In the weeks since Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI announced his resignation I’ve heard that the Church is in the midst of an identity crisis and that the new Holy Father would need to work hard to bring the Church up to speed with the modern world. In case you’re not clear as to what constitutes an identity crisis, it’s defined as: a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.
Uncertain. . . confused . . . insecure about one’s role in society.
It would be so much easier for the world, wouldn’t it, if there really were an identity crisis, so much easier to see the Church as a toppling medieval edifice, beaten down by the blast holes of scandal and internal conflicts, visibly weakened and unable to withstand the pressures of a new world order which demands the right to live outside her shadow, indeed which often seems to suggest that perhaps it would be better for everyone if she simply ceased to exist at all.
Remembering Who’s in Charge
Without Christ, the Church can do nothing. This has been shown time and again, all too painfully, in recent years and throughout her history. However, the opposite is also true — firm rootedness in Christ in the very midst of great weakness and turmoil leads to great strength. This paradox is impossible for a secular world to understand, but it is this foundational paradox which has been illustrated so beautifully and brilliantly in recent weeks by the extreme humility of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and our new Holy Father, Pope Francis.
In his final Wednesday audience after announcing his resignation of the papacy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI echoed a sentiment that has perhaps been echoed in the hearts of all of the faithful in recent years. Benedict said that during his papacy he often felt like one of the apostles in the boat with Jesus during the great storm on the Sea of Galilee: “The Lord has given us so many days of sun and light wind, days in which the catch was abundant; there have also been moments when the waters were agitated, and the wind blew contrary, as in all of the history of the Church, and the Lord appeared to be sleeping . . . But I have always known that in that boat there was the Lord and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine; it is not ours; but it is his [Christ’s]. And he does not let it sink. It is him who steers its, certainly also through the men he has chosen, because he has wanted it this way.”
When Christ told St. Peter that he would be the rock on whom he would build his church, he also said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. That includes the hell of our own weakness and sinfulness, as well as the the malice and hostility of statesmen, ideologies, and other entities that would seek to destroy her. Christ, and not men, control the Church. His presence is never absent, despite the obstacles our human weakness raises to His attempts to steer.
Weakness + Purification = Humility > STRENGTH
Contrary to the what the world defines as strong, useful and worthy of respect, the Church finds her strength in an acknowledgement of her weakness, her brokenness. These things lead to the necessary acceptance and admittance of the truth that those entrusted with her care and keeping — in effect, all of the faithful — are but weak, sinful, and fragile vessels capable of doing great damage when they seek success and progress apart from fidelity to Christ. In spite of this truth, or perhaps even in some way because of it, the Church stands. We, the faithful, participate in the life of the Church in some sense to the extent that we live with a deepening awareness of this truth and bind ourselves more and more strongly to Christ. To the extent that the faithful work towards living a deeper humility is the extent to which the Church is strong. Her strength is made perfect in our weakness. Its when we forget this that the threat of what the secular world terms an “identity crisis” might loom, when we forget that we are fragile vessels, desperately in need of God’s grace and help, when we think we can do it our way and do it alone.
Catholics believe in the purification that comes through confession, through open acknowledgment of sin in the sacrament of penance. The Church is being purified, no doubt about it. And this purification must go on in each of the faithful, continually, through ever deeper examination and admission of the ways in which each individual obstructs the work of God’s grace in the world and the ways in which we each turn away in infidelity. This ongoing process of purification does not mean the Church is weakening or no longer knows who or what she is. A diamond in the rough is quite ugly and is a diamond in its essence regardless of what it looks like on the outside. When refined and cut deeply and polished roughly by the master jeweler, the ugly rock takes on a lustre unknown and becomes what it was always meant to be, its essence revealed. The Church, and the faithful who comprise it, is just such a diamond. Its essence is total lustrousness, pure beauty, and absolute truth, but our human sin and weakness can block God’s work in crafting it. Sin and the admission of it opens the door for God to get in and do some intensive work on the facets that will lend even more brilliance over time. The Church has no identity crisis – we know it to be a diamond in the rough, striving for perfection in the hands of the One who is all perfection, all truth, and all beauty.
As Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” The truth is, the Church exists and is strong and vital. The truth is the Church is being purified and refined through just discipline that will clarify and beautify her in her essence. The truth is we have a Pope and he has set an example of humility which, while it is early to speculate, seems one he intends to be a signature focus of his papacy. The truth is that Pope Francis has already declared the path he intends to follow as he leads the Church and shepherds his flock. It is the same path his namesake, St. Francis, walked hundreds of years ago in his faithful effort to rebuild a Church weakened by sin. In his letter for Lent written prior to his election to the papacy, Pope Francis wrote:
“Lent is presented us as a shout of truth and certain hope that comes us to say ‘Yes, it is possible to not slap on makeup, and not draw plastic smiles as if nothing happened.’ Yes, it is possible that all is made new and different because God remains ‘rich in kindness and mercy, always willing to forgive’ and He encourages us to begin anew time and again.”
The path of humility, of walking humbly with God, can only lead to the Cross, which leads surely to Christ, and so also to true strength and greatness. Pope Francis shows the world that the Church is completely certain, clear, and confidant in her identity. Viva il Papa! Viva il Chiesa!
Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square after his election. — Photo credit: Associated Press