Renewal and the Remnant

Sabotage within and “missiles” from without: when it comes to the fortunes of the Church, it seems there is nothing new under the sun. Like our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, we live in a “mixed economy” and have to deal with the tension this brings. Our spiritual habitat is neither The Waste Land come to pass nor Utopia unending, but the scene of the gradual coming-to-be of God’s reign, “on earth as it is in heaven,” brought about by a King, crucified and risen.

In the early centuries, Christians contended with maniacal emperors and barbarian hordes. Later, the rise of militant Islam posed a dramatic threat to Christendom. In the Renaissance, the scheming of Machiavellian monarchs led to bloody wars and a splintered Church, spawning the Age of Revolution and the ideological battles of the Enlightenment, with its many offspring. Today’s threats to the Church are similar in many ways: a physical extermination of the once Christian communities of the Middle East, and “ideological colonization” in the countries of the West. And that’s not even mentioning the sabotage inside. Thomas Howard lists a selection of its manifestations: “worldliness, second-generation apathy, ossification, infidelity, loss of vision, loss of zeal, loss of discipline, jiggery-pokery, heresy…”1 In the first century or the twenty-first, the nitty gritty business of working out one’s salvation “in fear and trembling” isn’t a popular occupation!

New Epoch
If many of the Church’s problems are as old as Christianity, each generation also has its own particular set of challenges. For instance, the narrowing of discourse in post-modern Western society has made the conditions for transmitting the faith extremely difficult. Basic Christian doctrines are simply “lost in translation.” As evidenced by much of the media coverage of Pope Francis—particularly during his visit to the USA last Fall—people hear only what they want to hear; carefully pre-packaged soundbites filter out the parts of papal preaching that might displease the liberal palate. So the gaze of the masses falls instead on the spectacle of “ducks going barefoot,” while a crisis of civilization unfolds, unnoticed, in plain sight.

At the same time, on the ground, a wave of aggressive secularism has contributed to “an untold weakening” of the family as society’s most basic unit.2 Decades of social engineering have given way to the outright redefinition of reality—a new status quo that assumes the form of a “tyranny of tolerance,” which is utterly intolerant of dissent. But bereft of the “deep memory” of faith, and corralled by this shallow, rootless culture, which very few see beyond its false boundaries.3

It must be said that internal forces have also played a role in fueling the flight from faith. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., pinpointed these forces in his Pentecost Letter last year. Bad catechetics and a crisis of formation rendered people ill-equipped to handle the tsunami coming against them from outside. In the same breath, the clerical abuse scandals and an impoverished witness in recent decades, have had a devastating impact.

Summing up, the present predicament is a crisis of communication, formation, and witness. In the meantime, more and more Catholics are opting for various brands of spirituality without religion, while others drift into the no-man’s land of the “nones.” Among those who remain Catholic, each new Pew Poll reveals that confusion abounds in relation to the most basic teachings of the faith. If only we could jettison the uncomfortable bits, surely all would be well? Democratize the Church’s methods of governance—majority rule by popular vote— and then peace and harmony will descend. Change the “tough” stance on sexual morality, then people will flood back to Mass and the sacraments. Open up the priesthood to all sectors of society, then vocations will soar once again. These are some of the proposed “solutions” to the crisis. But perhaps we should be asking ourselves different questions—such as: do we really know who we are, or who God is, or our ultimate destination? Do we really understand what Catholicism has to offer? If the answer to these questions is “no” then it’s hardly surprising that missionary zeal has taken a nosedive, leaving few who are prepared to take the plunge and follow Christ, whatever the cost.

Strategies for Spiritual Recession
Faced with the symptoms of spiritual recession, what is the “remnant” to do?

1. Recognize the necessity of radical conversion and renewal:
(Down here, the Communion of Saints is a work in progress!) Experiencing the full reality of the “encounter with Christ” is a prerequisite for John Paul II’s “New Springtime” of the faith.4

2. Devise the best way of conveying the Church’s life-saving message to this generation, through a renewed formation:
Fifty years ago at the opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, Pope St. John XXIII framed it like this: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing; the way in which it is presented—keeping the same meaning and same judgment—is another”(emphasis added). (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, “Mother Church Rejoices”) The program hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years. Pope Benedict summarized it as: kerygma-martyria—proclaiming the Savior, through the witness of a holy life; leitourgia—the celebration of the sacraments; and diakonia –service to our brothers and sisters, in the ministry of love.5

3. The Power of Witness:
In the sixth century, Gregory the Great said that “the example of the faithful often transforms the hearts of listeners, more than a teacher’s words.” Paul VI advised that people will pay heed to witnesses more quickly than teachers, or to “teachers because they are witnesses.”6 In soundbite terms: “You have to live it, to give it.” The principal means of evangelization is the testimony of a life “given over to God … and one’s neighbor.”7 John Paul II repeated the point that the saints have been “the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.”8 Revivals of faith have often started with one man or woman of God who showed “with their flesh” that Jesus is alive, and that they have met him.9 In fact, in the New Testament, to witness to Christ in this way is “martyria.”

