Political matters can go hang for the moment. Just now, my focus is on more permanent things…some of them eternal.
Surely this piece is not so far in the past that my Gentle Readers will have forgotten it. It may have drawn more giggles than sober ponderings, but the true import of the thing deserves the attention of all Americans. I’ll repeat that for the folks in the bleachers: all Americans. Perhaps the reasons will become clear after a few thousand more words.
Two hours ago, I received an email from The Catholic Company, a retailer that supplies…drum roll, please…goods of interest to Catholics. It’s not the only such retailer, of course. However, it also provides another, quite valuable service: emails, some of them daily, about the Faith and matters pertinent to those of us who hold to it. One series of such emails, The Morning Offering, begins my day, each and every day. I recommend it heartily.
The email I have in mind just now is of a different sort. Below is a transcription, which I hope won’t infringe offensively upon the prerogatives of its originator:
A recent article made waves for its anti-Catholic bias as it tried to claim that the Rosary has become a symbol of radical extremism and Catholics are quickly becoming a dangerous group. This isn’t the first time the Rosary has been targeted by anti-Catholic bias. It’s true. In 1649, anti-Catholic sentiments had taken strong hold in England. Oliver Cromwell was sent from England to Ireland to begin a brutal suppression of the Catholic faith. His plan was to enforce Penal Laws that essentially outlawed being Catholic.
Catholics were banned from holding public office, so they could not make laws to save themselves or hold positions of power. They were banned from serving in the military, so that the military would be wholly loyal to the Protestant government and enforce the persecution. They had to pay hefty fines for not attending Protestant services. Catholic clergy were banned from the country and faced execution if discovered. Any practice of the Catholic faith, including praying the Rosary, would result in execution.
Catholics had no power, their very existence was illegal, and yet they were determined to survive. They moved their seminaries to France, where brave young men would go to study for four years before making the dangerous journey back home to Ireland to minister for as long as possible before being found and executed. Catholics would gather at night in the middle of the woods to celebrate Mass.
Most bold, clever, and dangerous of all, however, were the “Penal Rosaries.” The Catholics knew the power of the Rosary and simply could not live without it. Instead of stringing five-decade rosaries, which would be too visible, Catholics tied a string of eleven beads and a crucifix to a ring. They would place the ring on their thumb with the cross hidden up their sleeve and offer the Rosary that way. It was harder to discover (and report on) an Irishman praying the Rosary with this method. Though the practice of the Catholic faith has long since been legalized in Ireland, the Irish Penal Rosaries remain a symbol of resistance to religious persecution and the strength of the Irish Catholics of that era who refused to give up devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
Never take for granted our freedom to pray the Rosary daily and practice our faith. It is a gift hundreds of thousands of Catholics who have gone before us have lived without. Show off the beauty of Our Lady’s Holy Rosary by praying it often and with others. Let’s pray together today for the conversion of all sinners, world peace, and growth in charity.
Our Lady, Queen of Peace, pray for us!
There’s history in that email that even I didn’t know. Consider what it says in light of the vicious attack on the Rosary by Daniel Panneton of The Atlantic.
Attacks on the Church are everywhere these days. Many of them are about Catholic doctrines that pertain to sex and reproduction. Activist homosexuals have been incensed for a long time that the Church won’t bless homosexual sodomy or same-sex marriage. And of course the Death Cults are furious about the Church’s stance on abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research. Yet what do their complaints amount to, other than a whine that the Church, the oldest organization on Earth, won’t alter its longstanding doctrines to give them what they want?
I’d call this a sermonette on the importance of making the right enemies. The Church has surely done so.
Now let’s have a blast from the past: a piece that first appeared at the late, lamented Eternity Road in April of 2005, just before the Conclave of the College of Cardinals that elevated Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the Throne of Saint Peter as Pope Benedict XVI. It’s long; I make no apologies for that. But it’s also a trail marker: an indication of how longstanding is Establishmentarian opposition to the Church, and how low its acolytes are prepared to go.
