“Because zeal for your house has consumed me.”
This post is dedicated to every bishop who toils to reform his diocese but faces opposition and obstacles; to every pastor who endeavors to set his parish on fire with the love of Christ but meets with resistance and even rejection; to every teacher who hands down moral truths to a student body marked by apathy and skepticism; and finally this post is dedicated to discouraged parents who compete against many secular forces in our culture in rearing their children.
There were many prophets and reformers who seemed to have struggled in vain to renew their religious order, parish or diocese against the status quo. They were beset with the temptation that all toil and sacrifice was in vain. But God works through weakness. That is why he will anoint our efforts with success just when all seems lost. To this effect, the prophet Isaiah said, “Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, yet my reward is with the LORD, my recompense is with my God.”
And for everyone who is willing to sacrifice himself to a righteous and just cause, the Lord says, “See, I have refined you like silver, tested you in the furnace of affliction.” That’s right! The struggles, sacrifice and suffering required in renewing families, institutions, nations and the Church herself is the very means through which Christ sanctifies and builds-up his disciples.
Benedict's Reform of the Reform:
Pope Benedict XVI coined the term, “The Reform of the Reform.” Sometimes the solution to problems needs refining and realignment. On the eve of the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960’s, the Holy Spirit inspired the Second Vatican Council to convene from 1962 to1965. From the Council came a return to the simplicity of Gospel truths so effectively communicated by the Apostles and Church Fathers. Yet in the midst of applying these principles of renewal, the Church and her institutions were rocked by the rapid cultural changes that were taking place in society. So taken back by the abrupt changes in society and the confusion it caused, even within the Church, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, said that the city of man was beginning to strike terror in their hearts! Indeed, Mass attendance, priestly and religious vocations plummeted. One can even proffer that what was gained by the Catholic Church doubling in size between 1940 and 1960, was lost between 1970 and 1990.
The transition from the old way of doing things to new ways made the Church vulnerable to the influence of secularism and to many misinterpretations about the transition itself. What the Church was left with in many of her venues was a watered-down Faith which struggled to attract new converts and form cradle Catholics. This, of course, had to change. And to be sure, after the dust had settled it was clear that the fruits of the Second Vatican Council had not been fully applied.
It was then that then-Cardinal Ratzinger came up with, “The Reform of the Reform.” But fifty years is a long time. People- clergy and laity alike –got used to the new ways of how the affairs of the Church were being carried out. Going back to the founding principles, that is, from the era of the Apostles and the Church Fathers, and using them to give new life to the Church, is not only a difficult task but it comes at a high price. In years past, pressing forward amid opposition, resistance and misunderstanding was the cause of many tears shed by prophets and holy reformers.
Tears of a Pope: A Thousand Years Ago
Take, for instance, Pope St. Gregory VII. He was a great reformer of the Church a thousand years ago (1073 A.D.). In order that the fruits of the vineyard might grow more abundantly, this holy pope realized that the weeds had to be pulled out by the root. The weeds, just to name of few, were State officials controlling the elections of popes and bishops, simony (the selling of offices) and more specifically, sexual abuse within the priesthood. This latter vice had reached epidemic proportions in his day. And to be sure, the purification of the Church, he found out, was a painful but necessary process.
On January 22nd, in the year 1075 A.D., he wrote a letter to St. Hugo, Abbot of Cluny, expressing his anxiety and toil that was daily afflicting him in his role as the Head of the Catholic Church. He writes, “If it were possible, I should greatly desire you to understand fully what anxiety oppresses me, what toil renewed day by day wearies and disturbs me by its increasing burden, so that your brotherly sympathy might incline you toward me and cause you to pour out your heart in flood of tears before God, that Jesus, the man of poverty, through whom all things were made and who is ruler over all, might stretch forth his hand and deliver me from my misery with his wonted mercy.”
The Holy Father continues in his lament: “Often I have besought him, according to his word, that he would either take me out of this life or show favor to our common mother [the Church] through my service. Yet up to the present time he has not delivered me from my great suffering nor has my life been of value, as I had hoped, to that mother in whose chains he had bound me.” Indeed, a heavy Cross was laid upon the shoulders of St. Gregory VII; sometimes, as is evident from his letter, his trials overwhelmed him.
