Ronald Knox once said, “He who travels in the barque of St. Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room.” In case you’ve been living under a rock the last five, ten, fifty years, the barque has been going through some heavy seas. Some would say we’re with Columbus sailing to a new world; others would say the name written on the side reads Titanic. In any event, it is worth pointing out that, no matter how one reads the signs of the times, in one sense, one very real sense, it doesn’t matter.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray for the Church or the pope or the bishops; that we shouldn’t be concerned when priests and prelates and even those higher up say things that, at the very least, make one scratch one’s head. I’m not saying we shouldn’t confront error, call a spade a spade, or turn a blind eye to scandal. I’m only saying that in one sense, one very real sense, we needn’t worry about all that. We needn’t worry about all that because the one thing we do need to worry about isn’t, in a way, affected by all that. That one thing is our own soul.
This past November, the Church had us reflect on the Last Things, the one last thing we should be concerned about is our own individual holiness. It is easy, and perhaps excusable, to be distraught at what some priest or bishop or “Catholic” politician or “Catholic” school has said or done. I’ll be the first to admit I can get all twisted around with these things. And, as I said, there is some justice in this. We love the Church and to see it in a state of, shall we say, “flux” is worrisome. For many of us, the Church is supposed to be our “rock,” and to many of us it currently feels more like quicksand. But here’s the thing—what of it?
When we die, and that is the one thing we are to be concerned about, do we really think our Lord will judge us on what a priest or bishop or pope or anyone else said or did? No. He will judge us by the simple criteria: Did you do what I asked you to do? And there’s the end of it. In Jane Austen’s novel Emma, the title character and her friend, Mr. Knightley argue about another character, Frank Churchill, who has seemingly failed in his filial duties. While Emma thinks of every reason to excuse the young man, Mr. Knightley will have none of it. He finally says, “There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do if he chuses [sic], and that is his duty, not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.” That should be our attitude.
Let’s look at it another way: Has there ever been a time when the Church, from pope to parish priest to parishioner in the pew, was perfect? No. St. Paul seemed to spend most of his time straightening out squabbles and heresies. The first five hundred years (at least) of the Church’s history were spent ironing out a creed, and even then, at one time the majority (Arians) didn’t get it right. The Middle Ages saw the pope browbeaten to Avignon for nearly 70 years, and for 25 years after that we had three men claiming to be pope. The Renaissance? Let’s not go there. The 1600s had the Jansenists; the 1700s, the “Enlightenment” and the French Revolution. In the 1800s, the First Vatican Council had to be suspended because Italian troops were knocking at the door. Many point to the “golden age” of the Church before Vatican II. While there may be some truth to that, the question needs to be asked, where and when were the seeds of the flood of the “Spirit of Vatican II” sown if not in that “golden age”? The church—in her members—has never been perfect.
But there have always been saints. There have always been saints because there have always been those few individuals who didn’t, in this sense, fret about what anyone else was doing or not doing, and instead did what they were supposed to do, however humbly or publicly that might have been. They sought their own sanctity. They did so with the same means that you and I have at our disposal—prayer, the sacraments, God’s grace, and their own will. None of those depend upon the personal holiness of others in the Church. In all those troubled times, there were great saints. I said above we shouldn’t look to the Renaissance, but let’s do that now. The papacy was pumping water from personal scandal and the heresy of Martin Luther. In England, all the bishops but one caved into Henry VIII. Yet Thomas More became a saint and went to the chopping block calm and cracking a joke, not because his parish priest gave great sermons, not because there was a great RCIA program in his diocese, not because of the purity of the clergy or their sound doctrine, but because he led a life of holiness. (And did so while raising a family, being a lawyer, and being involved in politics of all things.) He didn’t whine, he didn’t complain, he didn’t offer excuses. He looked to his own soul.
“These world crises are crises of saints,” said St. Josemaria Escriva, who wept tears as the Church seemed to be going belly up in the 1960s and ’70s. That is to say, these crises are not primarily crises of popes or bishops or priests, or of universities and theologians and politicians, but rather of you and me being a saint where and how God has called us to be. And today we have an even greater burden in this regard because with the amount of sound doctrine and spiritual advice available in books and other media, we really have no excuse for not knowing our duty and how to do it. How much of our efforts are we outing there? No one can stop us from being saints except ourselves.
So, by all means correct and admonish, by all means give financial support to those worthy and withhold it from those who are not, but first and foremost, first and last, pray, frequent the sacraments, beg for God’s grace, and do the one thing you can do—be a saint. That’s all God asks.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Eve of First Communion” painted by Henri Alphonse Laurent-Desrousseaux.