Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Passion and Springtime of the Church

There's a remarkably widespread opinion amongst prominent Churchmen that the Church is entering a passion.  Just as Christ took on his passion as he walked among us, so must the Church--his mystical body--undergo her passions as she journeys through the centuries.  Christ endured rejection, abandonment and terrible wounds, and so must the Church.

This gloomy consensus seems to cut across generations and even theological differences.  Karl Rahner SJ, a giant of the Second Vatican Council and favorite amongst progressives, opined that in the future the church would only be composed of mystics.  Fr. John Hardon SJ, a tradition-minded theologian, said that only the very humble or very chaste would remain faithful.  In 1969, Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) offered some hopeful, poetic words even amidst a post-Christian future.  He predicted that after a falling-away, the world "will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new."  The whole passage is worth reading here.  One industrious author has even assembled the apocalyptic warnings of the popes from the past two-hundred years.  It's a meticulously documented though tiring book: Heralds of the Second Coming.  Some might object that two hundred years sounds like an awful slow warning, but apostasies are often slow motion events; that is, until they're not.  Spiritual bankruptcy is a lot like Hemingway's description of financial bankruptcy: it "happens in two ways: gradually then suddenly."  In Quebec, Canada, it is said that most of the province ceased going to mass over the course of a few months in 1966.  Obviously the Devil had been laying his groundwork long before that.

About eighteen months before God invited me to take up the apostolate, I had a supernatural experience of the passion of the Church.  It was an event that at first seemed apocalyptic, and later full of omens and portents.  As I've grown deeper in the faith, I now view the experience as an invitation and a sober warning rather than a glimpse of the End Times.  It happened on Monday of Holy Week, April 2, 2012, while I was driving home from a hike in the Columbia River Gorge.  I had just laid down my rosary beads to focus on the drive home when there was a sudden change in the skyline: there was a massive new celestial body in the sky.  I was startled and thought Christ had come, "like a thief in the night", to finally reconcile all things to himself.  But I remembered that the signs of the End Times had not been fulfilled, and then I noticed that the other drivers did not see the celestial body.  I calmed myself and watched: it was a bright disc that seemed like a second sun.  It was the identical size and shape as the sun, and was directly across from the sun in the sky, on the same geometric plane.

Then the second sun began to move across the sky at a deliberate pace.  As I watched the second sun, I saw that it wasn't like the real sun, but seemed an imitation, or worse, a counterfeit.  Whereas the true sun gave forth its warm, radiant yellow light, the second sun was a cool silver, shining and yet sterile and cold.  Then I realized that the second sun was moving across the sky to cover the true sun, and its movement took on a quietly ominous movement.  As it approached closer and closer--seemingly inevitable and unstoppable--the true sun seemed not to notice.  Perhaps the true sun was too regal to recognize its rival, or was resigned and at peace at the approaching counterfeit.  When the second sun finally reached the true sun, there were no fireworks or spectacles: the true sun serenely absorbed the counterfeit sun and it was gone in an instant.

Two days later, Wednesday of Holy Week, Christ asked, "Won't you share my passion?"  My spiritual director and I shared the same interpretation of the experiences.  The sun is an icon of Christ.  The second or counterfeit sun, is the spirit of anti-Christ, a false gospel that many mistake for the true Gospel, and which is ascendant in vast swaths of the world.  It's an anti-gospel of scientism, materialism, individualism, sexual liberation, idle entertainment, and the glory of man at the expense of the cross and the love of God.  As men increasingly prefer the anti-gospel to the Gospel, the Church will be abandoned and betrayed.  The cheering crowds from Palm Sunday will scatter, the apostles will hide and dissemble, and there is always Judas.

The Church, the new Israel, has undergone many passions over the millennia, just as the old Israel did  before Christ's coming.  Some saints and spiritual writers have said that every generation has its passion, though some passions are clearly worse than others.  A week or so after his passion, Christ appeared to the apostles and calmly spoke, "Peace be with you."  Then he said it again, because he knows we are poor listeners, "Peace be with you."  Christ, the true sun, is always at peace even as the false suns move across the sky.  The false suns always seem confident of victory; their triumph appears unimpeded and sure, and yet they are effortlessly swallowed up by the true sun.

The Springtime

In every passion there is a Springtime, those moments of resurrection and new life.  St. John Paul II famously predicted a "new springtime" for the Church, but he also famously declared in 1978 that we have entered "the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel".  So how do we square these two prophecies?  In the mind of the Church there is no contradiction.  The history of our faith is ancient and sure, and we mustn't think as the world thinks.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has always been most fecund in times of crisis--just as our Lord's greatest triumph came with his bloodshed.  Thus, the Church has always had a maxim, articulated by Tertullian, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church".  Sometimes the martyrdom runs red with blood as we now see in parts of Africa, the Middle East and even Asia, and sometimes it is the "white" martyrdom of willingly losing most of what you hold dear.

Even if we're not called to red or white martyrdom, new life will spring from our faith and sacrifices.  He is asking us to overcome ourselves with grace, and share in the sufferings to come.  If we share in his passion, then the Church will enjoy a resurrection, a new springtime.

Three weeks ago my wife gave birth to a baby boy, Gabriel Kristoff.  My wife remained open to life even after two straight miscarriages, and the challenges that come with childbirth in your 40s. That's faith and a sign of Spring.

In another sign of Spring, Daniel O'Connor, a young man from Albany, New York has been evangelizing the streets in his Sunday best and a giant Divine Mercy button.  He has invited others to join him here.  I noticed that Daniel has a similar take on the "signs of the times" even as he sets out to evangelize.  My next post will be a meditation on this seeming paradox: Christ invites us to follow him even as he signals that the tide is coming in against us.

Finally, a few weeks back I sent Josh his tunic to evangelize in Louisville.  He had only been wearing an old sweatshirt with the Jesus Caritas heart.  Now he's eager for Spring to melt the snow so he can resume walking the streets.  Springtime is coming, and the Lord comes with it.

Josh's wool tunic is several shades darker than mine