Saturday, October 6, 2012

There is no remedy for the change-maker

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 a chapter 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.”

When we come across a prophet like Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Saints such as St. Gregory VII, who led a needed reform in a dilapidated eleventh century Church, 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 and in each generation 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.”

Holy men and women, who have risen above the rest, recognized that the Holy Spirit speaks through his Church in every century. And in every century throughout history the voice of God had something unique to offer. Hence, they do not restrict themselves to the opinions of others or to the “group think” mentality in their times. Rather, they draw from the wisdom of their spiritual ancestors and from tradition. This, to be sure, liberates them from the narrowness that the present generation holds as absolutes.

It is common among the prophets and Saints- those who were pioneers of life-giving change for the better -experienced an epiphany or awakening. “Some people,” Congar said, “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.” In other words, they are twice-born. St. Cyprian, a African bishop and a Father of the Church in the third century, had such an awakening. He said,

"By the agency of the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth had restored me to a new man, then, in a wondrous manner, doubtful things at once began to assure themselves to me, hidden things to be revealed, dark things to be enlightened, what before had seemed difficult began to suggest a means of accomplishment, and what had been thought impossible, was capable of being achieved."

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.”

This, in part, is why saints have been persecuted in this world. These holy men and women were willing to upset the status quo. For instance, “St. Basil was accused of heresy before Pope St. Damascus. St. Cyril of Jerusalem was condemned as a heretic by forty bishops and was deprived of his see. St. Athanasius was charged with the crime of sorcery, and St. John Chrysostom with sins against chastity…St. Francis de Sales was charged with an unchaste familiarity with a secular lady, and remained for three years under the imputation till his innocence was discovered.” (St. Alphonsus, The Spouse of Christ)

In every age there are the establishment types and group-think people 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.  This is why ineffective reformers tend 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.

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, namely, 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.”

To be a twice-born Christian and one who God uses to be an instrument of change for the better, St. Alphonsus gives it to us straight: “There is no remedy: All who wish to follow Jesus Christ shall be persecuted. If, says St. Augustine, you are unwilling to suffer any persecution, tremble lest you have not as yet begun to serve Jesus Christ.” Then St. Alphonsus concludes by assuring us: “Let us rest secure that when we suffer persecution in peace, God will take up our defense; and should he ever permit us to remain in dishonor here, he will reward our patience with greater honors hereafter.”