In the year since Pope Francis’s election, I have watched with mounting concern as conservative Catholics have become increasingly agitated over the Pope’s simpler papal style, his seeming lack of concern for precision in speaking and writing, the contrast between him and the Pope Emeritus, and his critique of ideologies that they hold dear. In response, I have written a number of blog posts that were intended, in part, to reassure, challenge, and exhort conservative Catholics to be not afraid.
And yet still the alarm bells are ringing. In one case, a friend is anxiously waiting for the expected episcopal Synod on the Family this October, wondering if he can remain Catholic if there are changes in the Church’s eucharistic discipline for divorced and remarried Catholics. Someone else I know has been toying with Radical Traditionalism for years, but has recently become more and more outspoken about his involvement with the Society of St. Pius X. Others are not yet at the point of publicly questioning their faith or openly dissenting from it, but are constantly seeking to reassure themselves and others that the Pope is not as “bad” as the media is supposedly painting him.
In tracking this trend, I noticed that there were a number of common bonds that are shared by those who are fearful about where the Pope is taking the Church. For example, most are not only religiously conservative but also politically conservative. Many are plugged into the Internet, scanning Church web sites on a regular basis for any clues that might help them decipher the papal tea leaves. And, not incidentally, more than a few are converts.
Last year, in response to news that the Italian journalist Magdi Allam, a convert who was baptized by Benedict XVI, had defected from the Church, I wrote a blog post titled The Rise and Fall of a Catholic Convert. In that post, I observed:
I firmly believe that, sooner or later, each and every convert to the Catholic faith—whether that person chose to become Catholic as an adult or was brought into the faith as a baby by his parents—is going to have to face the scandal that the Church is not what he believed it to be when he signed up. The test will be whether he will persevere because he knows it to be the Church Christ founded, or whether he will fall away because he decides it is merely a human institution that has disappointed him.
(Nota bene: I included myself in the number of those who will be challenged at some point in their lives by the scandal of the Church, and told the story of my own brief lapse from the practice of the faith.)
Setting aside all the reasons why converts might reconsider their commitment to the Church, some sympathetic and others not so much, for the purpose of this blog post I want to focus on suggestions for how to remain Catholic when you feel like you are losing your faith.
Be teachable. Learning the Catholic faith is a lifelong process. St. Isidore of Seville, one of the last Latin Fathers of the Church, once remarked that the man who said he had read all of the writings of St. Augustine is a liar. He was making an observation on St. Augustine’s prodigious literary output, but he was quite literally correct since lost manuscripts of St. Augustine continue to pop up out of obscurity from time to time.
This same dictum can also be applied to the Catholic faith: The man who says he knows all there is to know about the Catholic faith is a liar. Remember Christ’s parable of the householder, who continually brings out of the treasure room both the new and the old (Matt. 13:52). Seek to remain interiorly open to accepting the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops in union with him, even when you do not understand why they propose solutions that seem to make no sense to you. Keep reminding yourself that it is more likely that you should fail to understand than that Christ should fail to guide and protect his Church.
Be steadfast. Never give anyone, not even the Pope, power over your spiritual peace. Copy out the following quote from lay Catholic apologist Frank Sheed and paste it to your bathroom mirror, where you can recite it every morning and every evening:
We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point. I, myself, admire the present pope, but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the Church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing that a pope (or a priest) could do or say would make me wish to leave the Church, although I might well wish that they would leave.
Unplug. One of the downsides to the cyber age is that it is difficult to escape being more informed than you want to be. But those who are struggling with their faith need to escape the deluge of stories on the Internet that are rattling their spiritual peace. As British convert and apologist Msgr. Ronald Knox once noted, “On the barque of Peter, those with queasy stomachs should keep clear of the engine room.”
If you have a blog, shut it down. The need to keep putting up new content will have you seeking out news stories you should be avoiding. If you have a Facebook page, either disable it or arrange your settings to block news you do not need to know. While it may sound harsh to say so, any cyber acquaintance who does not respect an announcement that you are taking a break from discussing Church news ought to be avoided, even if it means that you must unfriend that person.
Receive Communion. The good news is that conservative Catholics usually do not have to be told to go to confession. The bad news is that those same Catholics sometimes will refrain unnecessarily from receiving Communion. While the intention to avoid profaning the Eucharist when feeling “out of communion” with the Church is a noble one, it is also misguided. In an age when lay Catholics had to be ordered by law of the Church to receive Communion at least once per year, St. Therese of Lisieux pleaded:
Our Lord does not come down from heaven every day to lie in a golden ciborium. He comes to find another heaven which is infinitely dearer to him—the heaven of our souls, created in his image, the living temples of the adorable Trinity.
Receiving sacramental Communion is necessary for maintaining spiritual communion with Christ and his Church. Unless you are absolutely certain you have committed a mortal sin, I strongly urge you to receive Communion every single time you go to Mass. If you have committed a mortal sin, go to confession and then receive Communion. But never allow your own feelings of alienation or unworth to prevent you from receiving the Eucharist. While your intention may be good, the result of what you are doing is a deeper estrangement of yourself from Christ and his Church.
In this take a page from our Catholic brethren to your left. If you ask liberal Catholics what keeps them in the Church, why they refuse to leave even when it might seem to you they should do so in order to maintain integrity, the reason they unfailingly give for staying is the Eucharist. While the argument can be made that there are cases in which someone who disagrees with Church teaching should not present himself for Communion, the instinct to stay close to the Eucharist is itself a laudable instinct and one that would be well worth cultivating.
Always return. In the final book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling, Harry’s friend Ron Weasley is bequeathed a Deluminator by Albus Dumbledore. The device was mainly used to extinguish lights, enabling the user to accomplish necessary tasks under cover of darkness. But Ron discovered another use for the Deluminator. When he was separated from Harry and their friend Hermione, the Deluminator acted as a signal device that enabled him to return to his friends.
After rejoining Harry and Hermione, Ron says of Dumbledore’s gift, “He knew what he was doing when he gave me the Deluminator, didn’t he? He—well—he must’ve known I’d run out on you.” Harry corrects Ron, “No. He must’ve known you’d always want to come back.”
No matter how often you stumble, or how many times you run, you can always return to the Church—and sometimes by the very means by which the light of faith was extinguished in the first place. You might hear of something a pope said or did that touches your heart; a friend may share good news about Christ and his Church instead of bad news; you may find a televised Mass while channel-surfing and be filled with yearning by the sight of the Eucharist held high.
In The Queer Feet, G. K. Chesterton‘s amateur detective Father Brown describes the power of grace upon a wandering soul. Keep it in mind whenever you begin to become discouraged in your faith, and know that wherever you go, God’s grace will surely follow:
“Yes,” [Father Brown] said, “I caught [the repentant thief], with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”