Letters from the Vatican #6

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Flannery O’Connor in the Vatican Basilica

by George Weigel

Sex abuse survivors Denise Buchanan and Alessandro Battaglia are pictured in front of St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 24 February, 2019, on the final day of the Vatican’s four-day meeting on the protection of minors in the church. Photo: CNS, Yara Nardi, Reuters

In one of her finely-crafted apologetical letters to the pseudonymous “A” in The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor explains to a skeptical friend that Catholics today suffer far more from the Church than for the Church. In the placid Catholic Fifties, Miss O’Connor undoubtedly had in mind the suffering that came from dull preaching, inept catechetics, obnoxious behavior, and other quotidian challenges to spiritual equanimity. And what was that, compared to what had been suffered in the great ages of persecution?

Were Flannery O’Connor alive today, however, it’s not hard to imagine her making the same observation, but with a considerably sharper edge on it. And perhaps her keen insight would have led her to a further suggestion: that the suffering that Catholics endure from the Church today – suffering has been palpable for months – must be transformed, by disciplined effort and a more radical openness to grace, into a suffering for the Church that helps cleanse the Church.

I hadn’t expected to be thinking of Flannery O’Connor quotes last Friday when I walked into the Basilica of St Peter’s a little before 7:30 a.m. with my friend and former student, Father Daniel Hanley. I wanted to see the candlelit Bernini Altar of the Chair and the robed, tiara-crowned statue of the Prince of the Apostles on the Feast of the Chair of St Peter, and Father Hanley, a faculty member at the Pontifical North American College, kindly agreed to celebrate Mass in the basilica for me. The altar Father Hanley had reserved, which includes the tomb of Pope St. Leo IX, had been usurped by another celebrant, so we “moved” a few yards away to the altar of St Joseph, within which are relics of the apostles Simon and Jude. That location (the closest you come in today’s basilica to the probable site of Peter’s crucifixion in Nero’s Circus), the Gospel reading for the day, and Father Hanley’s fine homily combined to put my experiences of recent months, and of the Pope’s “meeting for the protection of minors,” into perspective – and then brought to mind Flannery O’Connor.

The Gospel the Church reads on the Feast of Peter’s Chair is quite familiar: Matthew 16, 13-19. On the road to Caesarea Philipp, Jesus asks his disciples what the crowds are saying about him. After a variety of answers are given, Peter makes his confession of faith– “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” – and the Lord gives him a commission: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

In the context of Matthew’s gospel, Father Hanley, observed, that scene is not a revelation of Christ: in his first chapter, Matthew has already told his readers that Jesus has been conceived by the action of the Holy Spirit, so the readers know what’s what and who’s who. No, Peter’s confession and the Lord’s response, twelve chapters later, is the revelation of the Church. And as the Lord makes clear by the gift of the keys, the Church exists to preach the Gospel: to proclaim the salvation of the world and be the vessel of grace by which we are saved. That is what the Church is for. That is Catholicism’s raison d’etre.

The Church, Father Hanley continued, is a secondary object of faith; the primary object of the act of faith is the Thrice-Holy God. But the Church is, nonetheless, an object of faith. Yesterday, hundreds of millions of Catholics throughout the world signaled that by saying “I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Yes, the foundation of Catholic faith is friendship with Jesus Christ: He is the primary object of our faith, along with his Father and their Holy Spirit. But Catholic Christianity does not permit a choice between Christ (or the Trinity) and the Church. It’s a package deal. To say, in our various ways, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” means incorporation into his Body, the Church.

The import of reciting the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed every week is, somehow, easier to grasp in St. Peter’s, where the extraordinary density of Catholic history is palpable – and so is the reality of suffering from and for the Church and its Lord.

We were, after all, celebrating the Eucharist in a time of crisis and praying for the Church’s leaders a few yards from the likely site of St. Peter’s final suffering – Peter, who had suffered from the Church (some of whose early members challenged his table-fellowship with Gentiles) as well as for the Church and the Master. Our Eucharist was being celebrated above some of the mortal remains of two of Peter’s friends and fellow-apostles, Simon and Jude – also martyrs. The altar itself and the mosaic above it were dedicated to St. Joseph: Patron of the Universal Church, and a man who had to configure his will to God’s will on many occasions, no doubt with some measure of suffering. Next door, so to speak, was the tomb of Bruno of Egisheim-Dagsburg, St. Leo IX: a reforming pope who worked with St. Peter Damian (an ascetic who embraced mortification and fasting as spiritual disciplines) to cleanse the Catholic clergy of sexual sin in the eleventh century.

Twentieth-first century post-modernity regards suffering as an absurdity and flees from it by any number of escape routes – including the seemingly attractive but ultimately soul-crushing path of sexual license. The gospel challenges Catholics to be countercultural in many ways, but none of those ways is perhaps more sharply countercultural than the challenge to embrace suffering as a means of purification. And that is one lesson I took away from that morning in the patriarchal Vatican basilica, amidst a meeting to consider the suffering that men consecrated to the service of Christ and the Church have inflicted on others: Those who have personally suffered the scourge of clerical sexual abuse, those who have suffered from angry embarrassment over revelations of it, and those in the Church’s official leadership who have been inadequate (or worse) in their response to it must find ways to transform this suffering from and in the Church into a suffering for the Church that becomes a means of purifying the Church.

Lent begins next week. The Lord was told his frustrated and angry disciples that certain kinds of devils can only be cast out by intensified prayer and fasting. As the Church struggles with the devils that beset it during the upcoming Forty Days, may the mortification the people of the Church freely embrace for the Church, in their Lenten disciplines, be a means of repairing the damage that has been done from the Church, for the sake of a purified Church that can proclaim again, with credibility, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

And may this coming Lent, and the Eastertide to follow, be the occasion for Catholics to thank the many good men in Holy Orders whom they know – and in doing so, help ease the pain these priests and bishops feel over the failures of their brothers in the ministry.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

[This is the last in this series of LETTERS FROM THE VATICAN. Your editor is most grateful to those who have gotten these LETTERS to those for whom they were written: Ramona Tausz and R.R. Reno at First Things in New York; Luke Coppen and Nick Hallett at the Catholic Herald in London; Peter Rosengren and Catherine Sheehan at the Catholic Weekly in Sydney. Thanks, too, to our collaborating writers: Fr Philip G. Bochanski, Fr Brett Brannan, Dr Theresa Farnan, Fr Thomas Ferguson, Fr Carter Griffin, Mary Rice Hasson, Father James Mason, Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, Dr Deborah Savage, Dr. Janet E Smith, Dr Susan Selner-Wright, George Weigel, D. Shawn McCauley Welch, and Stephen White. For various forms of support that have made these LETTERS possible, thanks as well to the members of the Junior Ganymede Club, to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, and to Mr and Mrs Robert Weber.  XR II]