Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Church in exile

"I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile."

-Pope St. Gregory VII

The Criterion for Success:

T.S. Eliot once said, “When the Christian is treated as an enemy of the State, his course is very much harder, but it is simpler. I am concerned with the dangers to the tolerated minority; and in the modern world, it may turn out that most intolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated.”

He may, in fact, be right. Whenever the people of God throughout biblical history became too mainstream, or too assimilated by the world, their fidelity to God was compromised. On the other hand, when the Church of God suffered as castaways in exile, her mission prospered all the more. She was in a better position to fulfill what God required of her.

Take for instance a more recent example: The Catholic Church in America. Between 1940 and 1960, the Church doubled in size. A remarkable growth spurt to be sure. Construction for church buildings, bible sales, Mass attendance, priest and religious vocations were through the roof. Archbishop Cushing of Boston was reported as saying in the 1950’s that he expected to have 100 ordinations in one year. And why not? An Bishop Fulton Sheen hosted an Emmy award-winning television show, Life is Worth Living, in that same decade. And in 1960 the first Catholic won his bid for the presidency. Even Pope John XXIII, two years later, in his opening speech for the Second Vatican Council, predicted, “Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era.” Indeed, things looked promising.

Yet, not even a decade later, in 1970, Joseph Ratzinger, future pope, said that “the City of Man is striking terror in our hearts.” And in 1971, Sister Lucia, the only surviving seer of Fatima, wrote to her nephew warning him about the diabolical wave that would produce innumerable casualties. In the early 1970's, it became apparent that the Church’s influence on culture would come to an abrupt end. In fact, it was more true to say that the world’s influence poured into the Church in unprecedented fashion. And the result is that the Church is relearning what it is like to be a persecuted Church.

Not a few Catholics forgot that the Church is a Church in exile; never at home in any nation or civilization. As with each individual soul in search of a better place, the Church, as a body of believers, is a pilgrim and a foreigner in a strange land…away from her true home.

Decades ago, when the future of the Catholic Church looked promising, it would have done us well to remember the words of the Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, who said the following:

“Christ came not to bring peace but a sword and that the Kingdom of God comes not by the elimination of conflict but through an increasing opposition and tension between the church and the world. The conflict between the two cities is as old as humanity and must endure until the end of time.

And though the church may meet with ages of prosperity, and her enemies may fail and the powers of the world may submit to her sway, these things are no criterion of success. She wins not by majorities but by martyrs and the cross is her victory.” (The Kingdom of God and History 1938)

A Church in Exile:

As if to build upon the truth that Dawson voiced decades earlier, the Second Vatican Council, inspired by the Holy Spirit, reminded the Church where she stands in relation to the world. In one of the Council's document's, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church, it reads: “Israel according to the flesh, which wandered as an exile in the desert, was already called the Church of God. So likewise the new Israel which while living in this present age goes in search of a future and abiding city is called the Church of Christ." And to drive the point home, the document adds: "The Church, while on earth it journeys in a foreign land away from the Lord, is like in exile...”

In the bible, to be in exile was both a sign of divine punishment and an instrument of liberation. Most importantly, as Pope Leo XIII once said, “[God] has given us this world as a place of exile, and not as our abiding place.” Hence, suffering and persecution are meant to serve as reminders that our hopes ought to be placed elsewhere. After all, it is when we die, the same pope said, that we really begin to live.

But exile began with Adam and Eve. When they yielded to the Serpent’s temptations, they were sent out of the Garden of Eden, also known as Paradise. Although sinners, the First Couple were still friends of God. Yet, they were the first to be sent into exile; away from home, if you will. And their sin left a mark on every soul that would descend from them; a kind of emptiness and void in the human heart. That void would only be satisfied when the soul sees God face to face in heaven.

Curiously, God too was compelled to go into exile, away from the world he created. In the liturgy we pray to him, “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” But the shadow of death loomed over the world because of sin. And just before God decided to flood the earth in Genesis 6, he also decided to withdraw his Spirit because of the sins of mankind. Only from a distance would God lead his people. And it wasn’t until Pentecost, that his Spirit would come back into the hearts of his people. God too, from the great Flood to Pentecost, was in exile…away from the world he created.

