“It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
I have had a long fascination with the origin of words. Lent derives from the old German or Teutonic root word meaning “spring” or a “lengthening of days.” As such, Ash Wednesday promises the coming of the annual warming and greening with longer days and shorter nights. I love Ash Wednesday and look forward to it each year. For the non Catholic, this may strike some as odd, but I love Lent, and not just for its indication of sunnier afternoons, but for its call to deeper human wholeness.
“Oh God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting….like a dry, weary land without water.” Palm 63
As well as the clear reminder of our mortality with “from dust you came and to dust you shall return” as the priest imparts the ashes in a sign of Christ’s cross on our foreheads, during Lent we are encouraged to deeper prayer, penitential fasting and openhanded charity. Part and parcel to our Lenten prayer also is a rigorously honest personal moral inventory. The word “ἁμαρτία” (“hamartia”) from the original Greek New Testament is typically translated into English as “sin.” Hamartia literally means “misses the mark.” Lenten meditation asks of us an examination of conscience, not to establish guilt, but to sharpen our aim.
We all miss the mark, but the serenity and clarity attained from finding some time each day for silent reflection and honest self assessment has no analog in the exactingly physical existence in which we spend most of our waking hours.
“We must maintain great stillness of mind even in the midst of our struggles… A tranquil sea allows the fisherman to gaze right to its depths. No fish can hide there and escape his sight. The stormy sea, however, becomes murky when it is agitated by the winds. The very depths that it revealed in its placidness, the sea now hides. The skills of the fisherman are useless.” Diadochus, Bishop of Photice
Another type of Lent encompasses the whole Church, and instead of forty days, it may not be fully understood for forty more years — or even forty decades. The retirement of Benedict XVI makes us mindful of the crucial drama being played out in our lifetimes page by page for Catholicism, perhaps for all Christendom – a drama the denouement of which we likely will not live to see. The Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Paul VI in 1965. Four men who attended the opening session and participated in writing the resulting documents were chosen as the next four popes to lead the Church in the intervening sixty years: Giovanni Montini (Paul VI), Albino Luciani (John Paul I), Karol Wojtlya (John Paul II) and Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI, the 265th Pope including the first, Peter the Apostle). The selection of the next Pope will indicate how resolute the Church remains in her commitment to fidelity to first principles and beliefs.
While attempting to “open the windows” to modernity and the cultural tsunami of the last century, the crisis of scandal within the Church grew to a great degree through confusion regarding the interpretation of Vatican II documents: the so named “spirit of Vatican II”. What was misunderstood about the council writings became even more murky when dissidents and outside influences critical of (and often antagonistic towards) the Church stirred up the waters disputing issues involving celibacy , married priests, priest’s gender, homosexual marriage, teaching authority of bishops, “liberation” theology, armed rebel priests and almost any other conjuring that could be contrived. Volumes have been written on each of these issues, and both my skills and the scope of a blog will not attempt to write of them. Suffice it to say that it is still an open question as to how or if we will reconcile “Catholic lite” with its stepchild “Cafeteria Catholicism” and fidelity to orthodoxy.
The point here is that one of the consequences of this confusion evolved a pervasive homosexual culture in some seminaries in the late sixties and seventies leading to a betrayal of trust with the “pedophilia” crisis within the priesthood in the seventies and eighties that was exposed in the early years of the last decade. Actual pedophilia (a pathological sexual attraction to children under 13) was rare within the priesthood and within the culture. Ninety percent or more of the molestation offenses involved teenage boys, not seven year olds, an under reported truth regarding these events, not that this mitigates the sin of the perpetrators and the incompetence or malfeasance of the bishops who failed to curb it. One of the saddest aspects of this scandal is the salacious jokes and depiction of all priests — including some of the finest men I have ever known, as similarly disposed – a tragic lie of epic proportions.
The collapse of these men was not caused by their vows of celibacy – that rationale is a fabrication of dissidents and media with an agenda. The breakdown resulted from a violation of their vows. Betrayal of vows is not a new phenomenon; all four Gospels record the first defection of a priest and bishop, Judas Iscariot. Nothing is accidentally incorporated into the scriptures, so it is relevant to all times. Indeed the whole history of Christianity is a cycle of fidelity, betrayal, reform and fidelity to start anew. We are not to lose heart, but we are to look at these events in the harsh light of day.
“They strayed, as faithless as their fathers, like a bow on which the archer cannot count.” Psalm 78
The confusion rippling through the last sixty years has attended the years following all the councils called to navigate changes in the Church or in the world. There have been only twenty one such councils in the twenty one century long history of the Church. Some like the Fifth Lateran Council of 1512-1517 were too timid and shallow, having no lasting effect and leading directly to the great schisms and upheaval of the Protestant Rebellions with bloodshed, hatred and bitterness – none of which in my experience have anything to do with God. Occasionally, a council like Trent (1545-1563) takes place with long reaching positive consequences for centuries. The mark of all long lasting reform is fidelity to “first things”, to ageless truths and fearlessness in implementation of their findings.
Since the Church consists of imperfect human beings, many periods of infidelity and disgrace have occurred throughout the long centuries of Church history, which have always been followed by renewal and recommitment with reformers as diverse as Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Sienna. A further sign of all renewal is that light is shed on darkness, the excising of the evil. In the past, those engaged in scandal and sinful behavior were exposed, taken out of ministry and punished during any rekindling of the faith, whether the offense was sexual, abuse of power or financial. That this cleansing is happening is a sign of expectant healing, not one of despair.
Recalling these seminaries to fidelity (or closing them) and culling the predators and those who were so woefully derelict in their solemn trust to protect the innocent began in earnest during the later years of John Paul II and continued through Benedict XVI. More is to be done. For those of us who remain, our hope and prayer is we live in the beginning of a true renewal. Today we are seeing a resurgence of strong, faithful, intelligent and committed young priests coming into some of our parishes. Spirited (and Spirit filled) revival and strong growth is taking place in Africa and the Pacific Islands. Those remaining in our churches, at least those that are alive and pulsing with life, are younger, full of love for each other and for the Church – a Gideon’s Army of rebirth. These are signs of great hope for Catholics everywhere.
“There are those who despair of finding any meaning in life: they commend the boldness of those who deny all significance to human existence in itself, and seek to impose a total meaning on it only from within themselves.
But in the face of the way in which the world is developing today there is an ever increasing number of people who are asking the most fundamental questions. Or are seeing them with a keener awareness: What is man? What is the meaning of pain, of evil, of death, which still persist in spite of such great progress? What is the use of those successes, achieved at such a cost? What can man contribute to society? What will come after this life on earth?”
From the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world of the Second Vatican Council