Regard well this morning’s New York Times-modulated exercise in arrogance, authored by Colm Toibin:
Organized religion offers us comfort, but also pain; even if it is merely the pain of restriction and regulation, of obeying the rules, it is an essential aspect of belonging to most churches. On Monday, when the cardinals who rule the church will begin meeting in conclave to elect a new pope, the future of the church in the 21st century will be in their hands. That church, they know, is slow to change. Nonetheless, it is interesting how many of the restrictions and rules governing the lives of Catholics all over the world have lost their hold over the past 30 or 40 years. Confession, the telling of your sins directly to a priest and seeking forgiveness, is no longer an essential aspect of the lives of Catholics. There is not much emphasis now on the need to make personal sacrifices during Lent, the 40 days before Easter. Catholics eat meat on Fridays. Limbo, the place where unbaptized babies went, seems to have disappeared. And even where I live, in Dublin, which is populated for the most part by Catholics, stores are open on the Sabbath day and do a thriving business. All of this has happened gradually, without debate or much warning or explanation. The abandoned practices were not essential to the church’s teaching,  and now they seem impossibly old-fashioned, like vinyl long-playing records or smoke-filled bars.
The rules that the church still imposes that affect most law-abiding people tend to govern sexuality and gender; they seem difficult to many Catholics because they focus on the matter of how we love and whom we love.  A divorced woman falling in love a second time can be denied communion; a gay man who has found comfort, once unimaginable, in love can be excluded from the official church; a couple who use artificial contraception are deemed to be sinful; a priest who wishes to marry must leave; a woman who feels a vocation to the priesthood must live her life with this vocation unfulfilled.
What is strange is how much this exclusion matters to the many individuals involved, many of whom do not wish to walk away in bitterness. The embrace of the Catholic Church can be compelling. Part of this derives, oddly enough, from its very refusal to move with the times, its refusal to allow its faithful to rule rather than follow. Part of it comes from ideas of identity: it allows its members to feel that they belong to something ancient and global as well as to a small parish. And part of it comes from the beauty of Catholic ritual. The smells and bells, the altar, the vestments, the sense that this magnificent ritual is being conducted all over the world, offer Catholics part of their reason to remain, no matter what their differences with the hierarchy. 
The slowness of Holy Mother Church, the sense of it as a bastion of distilled wisdom overseen by — at least most of the time — unworldly old men, guards it from fashion, gives it the immense solidity that is lacking in, say, the Church of England, which has moved with the times, thereby losing much of its power. But the slowness of the Catholic Church in dealing with the sexual abuse of children and minors by members of the clergy has been very damaging. It has seemed astonishing to the Catholic faithful that the official church did not understand that, for parents, the safety of children is antecedent to all rules and all hierarchies. In its response to these allegations, the church seems to have been truly universal; it behaved as badly in Boston as in Newfoundland as in Dublin as in Sydney, moving offending priests to other parishes rather than reporting them to the police, more concerned with protecting its own reputation than protecting innocent lives.  Would it have acted more responsibly if priests had been married, and if there had been female priests or openly gay priests? Would the abuse have happened at all?
The cardinals who will elect a new pontiff have a great advantage. No matter whom they elect, the Catholic faithful, even the ones who have strayed, will not cease to feel that their spiritual life, their destiny, is bound up with this ancient organization, both beautiful and imperfect, made in man’s image more than God’s.  They will respect the pope, even love him, but, especially in the West, they will follow their own consciences on whom they love and how they love as much as on how they vote.
If one were to give advice to these grand old men — and they are not, I notice, seeking advice — it would be simple. Find a cardinal who was brought up with many, many sisters, who has a lesbian in the family, a cardinal whose life has been bound up and fully informed by women, who knows the problems and challenges they face in a church where they cannot minister.  Even if the next pope and his cardinals were not to change the rule against female priests quickly, it might be important, as acts of witness and of love, to enter into real dialogue with women in the church, and to be seen to listen, to take heed, as St. Patrick did centuries ago, to the other’s pain.
[Emphases and enumerations added by your Curmudgeon.]
The quotes above, while extensive, don’t fully capture the brass of this incredible piece from the pen of a self-nominated Catholic. The emphasized bits are those that strike your Curmudgeon as most egregious. Since the subjects, and your Curmudgeon’s positions on them, are both complex and sensitive, a few prefatory words are in order here.