It would seem, then, that the people of God would follow the same course. When Abraham was called by God to be the father of nations- the father of a promise –he was living in the land of Ur (close to where Baghdad is today). But in order to inherit the promise from God, he was summoned to the land of Canaan (where Israel is today). And in order to survive, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, took his family to Egypt from the land of Canaan during a famine. About 400 years later, Moses would be sent into exile for killing an Egyptian soldier. He would return decades later to retrieve the Israelites. That was the beginning of a forty year journey in the desert. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, the Catholic Church is like the Israelites in the desert, searching for a better home.

When the nation of Israel settled into the land of Canaan, she prospered into a powerful kingdom under King David. As with most prosperous kingdoms, the people of God grew complacent and eventually turned to idolatry. About five centuries after the reign of David, the Jews were conquered by the Babylonian Empire. In the year 586 B.C., Jerusalem, along with the Temple built by Solomon, was destroyed. The Jews were then transported to Babylon. Strangers in a foreign land, they would come to recognize the inspired writings of the prophets who warned them of their sins and the chastening of God that would follow. Indeed, it was in their exile and plight that awoken them to their own infidelity and the veracity of God’s Word.

In the fullness of time when Christ was born, the holy pilgrimage of exile would be repeated yet again. King Herod, in order to eliminate any rivals to his throne, sought the life of the Christ-child. In order to escape his wrath, the angel warned St. Joseph in a dream to take the mother and her child to Egypt. In flight, therefore, Christ, as a young child and then as a man, would twice retrace the steps of his people:

First, by taking flight to Egypt as a child with Joseph and Mary. Second, by returning to the desert for the duration of forty days at age 30 in order to conquer the Evil One. Through his fidelity in fasting and a resolute rejection of Satan’s temptations, he atoned for Israel's infidelity. But it was only through the painful experience of exile that this blessing could come about.

Interestingly, the Gospel of Luke characterizes the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord as a kind of “exodus.” During his transfiguration on Mount Tabor, St. Luke wrote that Moses and Elijah (both sent into exile in their own day), spoke to Jesus about his exodus. In fact, the Ascension of Our Lord is considered as a kind an exile from this world. But as Moses returned to Egypt to liberate his people after a prolonged absence, so too our Lord will return in order to fulfill his Father's promise in Psalm 2: “I will proclaim the decree of the LORD, he said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask it of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, and, as your possession, the ends of the earth.”

In the meantime, the Catholic Church can only consider herself as one in exile; never completely at home in any given country. In the early years of the Christianity, the Church understood this well. For the first 300 years, she was hated and persecuted by the Romans. Indeed, a great number of martyrs were produced. In fact, one historical source reports that out of the 30 popes, 29 died a martyr’s death. Yet, conversions to the Catholic Faith abounded. Through it all, there was something very attractive about an other-worldly society.

A famous letter, supposedly written in the second century during the height of Christian persecution, captures how the early Christians saw themselves. A Letter from Mathetes to Diognetus speaks of a Church in exile; one that is not defined by any ethnicity or nationality. He writes, “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity…”

Even as the Roman Empire was beginning to fall and even as the Church seemed to be in retreat, Mathetes gives the reason why the early Christians were full of hope: “As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers…They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven…They love all men, and are persecuted by all…”

Even with the fierce persecution of Christians and being cast out of Roman society time and time again, the Catholic Church was full of confidence in her mission. She knew that in order to save the world, she had to be set apart from the world. Mathetes summarizes this mission as follows:

“To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world…”

The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens.”


During the height of the Church’s growth in 1948, just when it looked as though Catholicism was to win over Western Civilization, Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote in his book, Communism and the Western Conscience, what it means to be a Church in exile; the kind of Church the early Christians were well acquainted with. He said,

“The value of a trial will be to set us apart. Evil must come to reject us, to despise us, to hate us, to persecute us, and then shall we define our loyalties, affirm our fidelities and state on whose side we stand.” He then said, “Our quantity will indeed decrease, but our quality will increase. Then shall be verified the words of our Master: ‘He that gathers not with me scatters.’” (Matthew 12:30)

It is only through the age-old pilgrimage of an exile as outsiders, strangers and victims that the Church can recover her native strength. Only under this banner can she be a symbol of that future happiness that awaits us in heaven. Perhaps, this is why another Catholic historian, Hilaire Belloc, wrote about that peculiar sign for which we are to look when the Catholic Faith is on the precipice of rising again:

“But if I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the Faith is at hand, I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning.”