If I remove the central reason for a thing to exist, it will slowly cease to exist, and even what it had will be lost. On the other hand, if I proclaim and reinforce that central reason, the thing will not only continue to exist, but will likely even increase and bear fruit in due measure.
This is a matter of simple human logic. Yet, it is also harmonious with the Divine Mind, as can be seen woven through Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and Church history, but particularly in Jesus’s Parable of the Talents. Do we bury what we’ve been given, or do we go out and invest it in order to multiply it? And if our investment methods prove miscalculated or ineffective, threatening to atrophy or squander the inheritance, do we stay the course, or do we reassess priorities? Our Lord leaves no room for ambiguity in the parable: the importance of these questions is one of life or death, eternally speaking.
The “Two-Sided Crisis”
In his rare October 2015 interview, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke candidly of a “two-sided crisis in the Church” since the mid-twentieth century: one which strikes at our understanding of evangelization, and in turn, our understanding of the necessity of faith in our own lives. He contrasts the traditional belief of great missionary saints in the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation, with the commonly accepted proposal of the past fifty years that one can somehow find alternate paths, independent of Christ and the sacraments of his Church.
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Of course, nobody possesses the mind of God, so we entrust all departed souls to his mercy without judging or speculating on their whereabouts. That said, presuming a “standardization” of salvation outside the Church results in the death of a real urgency that souls might be lost without evangelization, and finally, the withering and death of the faith itself. In other words, if I don’t really need the sacraments for salvation, why would I need the Church? And if I don’t need the Church, why does such a thing exist at all? This may sound extreme or even scandalous to some ears, but Benedict is only articulating a logical flaw of the post-conciliar period that has become more obvious as its real life effects are increasingly felt.
The release of the interview in this Jubilee Year of Mercy is especially apropos. As wonderful opportunities for extra graces continue to abound, confusion and debate over the true nature of mercy appear to be in no short supply, either. Alongside what Holy Mother Church has always understood the mercy of God to be, what we might call an unofficial “mercy 2.0” seems to have emerged in parallel. What is the difference, and how does this tie to Benedict XVI’s observations?
In brief, mercy seeks to lift and convert all souls to Christ in order to be perfected and saved in him; whereas mercy 2.0 seeks the precise inverse: to level and conform Christ to manmade ideas in order to produce affirmation, with or without conversion. Mercy challenges, builds, and draws upward; mercy 2.0 concedes, flattens, and tranquilizes.
Thanks to mercy 2.0, it is easy to get the impression that orthodoxy is an enemy of mercy, or at least a major obstacle toward it. One may get the sense that the two are mutually exclusive, or that pastoral sensitivity requires our churches and liturgies to be anything but traditional, deep, beautiful, or otherworldly.
“Humility” has come to imply shunning vestments, sacred vessels, and liturgical appointments of the highest quality and detail. “Approachability” and “relevance” have dictated the discarding or maiming of anything reminiscent of the way the Church “used to be,” including beautiful church interiors, the universal tongue, incense, Gregorian chant, and ultimately, transcendence itself. “Mercy,” depending on who is using the term, may now mean circumventing those definitive truths of the faith that are the most challenging for pluralistic societies, like the one discussed by the Holy Father Emeritus.
But why must it be this way? Mercy and evangelization—whether through words, gestures, music, or art and the built environment—certainly do begin with meeting people wherever they may be. However, is not the real and ultimate objective then for us to be called to something higher; to something eternal; to someone named Truth through his Holy Bride, the Church, in order that we may achieve salvation in Christ?
Authentic Christian Mercy in Action
On October 7, 2015, in the very same month Benedict XVI offered his poignant remarks, a fire caused the large scale destruction of the Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest in Chicago, the regional headquarters of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICKSP). The ICKSP is a society of priests and religious whose stated mission is to spread the Reign of God in every sphere of human life. It was founded in Africa in 1990, and has since expanded to fifty places in twelve countries.
According to Canon Matthew Talarico, Provincial Superior of the ICKSP in the United States, the society’s essential charism is truth through charity, and the recognition of the role of beauty and harmony in drawing people to God. The spirituality of St. Francis de Sales is also integral.
The last Catholic church in the entire Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago, what is now the Shrine was originally the diocesan parish church of St. Clara, and was designed by renowned Chicago architect Henry J. Schlacks in 1923. The parish thrived during the first half of the twentieth century, but experienced demographic decline after the 1950s and a severe fire in the 1970s, after which it never fully recovered.
In 2004, after having been left with no choice but to close the parish, Francis Cardinal George saved the church from demolition by offering it to the ICKSP because he felt a Catholic presence needed to remain in the neighborhood, and because the building was a designated historic landmark. Thus, it became the Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, with the Archdiocese as owner and the ICKSP as tenant. Needed repairs were gradually made, like weatherproofing, a new roof, and the installation of a new organ.
