I’ve spent the past 16 months traveling this country. I’ve been to Mass in 36 states in the past year and a half and in half a dozen other countries in recent years. So let me tell you something, in case you haven’t noticed: this Church of ours is badly in need of reform. I know you feel it too. You read the headlines and sit in the pews and watch the youth fall away and you know that something’s gotta give. With clergy abusing minors while bishops look the other way, with vapid “catechesis” and liturgy that reminds one more of a carnival or a dreary deposition than the wedding feast of the Lamb, with Catholics who dehumanize the unborn and Catholics who victimize the poor, it’s no wonder that many of us resting in the arms of Mother Church feel compelled to do something.
The list of particular faults would be different, but the sentiment has been the same since Jesus ascended. The Church is already but not yet, divine and human, “holy and always in need of purification.”1 Whether it’s casting out heretics or letting sinners in, faithful sons and daughters of Mother Church have been drawing her along the path of purification (by God’s grace) since before anyone else knew there was a Church.
You and I are descendants of this noble tradition, this tradition of reform that made yesterday’s Saint a Saint and not the founder of a Protestant denomination.2 If you’re looking critically at the state of the Church, there ought to be elements that make you weep, not because of bitterness but because of a deep love for the Body of Christ, the Church. She’s preserved free of error but not free of sin. Made exclusively of sinners (in the Church militant, anyway), it’s no wonder that she’s so beset by scandal and failure. But we who love her will not despair. We will follow in the footsteps of Robert Bellarmine and Francis de Sales, of Nicholas and Augustine, of John XXIII and Mother Teresa. We will live in such a way that the Church and the world will never be the same.
So what can we do, we who have so much hope for this magnificent Church made up of flawed individuals? How can we love our Church as the beacon of truth instituted by Christ while working to make her more true, good, and beautiful? How can we reform without starting a reformation?
1. Know what the Church is supposed to be. If you’re concerned with the state of things, do your research first. Read the Catechism3 so you know what can and can’t change in the Church. Here’s a hint: doctrine can’t change. And won’t. Ever. If you’re big on the “spirit of Vatican II,” read the documents before you make a vague reference to the feelings you have about the council. If you want to question Church teaching, read the whole Bible. If you’re still unsure about transubstantiation or Mary or social justice, read everything written by the Church Fathers–it’s all been there from the beginning.
This is the difference between reform and dissent: a reformer fights to make the Church more herself; a dissenter tries to remake the Church in his own image. Teresa and Ignatius and Pius and Robert are reformers because they saw the glory latent in a broken Church and sought to draw it out. Luther and Calvin and Cranmer were dissenters because they tried to impose their ideas on the Church–and lost her in the battle. If you’re trying to turn the Church into a charitable organization or a social club or a rock concert, find another group to subvert. But if you know what Jesus and Cyprian and Gregory and Catherine and John Henry and John Paul meant by Church–an instrument of truth and goodness and beauty in a sin-ravaged world–then let’s get to work.
2. Don’t complain. The temptation when you’re in a spiritually dead parish or a liturgically heterodox parish or a parish led by a great sinner is to gossip. We get with like-minded people and whine about how bad things are which makes us more ill-tempered and more likely to see the bad. We miss the holiness and reverence and joy because we’re looking for the topic of our next tirade. Make this commitment: don’t say anything negative about the Church to people who can’t do anything about it. The less you complain, the less frustrated you’ll be.
The flip side is this: have the guts to say something. If you’re concerned that the religious ed program is too fluffy, don’t complain to the other parents, go talk to the D.R.E.! If you can’t take the liturgical abuses, talk it over with Father. If that doesn’t work and it’s serious enough, meet with the bishop. Or, if it’s appropriate, talk to a friend who’s closer to your pastor and would be willing to raise your concerns. If it’s important enough to “vent” about, it’s important enough to discuss with someone who can make changes. Reform doesn’t come from sniping in hushed undertones. If it matters, take a risk and say something. You might be crucified for it–but at least you’ll be in good company.
3. Be the change. Sometimes talking to someone isn’t going to help. But even if it would, you have to be willing to do something. If you think kids these days don’t know their faith, volunteer to teach them. Or if you have more money than charisma, make a donation specifically earmarked for sending kids to a Steubenville conference or a LifeTeen camp. If you think parishes need to be stronger communities, talk to your pastor about forming a welcoming committee. Be a mentor couple for young people in marriage prep. Host a mom’s group or a teen movie night or a young adult dinner. If you’re concerned that your parish isn’t doing enough to evangelize, offer to go door-to-door in the neighborhood inviting people back to Church. Stop saying “Somebody should really do something” and DO IT!
This covers little things, too. If you’re frustrated at what people wear to Mass, don a three-piece suit or a fancy (modest) dress with a matching hat. Get to Mass early and kneel quietly if noise in the sanctuary bothers you; it might just show people what the sanctuary is for. Receive the Eucharist like it’s actually the God of the universe. Because it is. Iron the altar linens. Teach your children to be reverent. But make sure you’re not taking it too far: you might want to kneel when the GIRM says to kneel, but if the bishop has issued different norms, you always defer to the bishop. Be the change by being obedient, by getting your hands dirty, by wasting your time and driving people nuts. Make a mess, my friends. Pope Francis will be so proud.
4. Live in the heart of the Church. The great Catholic reformers loved their Church, warts and all. If you’re serious about wanting to change the Church, it has to be at the service of the Church, not at the service of some ideology. If you don’t love the Church with everything you are, fight until you do. Get to confession at least monthly. Go to daily Mass as often as possible. Pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the “prayer of the Church.” Invite your priest over for dinner. Pray for the pope.
Because if you don’t love the Church–deeply, desperately love her as the body of Christ on earth–then your good impulses will be twisted. You’ll find yourself attacking the Church instead of supporting her. Before you know it, your reform will be a reformation.
You cannot change the Church from outside. If you truly believe that the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ against whom the gates of hell will not prevail, cling to her. Don’t be a Catholic in name only–submit your intellect and your will, your entire life to the Church. Consent to be a failure and watch the Lord emerge victorious.
5. Be a saint. It all comes down to this. You can write brilliant blog posts or start great programs or argue with a thousand priests and win and nothing will matter if you’re not holy. Be so freaking holy that people around you are drawn to Christ. Look at the history of our Church: you never find solitary Saints. St. Clare was holy and dragged her mother (Blessed) and two sisters (one Saint, one Blessed) along with her. Bernard of Clairvaux was so holy that his parents, six brothers, and one sister are all canonized or on their way there. John Bosco and Dominic Savio, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, and all their less famous companions–they spurred each other on, called one another to greatness. This, my friends, is how you reform the Church: you love so hard and you pray so well and you learn and you teach and you value humility second only to charity.
The great reformers of our Church were all Saints–not because we canonize people who do impressive things but because you can’t do great works unless you abandon your own desires and live only for Christ’s. Our Church and our world don’t need revolutionaries, they need saints. So before you do anything else, get your butt to confession and get praying. Real, serious prayer time, even when you’re “too busy.” Ask the Lord to use you, to work in you, to set you on fire with love for him. Then get out of the way.
I have great hope for our Church. I have to–I trust the Holy Spirit. But I’ve also met many of his chosen instruments. And you all have what it takes to be the great saints this Church needs. Let us begin.