The Burden of Reformers:
Tears had streamed down the cheeks of many prophets and reformers as they looked upon God’s people in disarray. In order to reform and make things better, in any given situation, whether it be the Catholic Church or even one’s nation, the prophet must be willing to shed tears, to experience loneliness and to make himself vulnerable to hate. Quite often, in the bible and in the lives of the Saints, such adversity was the very instrument our Lord used to bring about something new, something better from something bad. Every prophet or reformer had his or her Good Friday; not just once, but many times throughout a life time. And it is the willingness on the part of the Christian, with the motive of glorifying God and saving souls first and foremost, which is that pleasing aroma to the Lord; but not only to the Lord but to those that are seeking him. As. St. Paul said, “For we are the aroma of Christ for God among those who are being saved...” (II Cor. 2:15-16)
History shows that prophets and reformers share common characteristics and experiences. One such characteristic was that they were twice-born, that is, born again to a new set of convictions and values. But while these values were new to their generation, they were nonetheless rooted in tradition. Quite often such a disposition was nurtured in monasteries or at least where the discipline of prayer and penance were to be found. From this background, holy men and women were better prepared to carry out their mission without being tainted by human applause or intimidated by the threat of persecution. Insisting on these values and principles, they were a blessing to some people and a source of consternation to others. There was no getting around that fact! But let there be no doubt, those who winced from such a challenge failed to reform.
The Book: True and False Reform
Originally published in 1950, the book “True and False Reform in the Church” by the Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, identified some traits of those reformers who made a difference. If you are a cleric, teacher or parent who is willing to change things for the better but face what seems to be insurmountable odds, perhaps these considerations will be helpful.
In Chapter 3, entitled "Prophets and Reformers," it says the following: “So that the sap of Christianity can still thrust its shoots through the crust of history, the Holy Spirit, watching over the Church, raises up servants whose fidelity goes beyond conformity to the status quo.” How true! When we come across a prophet like Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Saints such as St. Gregory VII, we find that they had risen above their social or even religious milieu. Quite often, their convictions differed greatly from their peers. As such, they were misunderstood and even slandered. Alone they stood with God. Nevertheless, their core convictions remained.
Unfortunately, every generation has its blind spots. Throughout history there is a human tendency in each era to emphasize certain truths at the expense of other truths. But the messengers of God refused to be locked into a box of fads, trends or partial truths. In fact, Congar said, “Religious prophets are those who are detached and thus able to bear witness to the totality of the truth over against partial truths, to integral truth over against accommodations.” They recognized that the Holy Spirit speaks through his Church in every century. And in every century the voice of God had something unique to offer. This, to be sure, liberates them from the narrowness that the present generation holds as absolutes.
An openness to this divine voice, not just through personal inspirations which may visit the soul in the moment, but through the utterances of Prophets and Saints of old, leads to an epiphany or awakening for God's servant. “Some people have experienced a kind of revelation, a new birth; they have discovered a new personal set of values and a kind of change have come over their lives.” They see, with more clarity, both the good and bad habits of their contemporaries. With this realization, they set out to fulfill their calling with the purpose of glorifying God. Being unhindered from conventional practices and limitations, their anointed work becomes an occasion of reform and renewal.
Invariably, however, there are obstacles and opponents to any holy campaign. As Yves Congar put it, “There are those who simply live according to the expectations and habits of their social group. They maintain the established ways of the milieu." Then he adds this: "There are lazy believers in the Church- clerics and laity alike –who do not believe in anything by themselves but remain sprawled out in the barn where they have been cooped up in front of a manger full of convenient beliefs that they only have to take and chew on.” That's right! In every age there are the "establishment types" who do certain things simply because that is the way things have always been done. They obediently receive ready-made-opinions from their peers as a soldier receives orders from his commander.
Indeed, ineffective reformers tended to be bound to the structures of the system and conventional practices. All too often they refused to go back to the beginning; back to the founding principles which inspired greatness.
