So many in Western culture seem to have concluded that the Church has very little to offer, and, thus they have given up on the faith of the mothers and fathers. They seem to have bought into the popular idea that religion, and especially Catholicism, is about “pie in the sky when you die”, after the hereafter, rather than about the here and now. For many, the Church seems to be only about abstract doctrines and challenging moral teachings that seem impossible to attain and sometimes even cruel.
I wish that everyone could have the experience of living and praying among the Romans for a few weeks, of visiting the ancient basilicas and sacred sites, of seeing the way in which the presence of the pope brings Catholics of so many different languages and cultures together in a common experience of their shared humanity, of their shared dignity as daughters and sons of God.
Considered purely from a sociological level, the Church is “human, all too human”. Her humanity and frailty is evident throughout her history, and from the very beginning, with the weakness of Peter, the dissension and squabbling among the first disciples, the tensions over admitting gentiles into the Church, etc. etc. etc. And that frailty is evident down to our present day, in the clergy sex abuse scandals, in the insensitivity that we sometimes manifest toward young people, to women, and to gay and lesbian people, and in our occasional preoccupation with the trivial, with power and privilege and status.
And yet, we Catholics stubbornly persist in our faith that the Church is more than merely its human dimension. As Pope Paul VI of happy memory said at the opening of the second session of the Second Vatican Council, the Church is a “a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God”. A reality that is, like Jesus himself, both human and divine. To borrow an image from the apostle Paul, the Church is an “earthen vessel” which holds a treasure, the very presence of God. We Catholics believe that God’s grace can accomplish “infinitely more than we ask or even imagine”, that it can work through our brokenness, our fragility, our sinfulness.
This week was such a rich one: visits to the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, one of the first built after Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD, and to Basilica of Saint Clement, the leader of one of the early house Churches and the fourth bishop of Rome, an audience with the Holy Father at which the students got to sing for Benedict XVI, a visit to the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian, a visit to the Basilica of Saint Agnes to participate in the annual Blessing of the Lambs, and finally our day trip to Assisi, the land of Francis and Clare. In addition, we heard from young American seminarians studying at the North American College, and from Monsignor Tony Frontiero, a staff member at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. It was a wonderful week of deep immersion in the rich, complex, and deeply fascinating culture that is Catholicism.
The high point for me was, perhaps, the beautiful and simple blessing of the lambs at Santa Agnese. This beautiful basilica is a parish church frequented by Catholics young and old, married couples, families, Catholic nuns, single people, etc. The two little lambs, radiantly white, lay in the basket at the entrance of the Church, where one and all could come by and admire and take photos with them and, yes, even pet them. Then, at the liturgy, they are processed into the Church and blessed before being taken over to the Vatican for a blessing by the Holy Father.
Agnes, virgin and martyr of the early fourth century. A young girl who met a horrible death because of her love for Christ. And yet she is still being remembered year after year, her story is still being told, and her prayers are still being sought, all these many centuries later. Why should her story, of all stories, be important to anyone today? What did she accomplish that makes her worthy of such a legacy? She gave birth to no famous children. She wrote no books. She built no buildings. She led no armies. She was sovereign over no country. The answer, quite simply, is love.
The Mass—held on a Friday morning of an ordinary workweek in Rome—was packed with people. The liturgy was so simple, so non-pretentious, so utterly lacking in self-consciousness. The people prayed and sang and experienced a mystical sense of unity, among themselves and with God. And all of this could happen in spite of the limitations of our human condition: our brokenness, our fragility, our cruelty, our stupidity. In reaching out to one another and to God we were able, for a moment, to transcend our limitations and to experience the “something more” that is at the core of what it means to be human.
As human, we are a comingling of light and shadow. We are, simultaneously, saints and sinners, capable of choosing good and of choosing evil. This is as true of every member of the Church as it is of any human being. If we Catholics have an “edge”, it is the support of our faith tradition, stretching back to the time of Jesus, with a great cloud of witnesses, the saints, urging us on by the example they set while they were on earth, and by the prayers they say on our behalf from their place in heaven. It is a tradition that encircles the globe today, so that we need not look far to find men and women who are making choices to live out their faith in radical ways, in highly diverse cultures and contexts. So, even as the evidence of sinfulness is undoubtedly there, so is the witness of sanctity.
As Catholics, we believe that we are the body of the Christ, with Christ as our head. With his grace, it is possible to reach beyond our brokenness, to move toward wholeness, to move toward holiness. It is possible to choose “our best selves”. The Catholic Church is truly “an expert in humanity”: compassionate toward our human frailty, and yet always encouraging us, each time we fall, to rise again, to seek God’s mercy, and to continue on our journey. Our faith beckons us forward, inspiring and encouraging us to keep reaching for the divine, to aspire to realize ever more fully what, in some nascent sense, we already are: the “imago dei” and the mystical body of Christ.