Thomas Griffin 7/7/21 (For Catholic Exchange)
The tumultuous season for the Catholic Church will continue with decreasing numbers of Catholics attending Mass, believing in the Eucharist and claiming that they believe in all the teachings of the Church. In the midst of this confusing and admittedly depressing moment, we must stay with Christ.
This is too often easier said than done. In order to remain attached to the vine that is Christ, we need a plan. I found that plan recently when I read Staying With the Catholic Church: Trusting in God’s Plan for Salvation, written by David Bonagura. This short but powerful book is a concise and clear presentation of what the Church does and who she is.
David Bonagura teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York and online at Catholic Distance University. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and writes regularly for several Catholic media outlets. Bonagura’s ability to craft compelling arguments that recap ancient truths about the logic of our faith is refreshing and inspiring.
His newest work focuses on the reasons why people should remain in the Church despite her recent and grave flaws. The sexual abuse crisis by priests and the seemingly persistent cover-up by the bishops is a true challenge. Biblically speaking it is a scandal or “stumbling block” to faith in Christ. Bonagura masterfully lays out the reasons “why she (the Church) is worthy of continued faith and support.”
These roots include salvation, the papacy, infallibility, the magisterium, the laity, priests and bishops. The Catholic Church is the conduit of salvation grounded in the truth that Christ speaks through its members. Every member of the faithful has an immeasurable role to play in bringing about the mission of the Church. That mission is grounded in the words of St. John Henry Newman:
“God has created me to do him some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission.” God has promised us life to the full and that life can explode out into the world if we follow the recipe of the saints. Daily prayer, reception of the Eucharist, frequent reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and a habit of laying down our lives for our friends. Succeeding in this arena means is conditioned on staying with the Church.
Returning to the roots of our faith highlights the true nature of what the Church is so that one can see the goodness, beauty and truth that lies within. “The Church exists to meet a supernatural goal that lies beyond the limits of human sight.” The Church’s nature will reveal why we should remain attached to her. To accomplish this task, it is crucial to note that Jesus handed over dominion to Peter as the first pope and that Christ promised to always work in and through His Body on earth.
Peter is the early focus in Staying with the Catholic Church and he is the perfect template for viewing why one ought to remain. Peter was the unrivaled leader of the Apostles and the first pope, and yet, he messed up in tremendous ways. From rejecting the notion that the Messiah should suffer, to denying even knowing the Lord, Peter begins his leadership role in his brokenness.
Church history is peppered with other examples of the treachery in which members of the faithful have lived their lives. We are all, Bonagura notes, “between sinners and saints.” We need continual conversion and we must rely more on the trustworthiness of a Father who has created the world and all that is in it. Furthermore, if the Church is founded on the intentions and plan of Christ she is a supernatural reality that is run by human hands.
The faults of Jesus’ followers are not a reflection on him, but merely a fact that he came to save and find the lost. While we have modern examples of Peter’s flaws we also have countless men and women, religious and lay people, who have heeded the call of holiness. Peter’s post-Easter faith is unmatched while other men and women such as St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Andre Bessette, and St. Thomas More stand as witnesses to the possibility for sanctity on this side of heaven.
That word “witness” is pivotal for understanding the nature of the Church and why we ought to remain despite her self-inflicted wounds by leaders and lay people alike. Catholics know that heresy is bad, but we too often only associate this with the big names of Luther, Calvin, etc. Heresy, however, is also preached by small town pastors and held by Catholics pontificating at the water cooler at work.
If bishops, priests, and lay men and women do not buy into everything that the Church teaches and live a life of true witness then how will her true nature be delivered to a suffering world? We are all invited to be witnesses, in our own way, while we are on pilgrimage to heaven. Bonagura notes that even if one member of a team is disruptive or has not bought into its mission, it disjoints the entire team. Multiply that by the discord in the Church and there is no wondering why we have the issues in front of us.
The key is to truly learn why the Church teaches what she does as founded on Christ and to act from an immovable attitude of trust and love. Trusting in God’s plan for salvation is the mode of operation for the everyday Catholic. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds the Church has always endured because Christ created her and died for her while the Holy Spirit moves powerfully within her. We must trust that God is with us and that he holds us.
Finally, we are called to love in the true sense of the word. To “love is an act of the will, a decision that we make to give our best to another.” Christ gave us his best by dying for us on the cross and granting us the ability for eternal happiness with him forever. He gave us the Church so we can better know who we are and what we are made for. Therefore, “loving the Church does not mean that we ignore or discount the sins of Church members…Rather, we must work to heal the sin present within her.”
Ultimately, we stay with the Church because we love Jesus Christ and because she is the location by which the Lord is intimately within our reach. Remaining with the Church is an act of trusting love rooted in Jesus’ own words and guided by God’s gentle hands.
So, no matter what, stay with her and learn how to profoundly trust and love God and your neighbor.
Thomas Griffin teaches at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife and son. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.
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