We could think of the luminous testimony of 19-year old Chiara “Luce” Badano of Focolare; the faith and courage of Irish teenager Donal Walsh, who challenged a nation to cherish life; of Italian couple Chiara and Enrico Petrillo, who lived the “Gospel of Love” in their marriage; or Iraqi priest, Fr. Ragheed Ganni, who gave the ultimate witness to faith in Christ and love of God’s people. I believe Paul VI was right, and that it’s primarily by means of such transparent testimony that the Gospel will come alive again for cradle Catholics.

Pope Francis insisted on this “prioritizing of witness” in his Angelus address on January 24, 2016. He spoke of the “hunger and thirst … in the world” for the Good News of a “God who converts hearts, heals the wounded, (and) transforms human and social relationships.” To proclaim this Gospel “with words, and even before that, with one’s life, is the principal end of the Christian community, and of each of its members,” he said.10

4. A Holy Realism:
No matter how effective the methods of evangelization, there are still no full-proof guarantees of success in worldly terms. The sower of the seed may be long gone to his eternal reward before the fruits of his labor emerge. (Some seeds have a very long germination!) And after all the labor, each person is still free to accept or reject Christ. This is the drama of human existence.

What Is at Stake
The stakes are high. Pope Francis is unequivocal about the threat to the faith, particularly with regards to its smallest unit, the church of the home. Addressing a packed Olympic stadium in Rome in June 2014, he spoke of “this time of crisis with which the devil wants to destroy (families)”. He explained that “families are the domestic church, where Jesus grows in the love of a married couple, in the lives of their children.” That is why “the devil doesn’t want (the family) and tries to destroy it. The devil tries to make love disappear…”11

Princeton Professor, Robert P. George, speaking about the moral confusion of our times, challenged an audience of Catholic movers and shakers to acknowledge that in Western society, “the days of socially acceptable Christianity are over, the days of comfortable Catholicism are past.” To proclaim the politically incorrect truths of the Gospel carries a heavy price tag.

The Gospel…is a Gospel of Life. And it is a Gospel of family life, too. And it is these integral dimensions of the Gospel that powerful cultural forces and currents today demand that we deny or suppress. … They threaten us with consequences if we refuse to call what is good evil, and what is evil good. They command us to conform our thinking to their orthodoxy, or else say nothing at all. … We are no longer acceptable.12

Discipleship comes with a cost, he said. To give public witness to the faith “is to make oneself a marked man or woman”. Challenge the secular imperialism, and you risk “opprobrium or the loss of professional opportunities or social standing.”13

The Little Flock
For the time being, to live and teach the fullness of Christian identity could leave the Church in a position predicted many years ago by Joseph Ratzinger. He spoke of a numerically reduced Church, akin to the anawim or “poor of Israel.”14 In salvation history, this “saving remnant” is frail and few but, nonetheless, they “represent the entire nation and (lead) it to its fulfillment.”15 Ultimately, it is through the witness of such “little ones” that salvation comes in the unlikely form of the Carpenter from Nazareth, himself a “sign of contradiction” and a stumbling block to the worldly wise.

In each generation, the remnant (joined to the Redeemer) are called to take up again the task of personal and cultural transformation. The purpose is not to form a kind of holy huddle, bunkering down until trouble has passed, but rather through the witness of a communal life of faith, hope, and self-sacrificing love, which will act as a leaven, a missionary force that will allow others to encounter the Living God.16 This is the tiny grain that falls to the ground and bears much fruit (Jn 12:24); the herald of that “Springtime of which all springtimes speak… the Love which is joy and beauty, and which (we) have sought in a thousand streets…”17

