Friday, May 25, 2012

What the Legion and professional Catholics can learn from bare foot popes

“St. Vincent de Paul said that it was a great misfortune to be free from suffering in this life. And he added, that a congregation or an individual that does not suffer, and is applauded by all the world, is not far from a fall.”

-St. Alphonsus Liguori

Recently, Fr. Corcuera, former rector of Regina Apostolorum University and the Legion’s general director since 2005, admitted he was not as firm as he should have been in response to Fr. Thomas Williams' misconduct. In fact, he admitted being aware of it as early as 2005. Obviously, what this means is that the adequate disciplinary measure was not implemented by the Legionary leadership until 2012. Catholic News Agency even reported Fr. Corcuera as saying, “I also must admit that, in the midst of all that was happening I was not diligent in setting proper restrictions and enforcing them." The Legion’s general director went on to add that the congregation is in the process of moving away from a centralized structure.

The recent problems which beset the Legion of Christ are most unfortunate but it is by no means exclusive to the congregation. The 2002 priestly scandals revealed that this problem of pastoral reluctance and lack of decisive action is universal. But what the Fr. Marcel Maciel and the Fr. Thomas Williams case does teach us is that pastoral softness is not just a “liberal thing.” No. The weakness of pastoral discipline is a real issue among orthodox Catholic clergy who are faithful to the Church’s teachings.

With orthodoxy of belief, what is often missing is the orthodoxy of pastoral practice to compliment it. For decades, orthodox Catholics have complained about doctrinal weakness and even heresy among the clergy. But what is just as bad- but much less defined and understood –is the “heresy” of pastoral practice. Characteristic of this “heresy” is to accept people “where they are at” but then go no further by not telling them where they need to be if they are to be true followers of Christ.

This is where models of sanctity come in. For two thousand years the Catholic Church has held up the Apostles, the Church Fathers and the Saints as exemplary imitators of Christ. Recently, however, when it comes to pastoral discipline, we instead follow conventional approaches that are inspired by the world; approaches marked by non-judgmentalism and a kind of diplomacy that are exercised to a grievous fault. If parental discipline is wanting nowadays in families, it is because there is a shortage of pastoral discipline among the Catholic clergy.

If we were to cut to the chase and expose the real issue at heart, we would have to admit that Fr. Corcuera’s reluctance and lack of resolve to discipline Fr. Thomas Williams resulted from a deficit of manly formation- a real spiritual toughness –found in men like Pope St. Leo IX (1049-1054) and Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572); popes who came from a monastic background of penitential discipline, charity, prayer and a love of poverty. They even showed up to their own papal coronation in bare feet. More on them later.

In any case, in our day, masculine virtues are held in suspicion in many Catholic circles. To fight the good fight, to publicly condemn error, to renounce sin, to warn the obstinate sinners of hell, and to wage war against the flesh, the world and Satan are expressions associated with polarizing zealots; even though such expressions are readily found in the New Testament and the writings of the Saints. But because not a few Catholic men have been given over to delicacy and in some cases, effeminacy, they have become vulnerable to the worst of sins. Not only are they no match for the flesh that wages war against their own soul, they are hardly equal to the mission of defending the Church against those political demagogues who wish to compromise her religious liberty. Especially as it pertains to cleaning her own house, the Church needs men who are not burdened with concerns and anxiety over public opinion. Only then can the Gospel become a real and dominant cultural force for the good.

Thank God for divine inspiration! The Holy Spirit, since the time of the Apostles, has bestowed light to the Magisterium of the Church in order to discern, and then raise up, saintly pastors who, in many instances, were rejected by their own but whose sanctity withstood the test of time. Two such pastors previously mentioned are Pope St. Leo IX and Pope St. Pius V.

After the turning of the first Christian millennium (i.e. 1000 A.D.), the Catholic Church was rocked with problems quite similar to those of 2002. Priestly pedophilia, defiance of wayward clergy, the State meddling into the affairs of the Church and the growing menace of militant Islam were just a few of the problems plaguing the Church back then. But God raises up tough and saintly men to show the strength of His arm. Before he became pope, St. Leo IX (1049-1054) revived monasteries of Senones, Jointures, Estival, Bodonminster, Middle-Moutier, and St. Mansu or Mansuet because he knew how to discipline; and he knew how to discipline because he was tough on himself first and foremost. Butler, author of Lives of the Saints, said that upon receiving notice that he was elected pope, St. Leo IX “set out for Rome in the habit of a pilgrim; and alighting from his horse, some miles before he arrived at the city, walked to it, and entered it barefoot.” In a few short years, he set in motion needed reforms that would be continued by Pope St. Gregory VII.

