are being forced to “walk by faith, and not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7)
Nevertheless, there is no question: He will lead us. He will show us what we need to see when it is time for us to see it. He has pushed us, continuously, beyond our comfort zone, forcing us to grow, stretching our faith to the breaking point. It may be longer than we think we can endure — in truth, it already has been — but we we continue to trust because He is God, and for Him, all things are possible and already pre-ordained. It is His Church, and He will restore it as He sees fit. When He sees fit. Until then, we stand firm upon the counsel of Peter, the first of his see, in the passage from which we have drawn the name of this apostolate:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.