Two of the Greatest Reformers:
Every so often the Catholic Church, much like an individual Christian, needs renewal. As the letter by Pope St. Gregory VII indicated, he felt overwhelmed by the troubling circumstances of his day. But this was God’s way of working through his weakness. With that said, reform not only comes with tears, it can also be inspired by a righteous indignation or anger. The cleansing of the Jewish Temple by our Lord is one such incident. Another incident is by a contemporary of St. Gregory VII by the name of St. Peter Damien, a cardinal of the Church.
In response to the sexual abuse within the Church and the lack of resolve from his brother bishops, St. Peter Damien delivered to them a fiery message. This, no doubt, would shock today’s Catholic sensibilities. He said, “Listen, you do-nothing superiors of clerics and priests! Listen, and even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought that you are the partners in the guilt of others; those, I mean, who wink at the sins of their subjects that need correction and who by ill-considered silence allow them license to sin. Listen, I say, and be shrewd enough to understand that all of you alike are deserving of death, that is, not only do such things, but also they who approve of those who practice them.”
Strong words! But this shouldn't surprise us if we are familiar with the Gospels. There are many times when our Lord deviated from etiquette and conventional diplomacy. In the Gospel of John, for instance, he was engaged in many confrontations with the Pharisees and many of his critics. On one occasion he said to them, "You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world. That is why I told you that you will die in your sins." Yet, further on he makes the following accusation: "You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father's desires." And again, "If I should say that I do not know him [God], I would be like you a liar." Again, strong words! But this cannot be anything but divine love in action coming from our Savior. What is so often missing from today's narrative in the Church is that divine love includes, in addition to tears, righteous indignation.
And as for Pope St. Gregory VII, he excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV for being obstinate and for meddling into the most important affairs of the Church- the election of bishops. As the holy pontiff anticipated, however, this would eventually lead to him being run out of Rome into permanent exile. Indeed, he died outside of the Eternal City. His last words were: “I loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore, I die in exile.”
Are You Willing to Pay the Price?
There is something special about the reformers and prophets who give off the aroma of Christ. But as Pope St. Gregory VII and St. Peter Damien discovered, if we are willing to give off the aroma of Christ for those who are being saved, we have to be willing to be an “odor of death for those who are perishing.” (II Corinthians 2:15-16) To snuff out the odor of death so as not to offend is to extinguish the aroma of Christ that saves. The two must go hand in hand or the Gospel will not take hold!
But even the best of reformers and prophets are human. With the odor of death and the offense it naturally provokes among people, comes, as we have seen, loneliness and suffering. So often, our Lord seems to push his servants to the brink; even to the brink of despair. With each push he seems to ask, "Do you consent? Are you still willing to pay the price?" And with each answer in the affirmative, tears sometimes flow. With the prophet Isaiah, they may have been tempted to say, "I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength." Still, they recall that God's generosity is never outdone. Oh yes! The reward is so much greater than the sacrifice. With a sigh they could say, "Yet my reward is with the LORD, my recompense is with my God."
It must be added that due to the sacrifices of St. Gregory VII, St. Peter Damien and others like them, the Mystical Body of Christ underwent renewal and as such, was put on a better course. Because many of the abuses within the Church were corrected, Catholics- both clergy and laity -were in a better position to attract more souls to Christ. This is in no small measure was due to the Holy Spirit who, watching over the Church, raised up servants whose fidelity went beyond conformity to the status quo.
There may be a turning point in our lives when a costly sacrifice is needed. Quite often, such sacrifices are absolutely necessary to renew a parish, school, religious order, diocese or even the Church at large. At a moment of crisis the Lord may ask us the following question: "Do you consent?" That is, "Are you willing to pay the price?" And to the extent we say, "Lord, may it be done to me according to your word," we give him the permission to act through us in ways that will exceed our expectations. This is how prophets are made! This is how true reform begins…with sacrifice and tears!
Note: The picture above is a statue of Pope St. Pius V (1565-71), who,like his predecessor, Pope St. Leo IX, five hundred years before, showed up at his papal inauguration in bare feet. With such an austere appearance, both men signaled that they meant business! Indeed, during a time when the Church needed reform their symbolic gesture was followed by decisive action; action that included slashing unnecessary expenditures, bureaucracy and favors heaped upon relatives. This, they did, with principally one aim: To glorify God with a holy indifference to human approval!