In every Catholic Church, there is a gruesome sight. It is the image of a man being tortured to death. We should turn away from it in horror, but instead we don’t even notice it, that he hangs there in public humiliation, his clothes torn off, bloodied from a cruel beating, nailed by his hands and feet to a wooden cross, thorns wrapped around his head in a mock crown. Then we begin each Mass by being reminded why he is there. Because in our thoughts, in our words, in what we have done and what we have failed to do, we have sinned against God. We deserve the death that this man is dying. But this man dying for us instead.
And this man is the very God we have sinned against.
There is nothing better than finding God. There is nothing better than being forgiven. The two go together. It is why we need the Catholic Church.
It was G.K. Chesterton who helped me find my way into the Catholic Church, where I would find a different sort of clergyman from the church where I had grown up, a church that identified itself as “protesting” against the Catholic Church. There was something different about that robed figure who stood at the altar. Go there, said Chesterton, go to that Church and find the priest, “and he will give you God out of his hand.”
That’s what I did. And after partaking in that feast of thanksgiving, which is what the word “eucharist” means, it has been my great reward to tell everyone about that Church, where they, too, can find God and enjoy his forgiveness, and join the feast where he feeds us with himself from the hand of a priest. And I tell everyone about the wise and witty man who pointed me in the right direction. Chesterton has continued to be my trusted companion, as he has proved himself to be a teller of truth about the Church and also about the world.
But now the Church faces a grave crisis. Priests, bishops and even cardinals are in the grip of sin and corruption, and the faithful are in a fog of doubt and disappointment. People have been asking me, “What would Chesterton say about this?” I can only tell you what he has already said.
First of all, he says, “The Church is proved right, not when her children do not sin, but when they do.” We are sinners. That is why we are Catholics. We need the forgiveness and redemption of the man who hangs on the cross in each of our churches. Yes, the world holds us up to a higher standard, but that is a compliment to us. It is only holding us up to our own standard.
The fact obviously is that the world will do all that it has ever accused the Church of doing, and do it much worse, and do it on a much larger scale, and do it (which is worst and most important of all) without any standards for a return to sanity or any motives for a movement of repentance. Catholic abuses can be reformed, because there is the admission of a form. Catholic sins can be expiated, because there is a test and a principle of expiation. But where else in the world today is any such test or standard found; or anything except a changing mood…?
There have been times when the Church, rather than adhering to its own standard, has attempted to abide by the world’s standard. It has never worked. There have been times, says Chesterton, when the Church has been wedded to the world, but it is always widowed by the world.
And though the world tries to justify its own sins, it is still repulsed by certain sins. In the Father Brown story “The Worst Crime in the World,” Chesterton makes clear that the worst sin is the corruption of the innocent and debasement of virtue.
Chesterton, who is a prophet, talks like any other prophet. He talks about the need for repentance. “If we boast of our best, we must repent of our worst.” He says that, unfortunately, the warning, “Repent, before it is too late,” is hardly uttered until it is too late. “We have lost the idea of repentance; especially in public things.” And we have “an unfortunate habit of publicly repenting for other people’s sins.” But he also says, “I am convinced that no crimes, let alone confessions of crimes, arouse so much hatred as the spiritual insolence that refuses to confess anything.” And, he says, it is one of the glories of our faith that the very men who have to condemn sins also have to confess them.
He points out that when Christ says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he is addressing his disciples, that is, his priests. “Salt is not a piece de resistance. It is a corrective. It is the priest, not the man. The meaning of salt is that there exists something which we cannot live on, but cannot live without.” The laity needs the priests. But the priests also need the laity. Priests hold the laity accountable, but the laity also hold the priests accountable.
And what of the Pope? Chesterton offers an amazing insight:
When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.
It is interesting to note that the man whom some would consider the weakest pope of the 20th century has just been canonized. Fifty years ago, when the Church—and the world—was crumbling all around him, Paul VI wrote the most important encyclical of that troubled century: Humane Vitae. In it he warned that contraception would not only lead to abortion but to sexual perversion. Chesterton warned the same thing even earlier. Did you know that Giovanni Battisti Montini, the priest who became Pope Paul VI, read Chesterton?
Chesterton says, “The faithful watch the holy places as well as the priests.”
It is indeed the Hour of the Laity. It is why we need models of lay spirituality. Like G.K. Chesterton.
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