21 January 2007

Thoughts from the mission, about the mission

In fulfillment of a desire I've had for several months now, my work schedule facilitated a day to myself to visit the Santa Barbara and Ventura missions.

For some time Jesus has been reasoning with me about the whole RC thing. I decided some months ago that I needed to just back off and stay away, because the revulsion and fury incited by the latest out of Orange County or Los Angeles were obviously far more dangerous to my soul than staying home for my usual practice of reading and meditation and prayer. I am a codependent and must stay away from those who would emotionally, financially, or otherwise abuse me; God knows this and I trust him not to penalize me.

But Jesus, ever patient, waited until I got fed up with the limitations of Protestant theology, then tried (yet!) again. In the grace of quiet thought-colloquy that is sometimes granted during times of silent meditation, he pointed out that, given all we American Catholics have been through, and the news out of Europe about empty churches, it would seem inevitable that the next Pope after Vatican II would come from the ranks of the "reformers." Instead, it was John Paul I, followed by John Paul II. The "reformers" thought for sure their guy would get in after John Paul II's demise; instead it was Benedict XVI. I'm not surprised that there were literal howls of dismay in archdiocesan offices at the news, especially here in Los Angeles.

Every day that Joseph Ratzinger wakes up and does his duty as Pope is a gift from God. Benedict XVI is gently, firmly, steering the Barque of Peter back on course. Every time I think I'm going to be able to shake the dust of RC off my feet forever, he writes something or says something that stops me, humbled, in my tracks.

And that's what Jesus keeps reminding me: it didn't have to be Ratzinger. It could have been, say, Roger Mahony.

(If Roger Mahony were Pope, I would expect to hear the crash of wrecking balls in St. Peter's within a decade. That old Michelangelo crap would have to go. After all, it makes one want to just spontaneously kneel in awe! And we can't have kneeling ... especially not in church!)

[ahem. /sarcasm. sorry.]

But Jesus is not about to let that happen. This is His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. He promised, remember?

And every time we act as though it could be otherwise, we sin by lack of trust.

It was with those thoughts in mind that I prepared for my little pilgrimage.

- - - - - - -

I stayed overnight in a nearby town and had a difficult night for some reason. I woke very anxious at one point, feeling like I could not breathe well. I blamed the dusty heater. Fortunately the room had French doors which I could open a ways, which seemed to help.

Santa Barbara's gift shop and museum are the most recognizably Catholic parts of the whole experience, these days. The church interior is pretty, but bare and sterile. In the church, the altar - white stone, very beautiful - is the most noticeable thing, carefully and dramatically lit. I couldn't find the tabernacle. It feels like a building carefully made up to look like a house of worship, with superficial nods to the lively faith that brought it into being in the first place.

For example, there are two places where candles are allowed: just outside the gift shop, and in the crypt. While exploring the cemetery garden, I ventured into the crypt, reading with fascination the inscriptions on the tombs. Down a long passage, dark in spite of the bright morning, I found the big crucifix which probably used to adorn the church in other times. The life-size Jesus, cold and alone, hangs in the near-dark among his faithful dead, except for three wavering flames in the candles in the racks below him. The symbolism was probably as inadvertent as it was glaringly obvious.

In Ventura, the church was busy - baptisms, followed by a funeral - and so I didn't go in. But this is one of the extremely rare churches where the indult mass is permitted every Sunday, and its influence shows in the gift shop. I was able to purchase a black mantilla, which I've been needing, and a Pièta prayerbook. I also got Magnificat for February. I'd heard about this publication but had never seen it before. It's beautiful! I plan to use it this coming month, then subscribe if it is the help it looks like it will be.

The drive down the coast was so beautiful. I've heard some remark on the fact that the highway uses land of unbelievable value, leaving it unavailable for development, while the highway could be placed higher on the bluffs. (Never mind that the bluffs keep tumbling down). But the original planners laid the highway next to the ocean, so there is a blissful long stretch of unalloyed beauty, in spite of the feverish development going on all these years.

