For Christians the season of Lent is a time for reflecting on and confronting the reality of trials. These are periods in our lives filled with anxiety, doubt, anger, helplessness, and even despair; they are a part of our human experience. And it is not surprising that the Scriptures shed enormous light on the matter, as they seem to do on all facets of life. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have never consciously encountered the sacred texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. There are certainly many people in that boat, and they are certainly not all non-Christians. But I must admit that if I was such a person and I opened that ancient library called the Bible for the first time, I would be overwhelmed by the preciseness with which the stories and the poems and the histories communicate the human experience. Christians will often stand up and proclaim with impregnable conviction the divine inspiration of those texts, as though they were miraculously sent from a distant world far superior to our own. But our real justification for insisting on their divine character is that they are profoundly human, in the sense that they tell the human story, which in the end (it turns out) is a divine story.
And so last Sunday we read about Jesus undergoing his own trials in the desert. The narrative is a testament to Jesus’ deep humanity, and in that way, his nearness to every person. It is always difficult to be more like Jesus, despite frequent and necessary pastoral reminders that it is our goal as Christians to do so. But in reading the account of Jesus’ temptation and the many others like it in the gospels, we have to conclude that Jesus was very much like us; he wore his humanity on his sleeve, so to speak. In that I find consolation, because it means I believe in a God who, like me and everyone else, has experienced life in the desert.
We often consider this account of Jesus’ temptation as something personal, in the sense that he endured his trials alone, and from there we naturally juxtapose this image with our own trying experiences. But as Christians and especially as Catholics we should never forget that we are a community, and in that regard we stand or fall together. It also means that we share in the trials of the Church, of which there are many. Last week I wrote a blog about Peter
, who we learn a great deal about in the New Testament, and by worldly standards is not a very solid foundation on which to build. But that is an indispensable value of the institutional Church to keep in mind, because, though we have been vindicated in this understanding by two thousand years of history, many people today (especially those in media and pop culture) ignore that history and in turn publicize the shortcomings of the hierarchy inciting the always popular and profitable level of shock value.
Now I do not blame any news network or columnist or blogger for exposing and/or commenting on shameful realities in the institutional Church: sexual abuse, financial corruption, internal power struggles, authoritarianism, etc. Although it rarely seems to occur to them that these are realities everywhere else too. It really does make the irony of that criticism distinctive; it would be, as Chesterton would say, like seeing a man in the heat of a moment of revolt vigorously sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. In any case, the idea of condemning something like the sexual abuse of children and its ensuing widespread cover-up is always justified. But no one can deny that when the Catholic Church does make the headlines, the story is infused with some degree of animosity. Perhaps it should be expected that when the only publicity you get is negative publicity, blanket hostility will inevitably follow.
And yet this tendency to expose and condemn the sins of the institutional Church by the media is really an inadvertent form of flattery. People may condemn practices in the financial sector which plunged us into a global recession – “But nothing will change.” People may criticize the political system for its dysfunction and corruption – “That’s just the way it is.” But when people attack and condemn the Church for its sins with such animosity and thoughtless conviction, while completely disregarding the obviously positive effects that institution has on the world – like being the most effective and efficient international charity, or the only member of the United Nations with an uncompromising agenda of justice and peace for all – they must really expect you to be better (in the sense of holier). It’s almost as if our society knows, in the depths of its being, that the Church will one day be the last beacon of sanity, balance, goodness and truth; and to see now what appears to be the beginnings of its internal demise (the sexual abuse crisis, the Vatileaks controversy, an out-of-touch hierarchy, an uninformed laity, etc.) suddenly evokes great cries of unreflective judgment.
It is not a matter of justice. If it were (and it should be), the headlines would more frequently read of the countless actions taken on a daily basis by those Catholics at every level of every society who work tirelessly for the betterment of this world in the name of the Gospel. They would read of the Pope’s unrelenting call for peace in the Middle East, and of the Church’s recommendations to ensure a global economic recovery will be fair and considerate of the most vulnerable in society. Then the news networks and columnists and bloggers would be justified in their condemnation of scandal and corruption within the Church. But as I said, for them it is not a matter of justice.
In concluding this brief survey of what seems to me an important matter at a time of great trial in the Church, a few words from the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich should suffice:
He said not, “thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased.” But he said, “thou shalt not be overcome.”