A church must, by its very nature, be a conservative institution. The point of a church is the conservation and dissemination of a body of doctrines. In the case of a Christian church, the body of doctrines to be conserved and disseminated was laid down by Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians hold to have been the Son of God, made flesh to bring them to us.
Since Jesus lived two millennia ago, it would have been impossible for Him to speak comprehensibly on subjects such as contraception, cloning, abortion, or many other things. The parts of His message that received specific emphasis were those closest to the concerns — the spiritual concerns — of those who flocked to hear Him. But He founded a Church, gave its keys to Saint Peter, and directed him and his fellows to “teach all nations.” That church, of which the Roman Catholic Church of our time is the lineal descendant, has haltingly but resolutely propagated Christ’s doctrines and Peter’s Apostolic authority down the centuries since the Ascension, the nine days of prayer for guidance that followed, and the Pentecostal gift that empowered the Apostles to go forth in strength and faith.
The Church is served by mortal men. Mortal man is fallible, prone to all manner of errors and transgressions. Christ knew it. So did the earliest Apostles. Though the Church is infused with special grace and upheld by the prayers of many millions, there is no doubt that its highest servants and authorities are still mortal, still fallible, and still capable of overstepping their proper bounds, a subject on which your Curmudgeon has already spoken his mind.
It’s in this light that one should ponder the assertion of papal infallibility.
There is no guarantee that the pope will, at any time, be a good man filled with the love of God, upheld by the grace of Christ, or moved by the desire to serve the Church’s communion. There have been popes, particularly during the Renaissance era, who were plainly among the worst of men. But the pope, however bad a man he might prove to be, is nevertheless the Supreme Pontiff, the tenant of the Throne of Saint Peter. It is to be expected that the Church’s communion will look to him, however flawed he might be, for guidance on those things the Commandments don’t make crystal clear. In recognition of this came Pius IX’s decree that the pope cannot teach error, and that, when he speaks ex cathedra as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, he speaks with the authority of Christ Himself.
But popes are mortal men. More, they’re surrounded by mortal men — and if a pope cannot teach error, he may yet be served by those who can, and who’ll willingly do so in the pope’s name.
Papal infallibility has been invoked only twice, both times quite recently in Church history, and both on theological matters rather than matters of lay conduct. (The subjects were the Immaculate Conception and the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven.) On all other subjects, the pope has let his statements, including all direction offered to the faithful, stand on his personal authority and dignity. Yet he is still the pope, Christ’s Vicar on Earth, and that’s quite a lot of authority and dignity to carry around. His statements will always be taken seriously by anyone who takes his position seriously — about a billion people at last count.
So one must read a second clause into the decree of papal infallibility, one that was always there by implication but which is seldom discussed aloud, for fear that too much attention to it might undermine the first clause. Simply put, it goes like this: You can’t go wrong by following papal teachings, whether they’re ex cathedra and therefore explicitly infallible or not.
A Catholic is spiritually indemnified against any consequences that might arise from following papal direction. As unthinkable as it is, were the pope to sanctify abortion tomorrow morning, any Catholic who steered his course according to the pope’s words would be free of spiritual penalty for doing so.
The opprobrium for the consequences would be on the pope’s head, not on those who followed his teachings. If the shepherd leads his flock astray, it’s not the sheep who will be blamed.
In view of this, the pope will be minded to be even more conservative about the accumulated teachings of the Church than most of us would expect from the head of a two thousand year old institution founded upon the grace of the Son of God made flesh. People will do as he says. If he tells them that X, some pleasurable or profitable action previously held to be a sin, is really okay, they’ll embrace X — and they won’t suffer for it; he will.
Imagine having the moral weight of a billion people’s personal sins on your head.
As mentioned a couple of days ago, a Catholic will be judged by God according to how well he followed his sincere conscience:
Catholics believe that an individual’s conscience is the ultimate determinant of what is wrong or right for that individual. Moreover, God will judge us according to the fidelity with which we have followed our conscience. Nevertheless, this conscience needs to be formed by objective standards of moral conduct. The Church provides us with just that — moral norms based on Jesus’s teachings, the inspired scriptures, centuries of tradition, and the laws of nature.
