The reality of love in the midst of evil – beyond optimism and pessimism
In the pilgrim Church on earth, “life together” is in crisis. We can look at the lack of obedience to pastors as well as the frequent abuse of hierarchical position and authority; poor catechesis and sectarian seductions; tawdry liturgy and shabby theology; scant vocations and closing churches; sexual confusion and perversion; suffocating secularism. All of these problems (and more) have a definite social face: they are not problems of isolated laymen or clerics, but concern the entire body of the faithful, spread throughout the world. Many Catholics nowadays are feeling tempted to bewilderment, discouragement, inaction, despair.
Nevertheless, we must resist these temptations with all our might, as they merely play into the hands of the enemy of mankind, who seeks nothing more than our disqualification from the race of holiness and our disarming in the fight for truth. In permitting this crisis, Our Lord is teaching us a hard lesson about the need for unconditional trust in His Providence and for a closer intimacy with Him than ever.
It is crucial to get beyond the facile opposition of optimism (“Things are rocky, to be sure, but basically fine”) and pessimism (“The Church is being torn apart before our very eyes and there’s nothing we can do to stop it”) and to win through to the Gospel perspective gained by meditating on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. The Church has always been and will always be living again the life of her Lord, not merely once and in one small part of the world, as He lived His life, but many times, in as many places as the seed of the Gospel is planted. For her, as for Him, some ages will be predominantly ages of obscurity and poverty; others, of betrayal, agony, and death; still others, of resurrection, triumph, glory. And these experiences of advance, decline, and new birth or breakthrough will be mixed together—in individual hearts, and within communities, families, parishes, dioceses.
Consider Joseph Ratzinger’s remarks in Salt of the Earth:
Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world—that let God in.
“Small, seemingly insignificant groups”—doesn’t that sound like us? It is the story of David and Goliath on a cosmic scale. Ratzinger says in the same interview that Christianity has always had and will continue to have the task of “forming places of survival for mankind.” A poignant thought: places of survival for mankind—and beyond that, places of revival and rediscovery, of rejuvenation and resurrection. In Ratzinger’s realistic view, while we no longer find many Christian societies left in the world today, we do find scattered seeds of faith and hope, potent seeds that quietly take root wherever they are carried by the wind of the Spirit, and have the hardiness to survive in hostile conditions. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).
We are not alone, though we may often feel quite alone, even abandoned. In this as in everything, Jesus is our model, our shepherd, and our consolation. He was the solitary grain of wheat that had to die, if His immaculate Bride was to be born from His pierced Heart. We enter into His loneliness just as we enter into His communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit. His invincible love, which ever embodies itself in the Church and her life, is the guarantee of our ultimate victory. “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
What does the modern world find it most difficult to believe in? One could say God, or Jesus Christ, or the Church; but perhaps, more fundamentally, our contemporaries are tempted to doubt the very possibility of true interpersonal love, unselfish, ungrasping, open-handed, loyal—the reality of a true community that welcomes each of its members for the persons they are, while challenging them to become the persons God intends them to be. When people are accustomed to viewing relationships as commercial transactions, instinctual tangles, or implicit rivalries of power, they easily grow jaded about “love.” Nothing, or very little, in their range of experience has borne convincing witness to goods worth living for, worth dying for. The very notion of a “common good” has drifted far away, into a realm of unattainable ideals. Above all, they have not seen the beauty of a life, the beauty of many lives, working and resting in harmony, devoted to the supreme and unqualified common good, the ever-blessed Trinity. That is a witness we can always and everywhere give in the world, just by being faithful in the peace-loving and peace-making work entrusted to us, “loving the brethren” whom God has given us—the spouse or children or relatives or friends God has placed in our lives, to be welcomed as Christ.
In this sense, when it comes to community life, we have much to learn from the great religious founders. We can, for example, learn from Saint Benedict the lessons of warm hospitality, mutual upbuilding, and, above all, persevering communal prayer, that tremendous symbol of the passionate love that unites the Church to her divine Bridegroom.
Yes, God is already in all things by His presence, essence, and power, as Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches; but He wants most of all to be present in souls by the gift of His grace, by the mysterious indwelling of the divine Persons. We are the preachers of this presence: Emmanuel, “God with us.” When Jesus walked on the earth, power went forth from Him to destroy the devil’s works and to draw souls into divine friendship. The same Lord dwells among us until the end of time, in His Mystical Body, in His Eucharistic Body, in the good works His Spirit inspires in us. He is always seeking out the many, the scattered, and striving to make them one, gathered together in His name—for their happiness, for His glory. Let us hold fast to Him, that His grace and truth may find a home in us and a ready channel into the world.