A believable anecdote relates that Napoleon was boasting about his power to destroy the Catholic Church when, in response, the Pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Consalvi, asked him: “If, in 1,800 years, we, the clergy, have not managed to destroy the Church, do you really believe that you will be able to do it?”
It is probably true that, of the all the crises that the Church has had to live through since the Day of Pentecost, the most deadly and destructive have come from within. Nero and Diocletian did not harm the Church anywhere nearly as badly as the betrayals of trust and the abuse of position and authority that have shaken the Church to Her foundations in our own lifetime. At times, while the heavy artillery of the media is beleaguering the Church from the outside, it might well feel as though the edifice of the Church on earth has been so weakened by internal decadence that it must about to crumble into dust around us.
As Catholics, however, we know that this can never really happen. We know this with the certainty of Faith, because God Himself has promised us. We see that promise being made in the Gospel, when Our Lord says to His chosen apostle Simon: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” It has been said that the only two things of which we can be quite certain are death and taxes. But we can also be sure of something else. We know that when Our Lord returns in glory at the end of time, His Bride, the Church, will be here to greet Him.
So we can thank God for founding His Church on Peter, and for promising to protect Her from complete destruction. But we also have to remember that His promise is, in a sense, a negative guarantee. While at certain times and in particular places our holy Catholic Faith has been taught and lived with such extraordinary zeal that it seemed to blaze across whole continents like wildfire, no guarantee has been granted that the Church’s presence on earth will never be reduced to one minuscule corner of the planet, or that the proclamation of, and belief in, our Holy Catholic Faith will not be reduced to little more than a flickering pilot light. Complacency and triumphalism in times of plenty are usually a sure sign of famine on the horizon, while the hunger that accompanies dearth has often proven to be the seedbed of renewed sanctity and expansion.
During this month of September, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross reminds us of the centrality of the Cross in our lives as Christians. Reading the Gospels, it might surprise us to find that Peter, the rock on which Our Lord built His Church, so often shows himself to be an enemy of the Cross. At one point, Peter’s determination to bypass Calvary in establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth is so reminiscent of the temptations concocted by the devil to test Our Lord during His forty days in the desert that Christ calls Peter Satan. After the Resurrection, however, Peter realises that the Cross is the threshold which must be passed before we can participate in eternal life, and bears witness to this truth by stretching out his own arms to be crucified. Having reflected on the Gospels, it might dismay us but it should not really surprise us if sometimes even some of our religious leaders seem to shun the Cross in favour of worldly diplomacy and politicking, and in the hope of an easier relationship with the secular powers-that-be and especially the media. We must pray for them, and for ourselves, that we may all be given the grace to embrace rather than flee the Cross when God brings it into our lives for some salutary purpose.
It has been said that, at times in the past, the Church’s focus on God’s justice and the prospect of divine punishment for sins was so all-pervasive as to obscure for us the transforming gaze of love with which Our Lord looks into our hearts. If there is any truth in this then the opposite is almost certainly true today. The modern temptation is to focus so exclusively on God’s mercy that any concern about the punishment due to sin in justice is denounced as “pharisaical” and cruel. Both extremes are deplorable. God is infinite in His perfections, and if we truly love Him, we should not wish for any one of His perfections to be diminished on our account. The genius and magnificence of His plan for our salvation is that, in the Cross, we find the perfections of His justice and His love both exemplified and glorified. If we think of the vertical trunk of the Cross as representing the vast chasm opened between the creature and his Creature by sin, then we see how the justice of God is perfectly satisfied by a Sacrifice of infinite value. The horizontal beam of the Cross, meanwhile, illustrates how God the Son paid that price on our behalf by stretching out His arms to embrace mankind in a gesture of profound and merciful love. In the Cross, divine justice and divine love intersect, to our eternal benefit.
During this month, let us venerate the Holy Cross with profound gratitude for that Sacrifice of perfect love, and let us pray that God will give us the grace we need to carry the Cross in our own lives, both for our personal sanctification and for the strengthening of the Church.
Father Julian Large