In the face of Church scandals, we need our saints to show us the way
What is going on in our Church? This summer was one of scandal, as Theodore McCarrick became cardinal no more and a wide-ranging investigation into hundreds of clerical abuse allegations in Pennsylvania further exposed an evil reality within the institutional Church in recent decades.
What is the proper response? There are investigations and reforms needed. But none of it will ever be sufficient alone. The universally proper response, which we all play a role in, is quite simply, sanctity.
But what does that look like in a world that seems hostile to true faith lived out in the world? How do we live and proclaim actual truths? And what does that mean when even the institutional Church looks to be no more immune to evil and worldly concerns than any Fortune 500 company?
In the wake of the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, in particular, I found it both a tremendous consolation and a spectacular challenge to be confronted with saints everywhere I turned.
On the morning after the feast of the Assumption, I made a little local pilgrimage near the George Washington Bridge in upper Manhattan to the shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.
There’s nothing like the incarnational reality of knowing a saint walked where you are now to wake you up to the necessity and plausibility. A holy card there with a quote from her helps manage expectations: “Sanctity does not consist in doing great and conspicuous things, but in doing well all that Jesus desires of us.”
In other words, being a saint today does not necessarily require you alone fixing all the problems in the Catholic Church. But as a member of the Body of Christ, we all have a role in the solution and it has everything to do with God and His plans for us.
The story that’s always stuck with me since I read it in her travel journals is about one of her transatlantic missionary journeys to New York and there were priests on the boat who did not bring their Mass kits.
Why on earth wouldn’t a priest be celebrating Mass during such a long journey? But it didn’t keep her from encountering Christ in people on the ship — evangelizing by word and deed and the mere fact of her presence.
A priest choosing not to provide that which he uniquely can, may have made her angry and disappointed and sad — familiar feelings among Catholics today for sins of commission and indifference, or a dark comfort with evil — but would not keep her from taking the opportunities God put right in front of her and being his instrument.
Also at the St. Frances Cabrini shrine there was this excerpt from a 1904 letter she wrote from New Orleans:
“I know that this is a time of much anxiety. But, away with anxiety; take courage! Place your trust in God and His Holy Mother.…
“Prayer is that powerful weapon that must defend and help you, not only now, but throughout your lives. Pray for yourselves, for the persons entrusted to your care, for those dear to you, for society, for the Church. Make prayer a habit, because if you succeed in experiencing the sweetness found in this intimate conversation of the soul with God, there will never be hours of discouragement and despair, not will clouds long disturb the calm horizon of your souls. Obey Christ’s precept: pray and always pray.”
Right there is quite clearly the “how to.” Stay in relationship with the Trinity and Mary.
One way to do so and help maintain some steady growth is to take advantage of the liturgical wisdom of the Church. This summer has been quite a test for such a phrase. Well-catechized people with strong pious devotions have admitted to me dark moments of doubt in recent weeks.
To open a breviary (or the Divine Office app on your phone) and pray the psalms or read the wisdom of great saints is to realize that there is nothing new under the sun and God has won victory over sin and death.
Life would have been quite grim and pointless had St. Maximilian Kolbe not had a trust in Mary’s love for man and cooperation with the Holy Spirit for the salvation of souls.
We’d not be learning today from St. Edith Stein, who has had a special impact on young women, especially in Catholic colleges and universities, something which is bound to bear fruit as leadership reins are passed to the millennial generation.
The mother-son duo of St. Monica and St. Augustine on the calendar in late August seemed to be God’s providential care underscoring the importance of perseverance in the Body of Christ.
And that St. Augustine was a bishop, as was St. Gregory the Great, at the top of September, seemed no coincidence either. The ubiquitous prod to sanctity on the calendar is a consolation, a source of confidence and an endless examination of conscience.
Down the street from the Vatican in Rome, steps from the front door of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, is a house belonging to the Missionaries of Charity — the order of women religious founded by St. Teresa of Calcutta. Her feast day is also at the beginning of September, and she can be a tremendous help to us because of the proximity and practicality of her witness to us.
We have photos and recordings. Some of us met her. Others worked with her. Jumping off St. Frances Cabrini’s point about prayer, the saint of Calcutta revealed it as her “secret” in a 1980 talk about prayer.
Jesus, she said, “wants us to pray with a clean heart, with a simple heart, with a humble heart. ‘Unless you become little children, you cannot learn to pray, you cannot enter Heaven, you cannot see God.’ To become a little child means to be at peace with the Father, Our Father.”
Prayer is nothing but being in the family, being one with the Father in the Son and the Holy Spirit — the love of the Father for his Son and the Holy Spirit.”
The call to sainthood is not a theological doily, and it’s not low energy.
Introducing 14 saint profiles in the book “Saints Are Not Sad,” Frank Sheed said there are two things to be gained by spending time with the saints: “relief from monotony” and “contact with vitality.” He explained:
“Men are in their essential personality irreducibly diverse: but sin blots out the distinctions and reduces the diversity: sin drains out the color of the man (which is his own and inimitable) and replaces it with the color of sin which is common property: all sinners look less like themselves and more like one another. Saints are intensely themselves.
“Sin, being a following of the line of least resistance, inevitably lessens vitality: it takes no more vitality to go with the stream of inclination than with any other stream: but to go against, as the saint does, demands immense vitality.”
The pages on St. Dominic include:
“Truth and charity absorbed his whole being and few even among the saints have appreciated as he did, in mind and in heart, the ineluctable union of these two essential elements of the Christian life.”
Prayer, truth, charity. Sounds like a plan. Could it even be contagious?
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review and a contributing editor to Angelus.
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