In my prior post, “What Do We Do When Our Priest Is A Communist? (Part I)” we saw that the true Church is not reducible to the people who occupy its offices at any particular point in time, not even to those in the highest positions of authority. The true Church is the Mystical Body of Christ extending through time. We depend upon that Church for our salvation, and we can’t abandon it because of the malfeasance of its temporary caretakers, whether they are priests, bishops, or even (if you can believe it) popes.
At the same time, while the immorality and infidelity of bad clerics can’t unmake the Church itself, it can do a lot of damage to members of the Church, and Church institutions, in particular times and places. It can cause souls to be lost. That was in fact the concern of the original comment that led to these posts. A father was afraid that the bad example and erroneous teaching of certain prominent churchmen (including some at a decidedly higher pay grade than his parish priest) would damage the faith of his children, and that he might need to leave the Church for their protection.
His concern is real. Our culture has become toxic, and it is actively hostile to Christian belief and practice. Not only that, the toxicity has infected a large part of the institutional Church. What can we do if leaving the Catholic Church itself is not an option?
I had mentioned to the original commenter that God tends to raise up his greatest saints at times when the institutional Church is at its worst . . . but that’s not really practical advice, is it? After all, it took decades, or even centuries, for the work begun by St. Benedict or St. Francis to bear fruit beyond the circle of their closest followers. Of course, they and the rest of our holy predecessors can intercede for us, and we ought to be asking them to do so. But there’s also something else the saints, the obscure as well as the great, have to offer: their example. Léon Bloy said, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” And in fact our Lord himself tells us: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
I don’t mean to get hung up on the word in this passage usually translated into English as “perfect”: Jesus surely isn’t demanding of us the sort of absolute perfection that belongs to God alone. The Greek word is τέλειοι, the basic meaning of which is “complete, finished, entire”; from there it came to mean “pure, unblemished”, particularly in reference to a sacrificial animal that fulfills all the highest standards of its kind.* In Matthew’s Gospel we find Jesus speaking these words in the Sermon on the Mount, after a series of examples showing how his disciples are to go beyond or even against the current moral understanding, culminating in:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven . . .” (Matthew 5:43-45)
Jesus is telling his disciples not to settle for what passes for wisdom in their world, but to carry the Gospel to completeness, to fulfillment, in their lives. They themselves need to be τέλειοι, complete, as in completely committed . . . even if it gets them in trouble with society at large. As to this last point, he had told them moments before “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matthew 5:11) Now he applies to them the same word commonly used to describe a worthy sacrificial victim. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
This is the essence of sanctity, and this complete devotion to Christ, as opposed to submission to the World, is what we most honor in the saints. It is also what we most need to emulate, however unworthy we might think we are (and I speak as someone who is definitely not ready to claim a day on the Liturgical Calendar). Again, it’s not a coincidence that working to build our lives on the rock foundation of Christ and not on the shifting sand of the World is also the best thing we can do, in very practical terms, for our children. I’d like to share a few ideas below on how we can do that, drawing in part on my own family’s experience.
First, the aforementioned problem of having Fr. Karl Marx for a pastor. The Church allows us great flexibility in choosing our parish. It’s worth taking the time to travel, if necessary, to find an orthodox, reverent Mass. We know a family (with more than a few small children) that makes a four hour round trip every Sunday to attend a Latin Mass. That heroic level of commitment is probably required of very few of us, although it’s worth noting that our forerunners in the faith often used to spend their entire Sunday in prayer; we can spend extra car time praying the rosary together, singing hymns, and so on. In any case, there’s likely to be a holy and wholesome Mass (and it needn’t be a Latin Mass) closer than two hours away. We have lived in various parts of one of the more liberal, and most unchurched, parts of the U.S., and we have never had to drive more than 40 minutes to find an acceptable (or better) liturgy.
Speaking of the Latin Mass, do go if you can. I’ve you’ve never attended, or have gone once or twice but don’t “get it”, prepare yourself with a little research first. In and of itself the traditional liturgy can bring you to deeper immersion in the Faith and, as an added bonus, attending the traditional liturgy, even if it’s only occasionally, will enrich your family’s experience and understanding of the Ordinary Form. Even watching a live streamed Latin Mass can be helpful; Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (a.k.a. Fr. Z) sometimes live streams his daily Extraordinary Form Masses and, trust me, you won’t catch him preaching communism from the pulpit.
I also recommend making it a priority to go to church for more than Sunday Masses. In addition to daily Masses there are also Holy Week services, holy days, parish missions, saints’ relics on tour, Vespers services, etc. As simple a thing as hanging around and talking to people after Mass can have a big impact on your children. Most parishes will have opportunities to put the faith into practice such as outreach and charitable projects. For centuries in the early Church even laypeople were expected to be there in person for morning and evening prayer, if they could manage it. It’s a great way to remind ourselves where our priorities ought to be, and to show our children that being a Christian is not a part-time job.
Let’s bear in mind as well that we are meant to carry what we have experienced and learned in church out into our everyday life. Accordingly, we speak of the home as the domestic church, and, as Pope St. John Paul II tells us, “Parents are the first and most important educators of their own children, and they also possess a fundamental competence in this area” (Letter to Families, #16). Nobody knows and loves your children like you do, and the most fundamental lessons are learned in the family (whether or not we realize that we’re teaching them). Daily prayer together as a family is essential, but your children should also know that their father and mother have a personal prayer life. I began daily recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours when my children were very young, and several of them have continued the practice on their own at college.
Taking charge of our own childrens’ faith formation is also important. In our case, my wife and I chose to educate our children at home, even though I was teaching at a highly regarded Catholic school. Our reasoning was that, even if all the teachers were faithful Catholics (and it’s a rare Catholic school indeed where even all the religion teachers are faithful Catholics, much less the faculty in general), those who attend are formed at least as much by the other students as they are by their instructors, and most of the students are formed in the toxic culture described above. If you decide that you can’t home school your children, and even if you find a solid, orthodox Catholic school, understand that the most the school can do, at best, is to supplement the foundation in faith that you build up in your domestic church at home. The parents are the primary teachers of the Faith.
As for higher education, I can’t think of a more direct road to hell than that provided by most institutions of what passes for “higher learning” today, and that includes most self-described Catholic colleges. We still receive the alumni magazine for the allegedly Catholic institution that my wife and I attended and, well, let’s just say that my reaction to said magazine is generally unprintable. We told our children that they could go there if they wanted, but we couldn’t in good conscience do anything to help or encourage their attendance at such an institution. Fortunately, they weren’t interested. They have had very positive experiences with two of the colleges on the very short list prepared by the Cardinal Newman Society. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that going to most other institutions puts their souls at grave risk. Really.
There is much more that can be said on this topic; I expect it will come up in this space again. I can’t think of a more important issue than the matter of how we conduct our own lives and raise our families in the light of the Faith as handed down by the Apostles. Truly making Christ the foundation of our lives will have a much bigger impact on our children than the ranting of any misguided cleric, however elevated his pulpit.
*There’s a lot more that could be said about this word as it’s used here. Maybe another article . . .