These moral standards may seem at times to be inhibiting or restrictive. The fact is, that quite to the contrary, they release or liberate us. These norms both make us free, and lead us to the deep happiness that comes from following God’s plan. Jesus underscored that point when he said: If you live according to my teachings, you are truly my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) [from What It Means To Be Catholic, by Father Joseph M. Champlin, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press / Franciscan Communications, with ecclesiastical approval by Archbishop Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Emphasis in the original.]
A man whose conscience is functioning properly will hardly need to be told that the adoration of evil, the profanation of the sacred, the exclusion of the divine, filial disloyalty, murder, brutality, theft, adultery, false witness, or willed covetousness are wrong, and very wrong at that. The temporal consequences of these things are so obvious that even societies that have never allowed the penetration of the Commandments are aware of them. But the Commandments are ratifications of obvious natural laws, given to Man at a particular point in time. They could hardly embrace all that’s appropriate or inappropriate to us of three thousand years later. Since they’re the sole authenticated Words of God on what He demands of us, they’re absolute; no pope would ever dream of setting them aside. Where the pope and the Church must labor is on the articulation of the implications of the Commandments, as their core truth relates to the opportunities and perils of our lives today. Since nothing is easier than drawing a weak implication even from a strong premise, this requires the pope to exercise extraordinary caution, respect for tradition and continuity, relentless recourse to the wisdom of others, and constant re-examination of his own conscience.
Swift, dramatic changes in long-established doctrines are almost guaranteed to be ruinously wrong.
Regular readers of Eternity Road will already be aware of your Curmudgeon’s doubts about several specific Church teachings. He’s a relatively well-read sort, and he thinks about what he reads. Couple that to a sense for the dynamics of religious institutions as embedded in their temporal milieu, and what comes out is a suspicion that, now and then, the Church has issued a decree for some reason other — and lesser — than that God commands it.
But the Church is still the Church, and the pope is still the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the man who holds the Keys in his hands while his tenure lasts. Just how far should any Catholic venture beyond what the pope and the Church have taught? How much latitude of conscience are you, Gentle Reader, willing to allow yourself, knowing that the fate of your soul hangs on your decision?
Today, the major controversies among American Catholics focus on sexual behavior and associated practices. Time was, the central issue was usury. Before that, it was the Church’s power to coerce and punish in this world, which she’s long since relinquished. Before that, it was the exact nature of Christ’s relation to God the Father. The temporal milieu dictated that each of these issues, in its turn, command the attentions of many faithful. As their time passes away, so do they.
Your Curmudgeon has made up his own mind. He’s a Catholic by mature choice and by the generous grace of a loving God. He’s going to accept what the Church teaches — all of it — and live by it, regardless of his intellectual reservations. Those reservations won’t be kept silent; indeed, it’s part of a thinking man’s duty to voice them at the appropriate times, in the hope of resolving doubts and correcting errors. But when he who sits on the Throne of Saint Peter speaks, your Curmudgeon will listen, and cleave to what he hears as best he can. A man who makes warplanes for a living should not presume his insight into matters of faith, sin and grace to exceed that of men who’ve made them their life’s work.
With that, we return to Colm Toibin’s execrable vanity.
Emphasized passage 1:
The abandoned practices were not essential to the church’s teaching,
…is an attempt to imply error, in the hope that the notion will support the writer’s later contentions that the Church has erred on larger matters. But the fallacy of conflating a set of ritual practices and disciplines with monumental teachings on faith and sin should be obvious to anyone. The practices that have fallen into disuse were judged to be less constructive to faith and wholesome Christian living than they were once held to be; they don’t bear on any significant question of moral weight.
Emphasized passage 2:
The rules that the church still imposes that affect most law-abiding people tend to govern sexuality and gender; they seem difficult to many Catholics because they focus on the matter of how we love and whom we love.
…focuses the reader’s attention upon the writer’s particular concerns. Note how greatly the moral substance of these things varies from that of ritual days of fasting and abstention. How great a disjunction there is between the sorts of rumination that would allow changes in these things!
Emphasized passage 3:
The smells and bells, the altar, the vestments, the sense that this magnificent ritual is being conducted all over the world, offer Catholics part of their reason to remain, no matter what their differences with the hierarchy.
