That severe trials for the Church are inevitable is quite evident from the historical record. Indeed, the obituary of the Roman Catholic Church has been written and rewritten for almost two millennia; yet the Church continues to live and expand, in accordance with Christ’s prophecy (Mt 28:20).
SS. Peter and Paul, upon whom the Church was founded, died martyrs. For the first three centuries the Church endured open persecution; in Rome it literally went underground – the Church of the catacombs. Still it survived. When the barbarian hordes sacked Rome in 410, Christianity was widely thought finished. It survived nonetheless, even after the invaders swept through Europe and the British Isles.
The Renaissance dawned with new obituary notices for the Church; they were, of course, premature, to say the least. When the Papacy went into exile in Avignon in 1309, Rome was deemed by some as nonrelevant. And during the Great Western Schism, beginning in 1378, many questioned whether the Church could continue. Again, however, it went on.
During the French Revolution in the late 18th century, the death of the Church was proclaimed anew. The name of Notre Dame of Paris was changed to the Temple of the Goddess of Reason. The Church remained alive.
In the last century, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union cynically demanded the number of legions commanded by the Pope. The Church survived and will continue to survive, even when assaults against it are generated not primarily from without, but, tragically, from within.
Perhaps the most difficult trials which the Church must endure are generated by some of those charged with leadership and pastoral care. As Archbishop Henry J. Mansell has written to all the faithful of the Archdiocese in a letter printed elsewhere in this issue of the Transcript, we are all "deeply sorry for the destructive behavior committed by a small number of priests. Moreover, we apologize sincerely to those who have been harmed, seek their forgiveness and reach out to them with compassion."
Here it is crucial to remember that the Church’s response cannot simply be assessed and formulated in human terms. We are once again reminded of Georges Bernanos’ masterpiece, surely one of the greatest novels ever written, The Diary of a Country Priest. Therein the author maintains that, when all else has been said, a priest’s crucial struggle is not with the forces of this world, but rather with the powers and dominations of Evil. Satan, who is real, is the ultimate enemy with whom we must contend, and the only weapons effective against Satan are the weapons of faith: prayer and penance, the sacraments, the pursuit of virtue, the Scriptures as read within the Church, and the acceptance of Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior. Moreover, the use of these weapons is available to all members of the Church: laity, religious and clergy.
The Church is, we believe, intrinsically holy; its weak and often unattractive dimensions are caused by members who fail to live up to its noble demands and, consequently, who disgrace it in the sight of all, much as a wayward son or daughter can wound the good name of a family. T.S. Eliot, probably the greatest poet of the 20th century, captured this thought in The Hippopotamus, a brief meditation on St. Ignatius of Antioch’s ancient Letter to the Trallians. Therein Eliot viewed the unsightly and even ugly aspects of the beast to those caused by human elements within the Church, which, owing to its inner nature, can nonetheless "take wing/ "Ascending from the damp savannas."
St. Catherine of Siena, doubtless one of the 10 most influential women of all time, and who lived in one of the most troubled ages of Church history, prayed that she might shed her blood in order to cement one more brick in the edifice that is the Church – to build up, not to fragment. So prayed Ignatius of Antioch, who eventually did surrender his life for the Church.
Today we all have much work to do. This Roman Church, as Hilaire Belloc once prayed, is the only one which we have and hold, and it is the one in which we hope to die.