  1. Thomas Howard, “Letter to my Brother: A Convert Defends Catholicism,” Crisis, December 1991.
  2. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, “Being Catholic Today. Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge” Pastoral Letter, Pentecost 2015, Archdiocese of Washington.
  3. See Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), encyclical letter of Pope Francis, art. 25.
  4. In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, his Apostolic Letter for the Jubilee 2000, Pope John Paul II predicted a “new Springtime of Christian life” if “Christians are docile to the action of the Holy Spirit” (art. 18).
  5. See Pope Benedict’s treatment of this threefold responsibility of the Church in his encyclical letter, Deus caritas est (God is love), art. 25a.
  6. Pope Paul VI, Address to the Members of the Consilium de Laicis, October 2, 1974: AAS 66, p. 568; cited in his encyclical letter, Evangelii nuntiandi, art. 41.
  7. Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, art. 41.
  8. John Paul II, Christefidelis laici art. 16, 3.
  9. See Pope Francis, Meeting with Consecrated Youth, September 17, 2015.
  10. “Pope at Angelus: Do we have our priorities straight?” January 24, 2016,
  11. Pope Francis, Address to participants in the 37th National Convocation of the Renewal in the Holy Spirit, June 1, 2014.
  12. “Ashamed of the Gospel?” Robert P. George, National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, May 15, 2014.
  13. Robert George, National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, 2014.
  14. See God and the World: Believing and Living in our Time, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Peter Seewald, (Ignatius Press, 2003).
  15. J. de Fraine, Adam and the Family of Man (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1965) p. 27.
  16. This is the kind of witness to which Scottish philosopher, Alisdair McIntyre, refers in After Virtue, and which has gained traction recently with authors like Rod Dreher. It is the testimony offered by grassroots communities who live out their Christian identity, and offer hope in the midst of a new “Dark Ages.”
  17. Thomas Howard, Christ the Tiger (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), p. 151.
Maria O'Shea About Maria O'Shea

Maria O'Shea is a married mother of two who lives in Ireland. She holds an MA in Marriage and Family Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, and is a tutor on the Marriage and Family pathway of the MA in Catholic Applied Theology at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, U.K.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    How come there is no mention of God’s Mercy in this article? Every day, Francis, Bishop of Rome, calls us to call God by name, Mercy. People respond to mercy with conversion, to law with fear.

    • Avatar J. E. Sigler says:

      Because that’s not what the article is about. Just because Pope Francis talks a lot about mercy doesn’t mean every single Catholic conversation has to be about mercy.

  2. Avatar Maria O'Shea says:

    Thank you for your comments.
    The point of this particular article was to present some spiritual strategies for Catholics who feel panicked about the present troubles of the Church, and can fall into a ‘Them-and-us’ mentality when it comes to the need for conversion and renewal.
    The call to conversion, of course, is for everyone. It’s the call to encounter the Living God, in other words, to “experience mercy”, in the person of the Beloved Son, whose Cross and Resurrection fully reveal the God ‘who is love’. Jesus Christ is “the face of the Father’s mercy” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae vultus, art 1).
    The Pope makes it clear that there is no contradiction between truth and mercy. The ‘law’ of the Gospel is the ‘law’ of Crucified Love, of “mercy made flesh” (MV 24).
    Thus, the first step in conversion is to encounter this “God who converts hearts, heals the wounded, and transforms…relationships” (see above). This experience gives us the responsibility to become, in our turn, “a living sign of the Father’s love in the world” (MV 4). That’s the hard part! Hence the importance of authentic witness.
    You will find the key points re. conversion, encounter, witness, in Misericordiae vultus (Face of Mercy), and in John Paul II’s encyclical, Rich in Mercy (especially art. 7 & 8). Both pontiffs share a sense of urgency regarding the message of Merciful Love in our time.

  3. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Mercy is preceded by repentance, a firm purpose of amendment, and acknowledgement of your sinfulness. You can’t get to the end without starting at the beginning. Even Frances knows that although he doesn’t publicly acknowledge it. The God of the Old Testament is also the God of the New Testament — unchanging. His Justice precedes His Mercy. Those who preach Mercy first are false preachers.

    • Well no, it’s not true that ‘all mercy is preceded by repentance’. Jesus forgave everyone of us from the Cross and in selfless mercy died for us, long before any of us was around to repent.

    • Avatar Maria O'Shea says:

      I think you will find that the necessity of repentance from sin is a frequent theme of Pope Francis, hand-in-hand with the message of divine mercy. It is prominent, especially, in his fevorini or daily meditations on the liturgical readings. Here are just a few references, starting this month.
      In his Message for Lent 2016, the Pope said that the “poorest” are those who are “slaves to sin…” He also said that “The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated.  By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in those who suffer, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need.”
      December 16, 2014: “All of us, we are sinners. Every one of us is well aware of our list of sins… (W)hen we are able to say: “Lord, these are my sins, they aren’t this man’s or that woman’s…. They’re mine. You take them. This way I’ll be saved”. When we are able to do this, then we will be that beautiful people — ‘the humble and poor people’ — who trust in the name of the Lord.”
      March 17, 2014: “…to become merciful, we must first acknowledge that we have done many things wrong: we are sinners! We need to know how to say: Lord, I am ashamed of what I have done in life”. […] “…with this attitude of repentance we will be more capable of being merciful, because we will feel God’s mercy for us”.
      There are many more references of a similar kind.