…verges on obscenity. The writer attempts to demote the mighty spiritual appeal and authority of the Church to the impacts of its rites on our temporal sensoria. Would he have dared to say that it’s the colors of the uniforms and the roars from the crowd that were the essence of football? Would he have spoken thus, say, in the company of Vince Lombardi?
Emphasized passage 4:
…it behaved as badly in Boston as in Newfoundland as in Dublin as in Sydney, moving offending priests to other parishes rather than reporting them to the police, more concerned with protecting its own reputation than protecting innocent lives.
…suggests that the writer has little understanding of the Church’s dual nature: as the Mystical Body of Christ, in which all who believe participate throughout time, and as an institution served by fallible men, some of whom are necessarily as weak as anyone who’s ever lived. The Church Mystical is continuous and indestructible. The prelates of the temporal Church — from the lowest deacon to the Holy Father himself — are its servants, not its masters. If they err, it indicts them alone, not the Church as a whole. And truly, in the matter of clerical homosexuality and pederasty, many Catholic prelates have erred grievously, out of the lowest imaginable motives. The Church must be cleansed of them, but the matter carries absolutely no implications for Church teachings, except that they should be more rigorously applied within its hierarchy.
Emphasized passage 5:
… made in man’s image more than God’s.
…merely reinforces the plainness of the misunderstanding — which might be deliberate — evinced by passage 4.
Emphasized passage 6:
…the problems and challenges they face in a church where [women] cannot minister.
…is a baldfaced assertion of falsehood. Women are incredibly welcome within the Church, and indeed are the backbone that supports its public face. Female religious orders do a huge fraction of the Church’s work, and are greatly valued by Catholics worldwide. At this time, women cannot be ordained. This, like the requirement for clerical celibacy, is a discipline from tradition, akin to a company’s personnel policies, rather than a command of God. Perhaps it will be altered, but your Curmudgeon passionately hopes that, should that come to pass, it will be for sound theological reasons rather than as a concession to pressure from harridans and activists who secretly despise the Church and would prefer to see it vanish from the Earth.
Mr. Toibin makes a single statement your Curmudgeon finds good and sensible:
If one were to give advice to these grand old men — and they are not, I notice, seeking advice — it would be simple.
Yes, it would indeed. An advisor seldom has to bear the costs or the consequences incurred by an advisee who acts on his counsel. Many would love to give “simple” advice to the Princes of the Church as they meet in conclave, starting tomorrow. They’d feel no onus upon their consciences for anything that came of it.
Dear Lord, may You protect the cardinals of the conclave from all things distant from their mission. May You give them the wisdom they’ll need to select a successor to our beloved John Paul II, now returned to you. May their choice be a worthy one. We Your children can ask nothing more. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Toibin’s execrable essay wasn’t the first of its kind, no more than the last. The New York Times, a purely Establishmentarian organ, has been anti-Catholic for many years – and no one should be surprised: Establishments always hate alternate sources of authority and guidance. “The aim of the High is to remain where they are,” remember? Any nod toward an alternate source of authority – especially moral authority – diminishes the authority of the Establishment and therefore undermines it. And what weightier source of guidance could there be than the two-thousand-year-old Catholic Church?
Our time is one in which an overbearing, supremely arrogant Establishment seeks absolute and unbounded power over all things: our lives, our families, our enterprises, our personal relations, even when, with whom, and to what extent we elect to procreate. No other force in all of history – not even the Nazis of the Third Reich nor the Communist Parties of the USSR and Red China – has sought such all-encompassing power. Orwell could not have imagined it, though of all the writers who’ve conceived of totalitarian dystopias, he came the closest.
Today we need alternate sources of guidance – trustworthy ones that have no power to enforce their decrees — more than ever before.
I consider the point to have been made.
Finally, a personal note: As many young Catholics do, I drifted away from the Faith when I entered college. It’s the thing I most regret. Had I remained with it, I might have avoided many mistakes, some of them nearly fatal, that marred my young manhood. Nothing has brought me more joy or comfort than my return to the Church. What follows is a brief account, prompted by an inquiry from an agnostic colleague, written in the third person for reasons that ought not to require explication, of the seminal event. It first appeared at Eternity Road in December 2007.
