It was concerning the Church Council of Constantinople in 359 A.D. that St. Jerome wrote, “the whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian“. So St. Athanasius found himself exiled several times by the Church only to be released again. He seemed to be the only one standing between the Arian Heresy and the True Church that he had entered.
Imagine that. Catholic priests and bishops alike were taken in by the heresy of Arianism and yet the Church survives to this day largely because of the steadfast few whom, with the grace of God, stood their ground against a tidal wave of Arian thought that had literally swept the world. It is a lesson of why we should be careful to withhold judgment when the world cries in a unified voice that a person is in violation of Church belief; for it is often the case that we get swept up in the common thinking without prayerfully and patiently awaiting the outcome of the evidence. As it turns out, Athanasius became a Saint of the Church and his accusers are all but lost to history.
I often think of this when I look about at the secularism and modernist tendencies of the world and wonder at the swiftness of the changes that have occurred within our modestly Christian culture: especially in regards to Europe and the Americas. We may not know who our St. Athanasius is for our age but I am always sure that he exists with other fine Catholic men and women to wage war against secularism and modernism in the world and within our Church. We hold to our belief that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against Christ’s Church.
I find that the predominant attitude of people within the Church is to hold positions, which are similar in many respects to our national ideological attitude, which says that disasters of enormous societal upheaval can never happen here. As Americans we would never accept Marxism or Communism but we allow small movements toward Socialism without any thought of this being a movement toward these very ideologies: the “it could never happen here” syndrome is strong within the American psyche.
Likewise, I think we are being naïve, if not arrogant, to think that our Church is immune from the heresies that are prevalent in our day. Lets never forget that heresies have abounded continuously since the inception of the Church. True, “the gates of hell will not prevail” but will there be any faith left on earth when the Son of Man returns? That, I’m afraid, is a totally different question and is completely dependant upon our vigilance and stewardship of the treasury that the Church faithfully guards. God never told us it would be easy to be a member of His Church: to take up the standard of Christ requires great courage and a willingness to be humbled and ridiculed for the sake of the Kingdom of Christ.
If we are members of the Mystical Body will we not have to endure what He Himself endured? For each heresy, apostasy and schism are like fresh wounds delivered to the back of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Body of His Church. Do we individually stand firm with Athanasius and deflect the blows that might bring the Church to its knees or do we sit idly by awaiting for divine intervention; the metaphorical whip being taken from the hand of the oppressor?
When I became Catholic, no such ideas even entered my mind. It is an alien concept for a former Protestant. Over time, I see what a razor’s edge it is that we must walk without being disobedient to the Church or disobedient to Her Successors. All our actions must be done in filial love and great charity for the Glory of God. It is always possible to do so, but not without ruffling a few feathers along the way. To object to things that are commonly held, though not taught by the Church, is to receive a crown of thorns and perhaps be subjected to scorn from many. To disagree with the leadership concerning a particular religious practice or discipline, though it is lawful and laudable to do so, is a difficult path to follow. But when the practice or laxness of certain rules and practices put in jeopardy the salvation of souls (the first principle of the Church’s mission), it is equivalent to taking up one’s cross; for we must obey even imprudent practices regardless of our opinion as to whether it is prudent or not.
We are not unlike monks who must obey their superiors, except in matters of doctrinal or moral impropriety. As members of the Church we too owe this obedience. However, unlike the religious, we have a right, given us by the Church Herself, to voice our opposition to that which we find injurious to our faith. I cautiously add a note that we have no right whatsoever to challenge the Church in matters of moral or doctrinal teaching; for that is our faith that must be held without reservation. But legitimate disagreement is not unlike the expression of “holy anger” that Christ Himself displayed when he found his people profaning the House of God. We are entitled to that expression of disagreement by Canon Law; something I wouldn’t have even thought of as a Protestant.
