Reform Requires Holiness of All the Faithful

The wounds of the Church’s sex-abuse scandals have been reopened by the revelations of abuse by Cardinal McCarrick, the former Washington D.C. archbishop; by the Chilean scandal, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and more recently perhaps a cover-up of McCarrick’s misdeeds by Pope Francis as alleged by the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Many persons are again questioning the credibility and relevance of a Church which allows such abuse to occur and remain concealed. Others wonder whether there is anything they can do to stop the covering up of abuse and restore trust in Christ’s Church so that it can effectively carry out its mission of salvation.

The average Catholic is not in a position to directly intervene in the crisis. However, there are two ways in which every Catholic can have an impact on the crisis. First, Pope Francis, in his letter addressing the Pennsylvania grand jury report, urged each Catholic to offer prayers and fasting as reparation for the grievous sins of our brothers. It might be asked why lay Catholics must make reparation for the sins of wayward priests and bishops. A simple analogy may provide the answer. When the captain or a crew member of a ship fails in a task crucial to the ship’s stability, the remaining ship’s travelers must pick up the slack. All Catholics — lay, consecrated, or with orders — are traveling together in the same boat that is the Church. So, when one person endangers the Barque of Peter, our Church, by committing grave sin and fails to repent, it falls to the rest of the Church to right the ship through prayer and fasting. This need to pray for the evil perpetrated by others is not confined to situations where Church leaders have blundered. We must recognize that we are all sinners who continuously need the prayers and sacrifices of our fellow Catholics.

However, there is a second and more fundamental way in which every Catholic can contribute to a reform of the Church. In the past when the Church was blighted by scandal, God raised up saints who helped reform the Church. Such reform did not merely effectuate bureaucratic remedies. Reform was of a more essential nature, calling the Church to conversion and holiness. Such times challenge each of us to become those saints, to live the call to holiness which the Second Vatican Council reminded us is the vocation of all Catholics.

So, in the divine plan, it may have been no accident that Pope Francis earlier this year issued a document, Gaudete et Exsultate,1 which again calls to holiness Catholics of all backgrounds and walks of life. The document provides a rich exposition of the path to sanctification which he hoped would enable “the whole Church to devote herself anew to promoting the desire for holiness.” Echoing the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium, Pope Francis instructs that every Christian is called to be perfect as the Father is perfect. Each Christian has a particular “mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.” So each Christian’s path to holiness lies in “living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.”

It is in being faithful to that mission that each Catholic can contribute to the needed reform. Each person’s effort at holiness contributes to the Church’s communal growth in holiness. Additionally, every Catholic, whether one knows it or not, represents the Church. Consciously or not, anyone who encounters a person whom he or she knows to be a Catholic assesses what Catholicism is by the way that professed Catholic acts. We have to become the attractive face of Catholicism which restores the marred face presented by what involved primarily homosexual acts by priests and the cover-up or inaction by bishops. If the Catholic faithful want priests and bishops to be holy, we have to demand it by striving ourselves for holiness.

This is no easy task. A true desire for holiness is not a vague thought of wanting to be good. It demands a commitment to live as Christ has lived, to acquire the mind of Christ so that in every action we think and act with the mind of Christ. Indeed, as St. Josemaria Escriva often preached, we have to become other Christs. As Pope Francis instructs, the Christian cannot inflame others’ hearts unless he or she is first set on fire by Christ’s love. Therefore, this effort cannot be half-hearted. It has to be purposeful and involve hard work and determination.

When we encounter Christ in the Gospels, we realize that Christ’s will was always to do what the Father willed. Hence, He spent long nights in prayer and was constantly in communion with His Father. So, we too have to do the same. This means Christ’s followers must spend silent time with Him and meet Him in Scripture, which

leads us to the Eucharist, where the written word attains its greatest efficacy, for there the living Word is truly present. In the Eucharist, the one true God receives the greatest worship the world can give him, for it is Christ himself who is offered. When we receive him in Holy Communion, we renew our covenant with him and allow him to carry out ever more fully his work of transforming our lives.

We cannot show up at Mass on Sundays as if we are merely fulfilling an obligation, and perhaps complain about the music, the lack of people singing, people walking in late, or the poor homily. We must immerse ourselves in the sacrifice which the Son is offering to the Father, which transcends all of these concerns. Sacred music or an inspiring homily can and should enhance our experience, but the real action is on the altar where Christ becomes truly present, humbling Himself by being reduced to the apparent confines of bread and wine, and re-presenting His sacrificial death on the Cross.

The Holy Father instructs that

at its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him.

Accordingly, we seek to join to His sacrifice all that we are, as well as our cares and concerns about family, job, health, the Church, our culture, and our country. Having experienced this true mystery, we may want to daily seek its edifying effect on us, and may feel that our day is incomplete without participating in the celebration of the Mass.

Pope Francis also urges that, in addition to participating in the Eucharist, there must be silent time “alone with God.”