He was far from home, alone in a sterile room in a cookie-cutter businessmen’s hotel, a storage warren for men on the road for purposes not their own. The television was off. The mini-bar beckoned, but he knew better than to indulge in his present mood. Dinner could wait, and anyway, there was room service around the clock.
He’d just returned to his lodgings after an exhausting day. It had been filled with frustrating negotiation and petty bickering, even though he and his hosts were employed by the same firm. He’d never liked being on the road; it impeded his sleep and compounded his anxieties. On that occasion, he had more than usual to worry about, for he and his wife had fought bitterly on the night before his departure. They’d had their differences before, but the most recent set had reached an unprecedented pitch. Divorce seemed imminent.
For several years his life had been filled with anxiety and fatigue. Despite an impressive list of accomplishments and a reputation as a genius in his field, his employment had become insecure. He’d worked hard at being a good husband and father, but his children had turned away from him and his wife had grown cold. His health wasn’t what it had been; several maladies common to older men had come upon him, further sapping his energies and causing him to wonder if his time of power was drawing to an end.
None of his troubles were new or nearly so. Yet he hadn’t learned how to carry them in a way that would allow him not to dwell on them. They were forever near his thoughts and often at the heart of them.
His strivings had begun to seem pointless. What did it matter how good he was at his trade, or how dedicated he was to it? His achievements would soon be surpassed by other, younger practitioners. No work of man’s hand wears the crown of its kind for long.
His attempts to heal the wounds in his family appeared doomed. His wife’s priorities had drifted from his. Their lives centered on entirely different things. Their relations with their children were no longer as a couple, but as disjoint individuals. She could not abide any of his few friends; out of a desire for peace, he’d ceased to have them in his home. She would not have any of her family or friends to visit, perhaps out of fear that he’d treat them in similar fashion. He couldn’t remember ever having done so, but surely she had a reason.
He was a scientist by education and a critical thinker by inclination and long habit. It was not his way to leave a problem unanalyzed, no matter how tender. But in his attempts to deal with his personal troubles, his powers failed him.
After all, he told himself, don’t innumerable other men face the same sorts and sets of difficulties? My sorrows aren’t unique. My colleagues share them. Some of them must bear far worse burdens. But they don’t complain…at least, not where I can hear. Are they better equipped to deal with their slings and arrows than I am with mine?
He could not know. He would not ask.
Worst was the sense of meaninglessness. Nothing he did, or refrained from doing, would affect more than a few lives at most. Were he to die that day, he would be swiftly forgotten, even by those closest to him. In the cooler reaches of his mind, he knew that that is how it must be. No man should matter critically to great numbers. All grief must give way to the imperatives of life and the needs of the living. No individual, be he ever so gifted, should have the power to upset those balances.
In the place where his agonies lived, he knew he could not resist despair and its accompaniments for much longer. He’d begun to toy with terrible ideas. He’d managed to refrain from embracing them, but how much longer could he withstand the temptations?
Restlessness impelled him to motion. He donned his coat, strode out of the hotel, got into his car and drove aimlessly down the little harbor town’s waterside street. Fishermen and pleasure boaters roamed the docks, in their several ways concluding their days on the water. Harborside bistros bustled with dinner trade. The late-winter evening was alight with commerce and indulgence, energies not yet spent by the day’s labors.
Just past the docks and the commercial zone stood a small Catholic church, a white-clapboard saltbox with a modest cruciform spire. It appeared unpatronized: the doors were closed, the windows were unlit, and there were no cars in its tiny parking lot. The sign at the curb was illegible in the evening gloom.
Though he’d been raised Catholic, he hadn’t been in a church in many years. Throughout his adult life, religion had struck him as a racket, a tool for the enrichment of its hierarchies at the expense of the credulous. Even so, he yielded to impulse, pulled into the lot, and went to the doors. They were unlocked.
There was no one inside. The nave was both short and narrow. The pews appeared old and hard worn. The altar was a simple table. The only light came from a gas lantern mounted over a gilded box affixed to the wall. From his early religious education, he knew it to be a Presence lamp. It was a rule in Catholic churches that the tabernacle — the gilded box below the lamp — must always be illuminated, for the transubstantiated host, the body of Christ, resides within.