We see it in St. Catherine of Siena as she travels to France, to oppose the decision that the Pope and the entire Magisterium made to abandon Rome. And guess who won that battle? St. Catherine knew what they did was poor practice and God gave her the Grace to persuade the hierarchy of the Church to return to Rome. This singular act of a brave and courageous woman resulted in the preservation of the Vatican to this day. It is always a marvel to see how God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
It is good to know that we are called to be watchful as members of the Mystical Body. We are not just casual observers of the Body but we are living members of that Body; unless, of course, we turn our face from God by serious unrepentant sin. We have a personal stake in the health of the Mystical Body of Christ and a stake in its productivity in this world. If the Body is Holy then we too must strive to be Holy and therefore must reject profanation of any practice of the Church though it is judged by the rightful superiors to be acceptable practice; St. Catherine knew this as did St. Athanasius. Between what is acceptable and what is Holy lies a wide gap of razor sharp stumbling stones that must be perilously traversed without destroying either our obligation to obedience or our prayerful belief that we may have strayed from the path that the Church is founded upon; the leading of souls to everlasting life. Has the yoke become too heavy or our prelates sometimes lording their power over the faithful: things about which our Lord warned his apostles to be very cautious? In our 2,000 years I think the Church has done a very good job of addressing this. That said, it is still a challenge that we Catholics have had to deal with from the beginning and will not stop until the Parousia.
On a practical level, I will quickly admit that I struggle with the changes to the Mass known as the Novus Ordo. However, the Church did not effect many of the changes that I oppose so very much. They were done, not in concert with the bishops and the pope (as evident in the documents of Vatican II) but in individual parishes and by Episcopal fiat. From there the poison spread from diocese to diocese. The results were obvious: altar rails being torn down, beautiful art replaced by minimalistic modern monstrosities, angelic hymns abandoned for the clatter of drums and strumming guitars, reception of the Eucharist in the hand (as opposed by the bishops and our last 2 popes), and many other novelties that make our Church look more like our protestant counterparts than the protestant churches I previously attended before becoming Catholic. It’s a challenge, both mentally and spiritually. I fell in love with a Church that continually disappoints me and yet I love Her more now than the day I joined Her. It seems like an oxymoron to those who are not Catholic but Catholics understand that spiritual warfare occurs at every level of our lives, even in our most holy spaces, not just in the world and we are not shocked or dissuaded by these setbacks. It only reinforces our understanding that the Gates of Hell desires the True Church and Satan’s attacks are relentless; especially on the holiest members of our Church. We pray for them because we know that Satan desires to “sift them as wheat.”
Now the dictum lex orandi, lex credendi has been guiding the Church for years: the law of prayer is the law of belief. So we must request that our parish priests give us prayer that is proper to the Church (as guaranteed by our Church). Our prayer needs be holy and befitting to the Mystical Body of Christ. Proper and reverent liturgies afford us the ability to grow our faith and lead us to the holiness which we are individually called. It is a radical faith that the Church has called us to. We are not called to live a comfortable life of mediocrity in faith but to aspire to sainthood.
Catholicism is truly a radical call to change. The perspective of our true purpose and of our responsibility to the faith and the posterity of believers is challenged continually as we make our pilgrimage though this world. We constantly ask ourselves, “What am I being asked to do for the sake of Christ Crucified?” Don’t be surprised if the answer for some is crucifixion itself; either metaphorically or in actuality. The martyrs heard and obeyed the call and I only hope that I might find the courage that God might provide if such an occasion were to present itself to me. Notwithstanding, there are many different vocations in the Church: some more active and apologetic, some more prayerful and penitential etc.
Life as a Catholic is not simply the gathering for the Sacrifice of the Mass on Sunday. We don’t just sing Kumbaya, receive the Eucharist and go home without being expected to live the Mystery of the Church every minute of every day. The Church expects us to change in extraordinary ways. How radical is it to be asked to die to self so that we might live in Him? We too make radical demands of ourselves: to accomplish what we are not capable of accomplishing without the lights provided us by divine help and mercy. We have answered a radical call to live a life of holiness and to strive in this life to be saints. That is what the Church demands we do.
I must always remind myself to be patient with those who seem to confront the practices of the Church and be slow to judge and pronounce their guilt: I may need more facts and pray on those facts before rendering a final judgment. At times it may take history to sort it out. Therefore, I might want to withhold judgment during my entire lifetime. It is prudent to do so, lest I find myself condemning the next Athanasius or Catherine of Sienna and ultimately opposing the guardians of our Faith in the work they were given to do.