    • Isn’t the issue of which comes first, justice or mercy, the wrong question? It seems to me that both justice and mercy are “boundaries” that help guide a poor soul along the path to life. The soul needs to know truth, in order for “justice” to be a relevant guide for him. But so many men today, in this dark and darkening world, have a moral compass so confused and weakened as to be almost useless. So what good is it to preach law to them?
      And on the other hand, the soul needs to know guilt, and remorse, and hunger, for “mercy” to be a relevant guide and help to him. But again, with consciences so seared and muted by years of inattention, what does “mercy” mean? Without a sense of guilt, mercy is meaningless.

      Our culture is so impoverished, so many Catholics are so impoverished, that I believe a return to the beginning is needed – a return that would, I suspect, drive many cafeteria Catholics right out of the Church – probably indignant that a priest would “preach at them like that!” We need to meet Christ! We need to see and to hear Truth! We need to have our “religion” turned on its head and emptied – maybe – of all but Him and His Holy Spirit. Maybe then we can find out who we are, and who we are called to be, and how to grow toward that, in Him and with one another.

  4. those are beautiful passages from the Holy Father & I’m sure there are many more! Of course we the sooner we repent, the better but we’re not allowed to make our forgiveness contingent on the repentance of another person. Of course our rich Catholic history is replete with examples of this from the ancient martyrs down to our current time. John Paul II & the man who shot him as well as Fr. Christian who was killed in Algeria in 1996 both forgave their killers prior to receiving an apology from them.
    But the example that makes me the happiest is the thought of how joyfully St. Stephan & St. Paul are living together in heaven right now. Stephen simply followed Jesus’ example at his death & then was waiting to greet Paul, who was sure he was doing the right thing during the stoning, when he crossed the threshold into eternity.
    In his letter to his killer, Fr. Christian said he hoped they could both be ‘happy thieves’ for eternity &, in the end, that’s what we all will be, hopefully.

  5. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Beautiful thoughts, but our forgiveness of another for a sin against us does not equal forgiveness of them for the sin they committed. They must acknowledge the sin, repent and seek forgiveness from God , or through a priest in the case of serious sin.
    The quotes from Francis’ meditations appear to address recognition and acknowledgement but I don’t see any reference to repentance or forgiveness. Most protestant traditions believe that since Christ already died for our sins that there is no need for additional ‘forgiveness’ just ‘recognition’ and ‘acknowledgement’. That is why they reject Confession to a priest.
    Preaching just Mercy is like preaching just ‘Love and Compassion’. Without a clear indication of what is meant it is very shallow and will result in personal interpretations that can lead to serious error. An example is just preaching the Two Great Commandments — to Love God and neighbor without the clarification that the fulfillment of these is in the Ten Commandments.

  6. You know, what a sinner must acknowledge before God is between him & God. Yes, I have to call a spade a spade & so acknowledge that sin is sin. I don’t do myself or anyone else a favor by trying to paper over the mold. After that, it’s simply up to me to decide to forgive & be merciful. Period.

    The examples Jesus gave of this are too numerous to recount. John Chap 4 & 8 come to mind. As well as the woman at Simon’s house & the Good Thief. It was the Lord’s Mercy, not his condemnation,that provoked their repentance. He was also pretty clear about the fact that the measure we use to measure others with is the same measure that’ll be used to measure ourselves.

  7. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Mercy is a reflection of love. Where there is love there is no need for ‘forgiveness’ as offence is not taken for the sin. Rather there is an intense desire that the ‘sinner’ recognize his sin, understand it as a rejection of love (truth), repent of his action and restore the broken love relationship. This can only be done by the ‘sinner’. Mercy has nothing to do with measurement or forgiveness on the part of someone sinned against. Condemnation, measuring, judgment, even ‘forgiveness’ are not ours to give or withhold. These belong to God.
    If we feel the need to ‘forgive’ someone who has sinned against us then we are just acknowledging that we have allowed our love of another to be fractured and are expressing our repentance for that.
    Mercy is the environment of love that God created us to live within. Due to Original Sin we are fallen creatures and unable to do it perfectly. We are therefore, most likely, facing a period of purification (Purgatory) before we are able to live in perfect love (Mercy) and achieve salvation.
    When Francis calls us to live in ‘Mercy’ he is calling us to live in this state of love that is expressed in the Two Great Commandments – Love of God and neighbor. When we fail, the remedy is acknowledgement, repentance, confession if needed and reconciliation with whoever we sinned against if appropriate.
    For a Biblical reference see Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, v 1 to 13.