He marveled briefly at his own presence there. He hadn’t intended to visit any particular place. He certainly hadn’t gone out looking for a church. He hadn’t reexamined his convictions about religion or the supernatural in many years. Yet there he was, in obedience to a sense of obligation he could not define.
He entered a nearby pew, knelt on the kneeler, and made the Sign of the Cross for the first time in nearly thirty years.
It triggered a flood of memories. Humorless teaching at the hands of habited authoritarians, impatient with the questions of the young. A rigid discipline that implied that everything not compulsory was forbidden, or very nearly so. Stories of the lives of saints that emphasized their sufferings and renunciations. A program designed to turn children away from the Church could not have done a better job of it.
But he remembered other things as well. Promises of a blissful life after death. Assurances that a Being infinitely above the mundane and its trials took note of each creature that lived, and loved them all. The serenity of prayer and the quiet majesty of commemorative rituals. A story of unequalled magnificence, of a Deliverer who feared no enemy, over whom death had no dominion. Above all, the certainty that even the humblest life was rich with meaning to an Interpreter that knows all and forgets nothing. Whose judgments were beyond reproach.
Why did I leave all that behind? Was it too poisoned by its disseminators? Was I unable to separate the good from the bad at that age?
When I came into the fullness of my powers, why didn’t I reassess it? Was I too embarrassed to do so, when it seemed that all the world had cast religion aside as a bad deal? Or was I unwilling to admit that my youthful reaction to being so brutally indoctrinated might have been excessive?
Apparently it was an evening for unprecedented thoughts. He chuckled at his own sobriety. If the stories were true, there was a battlefield within him, over which gods and demons struggled with total dedication and transcendent fury. Yet all he could remember of the days when those ideas had first been broached to him were humiliations, exhortations to repentance for guilt he didn’t feel, and wooden paddles wielded to quell the unruly.
Were the stories true? His habits of analysis and the rigorous examination of evidence demanded that the question be squarely addressed. They could not be proved. Could they be disproved?
The key narratives were almost two millennia old. They confirmed one another, but no non-Christian source confirmed them in their totality. They spoke of suspensions of the natural law — miracles — of a kind never before attributed to any figure. If they were true, that Figure had to stand above Man in the order of things. If it were so, He could not have been a temporal, goal-driven creature, for He had no agenda of His own. He traveled, taught, healed, suffered, died…and rose from the dead.
Insight came upon him in a flash of blinding purity.
Of course no non-Christian source would fully confirm the Gospels. Anyone who wrote objectively of the miracles, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, reporting them as observed, well-testified facts, would have to be a Christian. He couldn’t do so otherwise. So the lack of non-Christian confirmations means nothing.
It could all be true. It can’t be disproved. All it requires is that I allow that there might be a God — a Being above and apart from temporal reality, to which temporal reality is subject. There could be. That can’t be disproved either.
Men went to horrible deaths rather than renounce it. Many men.
There are no words to describe what followed. Faith exploded through him, a Christian satori whose suddenness and totality stopped his perception of time. Was it God speaking to him along some trans-dimensional channel? Or was it his need for meaning, for a niche in existence that would endure after his mortal struggles had ended, groping blindly for its last remaining chance?
He could never know. But knowing was unnecessary. Acceptance was all that was required of him.
“Our Father, Which art in heaven,” he murmured, “hallowed be Thy Name…”
Take that, detractors of the Church. As for my Gentle Readers, Catholic or otherwise: may God bless and keep you all!
Thank you, Fran.
A personal struggle of mine is tied up in your penultimate paragraph. It’s very difficult to practice acceptance, and to accept that I can’t know, when so many others are intent on explaining to me that THEY know, and that therefore I am wrong.
There are a lot of days when faith in anything seems very thin on the ground.
On a pure story-telling point, I love moments of quiet discovery like this. One of my favorite scenes in your canon is Steve Sumner’s Christmas vision at Our Lady of the Pines. Something that seems unnoteworthy from the outside, but it leaves the person walking away from that moment fundamentally different from the person that walked into it.