In the same way, it could be said that Jesus prepared the Church for this terrible time. If we think that she could be stopped by a relatively few years of nonsense, we aren't giving much credit to her Founder and shepherd. In spite of the contempt and harshness displayed by the reformers, the history of this Church cannot be altered, and unless and until they purge every single old prayerbook, destroy every rosary, eradicate all performances of the glorious music composed for the church, and suppress every single order and institute now flourishing due to their love of traditional ways, those traditions and practices, and the deep spirituality they inspire, will persist, especially among the idealistic young.

Whenever I read Deus Caritas Est, I know that I shall never be able to uphold the ideals it teaches without a miracle of grace in my life. Reading it leaves me knowing beyond doubt that I am human, and absolutely in need of grace - a good place to be, spiritually. Just because I cannot, on my own, live out those ideals, does not make them wrong and me right.

The "reformers" who've been so cruel and heartless towards Christ's needy, stupid sheep, deserve from the flock nothing but prayer. True, we must put up with their innovations, the mangled liturgies, the excruciating music, dull banners, uninspiring churches, and all the rest of it. But, like us, they will have to stand before Jesus - and, because of the incredible responsibility of the guidance of souls for whom Jesus died, they will be called to account that much more strictly.

Every child whose faith was stunted or extinguished, or whose life on earth was over before it began, and for all the adults who fled the Church, disillusioned and angry and hungry and confused - for every one of those souls, those who could have supported them but did not, will have to answer. I believe they need prayer more than nattering from us, at this point.

They can mangle our Mass until it's unrecognizable, give us only cold bare buildings to stand in while we worship, and pooh-pooh our traditional pious practices, refuse us communion on the tongue and drag us to our feet when we would kneel before the Host - but they cannot stop Jesus' love for us, no matter what they try. And, once we've known Jesus' gentle touch on our souls, they can never take that away from us, either. They are helpless. And Jesus reminds them, and us, every time Joseph Ratzinger wakes up in the morning and yawns and stretches and gets out of bed to face another day. He doesn't have to be there. John Paul II didn't have to be elected, either, or live as long as he did. Those who remove the tabernacle and resist Eucharistic adoration and sneer at the kind of traditional piety which sees Jesus as a real human being as well as the Son of God would squirm in discomfort at this picture:

... There is an illustrative episode from [John Paul II's] last months that hints at [how he managed to stand as strong as a rock while the tides of relativism washed around him]. This was, recall, a period when the focus was on the pope’s suffering and when, one would think, he would be consumed by it. One of his closest senior aides was looking for the pope in his apartments. Not finding him, he went into the private chapel. There he found the pope in his altar chair, with his arms around the tabernacle, singing in Polish. The aide fled. Later in the afternoon, he asked John Paul II what he had been doing in the chapel. The pope responded that he had been singing a song his mother used to sing to him when he was sad as a boy, and that he had been comforting our Lord.

The frightening intimacy that this man gained with Jesus Christ has changed the world, because Christ shone through him in a way that could be seen by billions of people. John Paul II had gone so completely into God that others could see God in him. This, his whole life seemed to say, is how a man lives who is not afraid, because “love always brings victory.”
Robert R. Reilly in Crisis Magazine, May 25, 2005.

It is Jesus' church, messy and all-too-human, with too many weak, self-protective leaders and too many indifferent, childish laity ... but it is his, and he loves it more dearly than his own life, as he proved. We need not be afraid.


Anonymous said...

this was brilliant.

(have you really read all of Deus Caritas Est? i was thinking about printing it out in its entirety but am uncertain if i have enough ink...)

A. Noël said...

Wow, thanks ...

No, I haven't read Deus Caritas Est properly, but only once through, far too fast, and have dipped into it since.

Each time I read any of those kinds of writings from the Popes, I'm struck by their erudition, tightly-reasoned conclusions, and the consistency of their teachings.

One cannot characterize Benedict XVI (or John Paul II) as harsh without instantly revealing that one hasn't bothered to read what they've written.