Five hundred years later, when the Church was faced with yet another set of internal problems, God raised up Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572). According to Robin Anderson’s book, St. Pius V (1973), “Of his theological teaching it was said he ‘mingled the thorns of Calvary with those of learning,’ leading his pupils to the foot of the Cross.” When offered a second cloak during the chill of the winter cold air, he said, "Poor followers of the gospel ought to be content with one tunic." Like Pope St. Leo IX, Pope St. Pius V attended his papal inauguration in bare feet and would participate in the religious processions in Rome without shoes as well. This was symbolic of how he lived out his spiritual life. “He made daily two meditations on his knees before a crucifix, and called prayer the comfort and support of a pastor amidst the hurry of affairs.” Even as pope, he would visit hospitals and wash the feet of the poor. Like Leo IX, he was a true apostle of the lowly and downtrodden.

Zeal for the Lord, simplicity, and austerity enabled St. Pius V to be a reformer. And to be sure, a reformer is not one how courts human respect but sets out to do God’s will regardless of the obstacles. As Robinson said,

“Pope Pius’ spiritual reform started with the members of his own household. A model of virtue and penance himself, he gave them a rule of life, constantly exhorting them to shun ambition and vice, to cultivate virtue. He openly told them he would not tolerate any in his court who did not live according to Christian precepts and standards…He reminded the Cardinals that not least among the causes of the spreading of heresy was the lax and unedifying life led by many of the clergy and urge them all to do penance, avoid luxury and reform their style of living…The Cardinals he did create were chosen for their merit and attitude, regardless of political or national considerations…His first and chief care, after his own household, was for the reform of the clergy, since ‘It is an established fact,’ he wrote to one Bishop, ‘that bad priests are the ruin of the people…’”

What happened to the Legion of Christ is a lesson for all clergy and every professional Catholic- that is, the Catholic who evangelizes, teaches and writes. As Butler put it, “The greatest danger in a public elevated station is…the hurry of external concerns.” Those who are busy in the mission should be constantly vigilant of this potential vice lest “we should forget to give sufficient attention to those of our own souls.” Perhaps, the recent decade of fallen priests can be an instrument of calling attention to the moral obligation of God’s vineyard workers to attend, above all, to their own souls as a matter of the highest priority. Theology and even ministry is impotent if it is not built on the foundation of an ongoing interior reform the soul. Such self-imposed spiritual reform cannot be had without self-discipline and the spirit of sacrifice. Again, to use the words of Butler:

“But those who have their whole time at their own disposal, yet have their eyes always abroad, and live, as it were, without themselves, are truly foolish. Everyone's first and principal business is included within himself, in his own heart. It is so deep that we shall always find in it exercise enough, and shall never be able to sound it; only He, who tries the thoughts and reins, can thoroughly know it…But it is infinitely both our duty and our interest to take cognizance of the contests between the flesh and the spirit within our own breasts; to appease this intestine war by teaching the flesh to be in subjection, placing reason on its throne, and making God reign sovereignly in our hearts.

It is not so slight a task as men generally seem to imagine to keep our domestic kingdom in good order, and to govern wisely and holily those numerous people which are contained in this little state, that is to say, that multitude of affections, thoughts, opinions, and passions which easily raise tumults in our hearts. Those who are charged with the care of others are obliged to reserve to themselves leisure for pious meditation, prayer, and self-examination, and diligently to watch over their own souls.”

We cannot watch over other souls with great effect if we are remiss in watching over our own souls. God can hardly be glorified in the world through our witness if the weeds in the interior garden of the soul are not manfully uprooted. The subtle and sometimes subconscious love for convenience, affirmation and human applause are just a few of the weeds that choke the vine. This is what the Legion and every Catholic professional can learn from two bare foot popes.