In that silence, we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us. Otherwise, any decisions we make may only be window-dressing that, rather than exalting the Gospel in our lives, will mask or submerge it. For each disciple, it is essential to spend time with the Master, to listen to his words, and to learn from him always. Unless we listen, all our words will be nothing but useless chatter.

He insists that this need is “not only for the privileged few, but for all of us.”

However, he notes, silence with God often escapes us because of an endless rat race, fear of facing what such contemplation may reveal, or believing that our spare time is meant to be spent solely on “ephemeral pleasures.” Such obstacles must be overcome with

a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.

Finding the time daily for silent prayer and perhaps Mass does require a determination of what is primarily important, and concomitant thought about how we can schedule our day to include this time. However, as the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way.

As much as it is necessary to want to achieve holiness, it is a lifetime effort. We won’t be able to undertake all of the spiritual recommendations all at once. It may take time. Holiness, the Pope reminds us, is often achieved in small steps.

Pope Francis exhorts that prayer must also lead to concern for others since the fruit of true prayer is love. This fruit is manifested by living the Beatitudes, which demand living “a plain and austere life,” treating others gently, seeking purity of heart, being compassionate to those in need, satisfying the earthly and spiritual needs of others, extending forgiveness and mercy, serving as a source of peace, and suffering persecution for the sake of God and one’s neighbor. Holiness may be sought through working to protect the unborn, migrants, “the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.” He warns, however, that service to those in need cannot be separated “from [one’s] personal relationship with the Lord, from [one’s] interior union with him, from openness to his grace.” Thus, “we are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission.”

He also advises that we can serve others in little ways only visible to the persons involved, such as avoiding gossiping about another, listening to a child when one is fatigued, or giving personal acknowledgment to a poor person. As the Pope does throughout this exhortation, he provides guidance from a saint, in this instance from St. Francis de Sales: “There are inspirations that tend solely to perfect in an extraordinary way the ordinary things we do in life.”

This crisis reveals that the Devil has actually entered the heart of the Church. So, it is apropos to also focus on the Pope’s warning about recognizing and confronting evil driven by the Devil. It is a bit lengthy but bears listening to:

God’s word invites us clearly to “stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:11) and to “quench all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). These expressions are not melodramatic, precisely because our path towards holiness is a constant battle. Those who do not realize this will be prey to failure or mediocrity. For this spiritual combat, we can count on the powerful weapons that the Lord has given us: faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation, works of charity, community life, missionary outreach. If we become careless, the false promises of evil will easily seduce us. As the sainted Cura Brochero observed: “What good is it when Lucifer promises you freedom and showers you with all his benefits, if those benefits are false, deceptive, and poisonous?”

Along this journey, the cultivation of all that is good, progress in the spiritual life and growth in love are the best counterbalance to evil. Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out. Even less if they fall into defeatism, for “if we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents . . . Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil”.

The path of holiness is a source of peace and joy, given to us by the Spirit. At the same time, it demands that we keep “our lamps lit” (Lk 12:35) and be attentive. “Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:22). “Keep awake” (Mt 24:42; Mk 13:35). “Let us not fall asleep” (1 Thess 5:6). Those who think they commit no grievous sins against God’s law can fall into a state of dull lethargy. Since they see nothing serious to reproach themselves with, they fail to realize that their spiritual life has gradually turned lukewarm. They end up weakened and corrupted.

Spiritual corruption is worse than the fall of a sinner, for it is a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism, and other subtle forms of self-centredness, for “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). So Solomon ended his days, whereas David, who sinned greatly, was able to make up for disgrace. [Emphasis added.]

We will know, he suggests, that we are on the right track when we exhibit some or all of these traits — perseverance, patience, meekness, boldness and passion, joy and humor. Those are the characteristics which will attract people to Christ and His Church and gradually repair the disfigured image presented by the abuse scandal.

We must believe, as Archbishop Viganò urges in his statement, that “Christ will never abandon His Church! He generated her in His Blood and continually revives her with His Spirit!” Let us also have recourse to that all-powerful intercessor, the Blessed Mother, by regularly praying the Rosary and the Memorare for the needed conversion of the Church. We cannot afford to merely express our anger and dwell on the despicable behavior of those who have caused the damage to the victims and the Church. Instead, we each must step up to the plate and live the lives of holiness to which each of us is called. Most of us will not be distinguished for our efforts toward holiness on the world stage, but together we will as a community of believers change the face of the Church.

  1. The full text of Gaudete et Exsultate, which is quoted throughout this essay, can be found at w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20180319_gaudete-et-exsultate.html.
Richard P. Maggi, Esq. About Richard P. Maggi, Esq.

Richard P. Maggi, Esq., has been a litigation attorney for the past 40 years. He is also a commentator on religion and politics having been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, First Things (web edition), Crisis Magazine, the Washington Examiner, Human Life Review, and Notre Dame Magazine. He recently retired from the board of the Legal Center for the Defense of Life, is a Past Grand Knight of Summit Council 783, and an active member of Our Lady of Peace Parish in New Providence, New Jersey.

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