Alas, eleven years of hard work were consumed by the most recent fire last October. It started in the choir loft and quickly burned upward, traveling all the way back to the sanctuary and causing the whole roof to cave in and destroy most of what was below it. The Archdiocese, at the direction of Archbishop Blase Cupich, donated the shrine property to the Institute earlier this year, thus averting demolition a second time. The Institute continues to be an important part of the Catholic life of the Archdiocese, but is now the sole owner of the building and is therefore able to work directly with the City of Chicago and the Historical Commission on how best to rebuild and maintain it.
The entire neighborhood—including the nearby University of Chicago and the adjacent Presbyterian community, which generously volunteered space of their own to serve as a temporary home for the Shrine while the rebuilding takes place—seems profoundly grateful for the archbishop’s final decision. This is because what they see emanating from the Shrine is true vitality and true mercy, and it has been a saving grace for the community.
“We really need to offer people today solid food through their senses,” says Canon Talarico. “The Catholic faith is incarnational, so we have to be very present and accessible to the people through tangible things, like prayer processions in the streets, for example.” He says it’s about meeting people where they are, but in order to lift them up to Christ. “The Institute is trying to accompany people, but ultimately be the instrument of their sanctification.”
The Shrine is more than just a place where Catholics spend an hour on Sunday. It serves as a forum where people from the neighborhood can come together, network, and partake of cultural opportunities. For example, free classical concerts are regularly offered, where families and kids can meet and converse with the musicians afterward. The goal is to uplift and help people begin to find God through beauty. “We have people in the neighborhood who have left the Church previously, but are becoming reengaged socially, and that’s sometimes the first step in coming back to the sacraments,” remarks Canon Talarico.
What really draws people, however, is the anchor of the community: the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), or Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. “People are looking for reverence,” says the Canon. “People sense that there’s much more here than utilitarianism, and that our life is primarily about adoration of God. We come from him and realize we’re going back to him in heaven.”
He explains that there is a very unique and special way of showing adoration and reverence that is part of the TLM. It is this reverence that regularly attracts people of Hispanic, Filipino, Polish, and African ethnicity, as well as university people, large young families, and older people. “There is great diversity, but the Latin is what brings people together,” he says, adding that the use of Latin also elevates the sacredness by expressing truths in exactly the same way they’ve been expressed down through the centuries. He adds, “[The TLM] attracts such a wide array of people because it speaks to the whole human person through all five senses and fulfills an innate longing. It speaks to our humanity about God, especially today in such a sensory world.”
Additionally, a major focus at the Shrine is the devotion to the Infant King, centering around a three-century old Spanish statue that was donated in 2006, and which firefighters were able to rescue from the blaze in 2015. The idea of Our Lord as an infant is a personification of living the truth in charity. “The Child is showing us in a very simple way that virtue is accessible, not abstract and unreachable,” Canon Talarico notes. Every month there is a novena from the seventeenth day to the twenty-fifth day, ending in a Mass and interior procession with the statue and children. He says that it serves as a reminder that children need to be educated and formed in virtue, and the children love it because they have a devotion that’s all their own.
Taking a Second Look at Tradition
How does this relate back to the Parable of the Talents, and the question of whether to reassess our particular methods of “investment” if they are not reaping interest for the Divine Master? In so many parts of what was formerly called Christendom, having been caught up in the two-sided crisis, the Church is undergoing a very public passion of sorts, for which it seems anything will be tried as a remedy except for a second look at tradition.
But could the Shrine of Christ the King and other cases like it demonstrate a viable alternative to the conventional thinking of the past fifty years? Despite the fire, the congregation is growing, not shrinking, and one will find no sign of the two-sided crisis here; no trace of mercy 2.0. Nor will one find a contrived divorce of pastoral practice from immutable doctrine. A rich tenderness and charity are present, and they are effective precisely because the ICKSP has not removed or reinterpreted its reason for existence, but confidently asserted it like a beacon on a hill.
What we see here are simple stewards, not innovators or apologizers. They are being blessed by God with vibrancy and life against all worldly odds, and it’s happening without projection screens, laser shows, pop tunes, or patronizing gimmicks. Instead, it is the simple appeal of lasting mercy and salvation through Jesus Christ—channeled via the transcendent beauty of two millennia of Catholic tradition—that they are allowing to pour forth in all its radiance, unfiltered and unedited, so that many may come to believe.
Author’s note: The ICKSP website is set up to be a virtual spiritual pilgrimage. Prayer intentions and ex voto testimonies of graces received may be submitted at www.infantkingoffering.org, and donations may be made to the general restoration effort at www.shrinelandmark.org, and the fire relief fund at www.gofundme.com/shrinefirefund.