One of the best things about the Catholic Church, in my humble opinion, is the fact that we don’t look at our clergy as our highest role models of the Church.
This is not to say that all of our clergy and religious orders people are bad people — on the contrary! There are many good people who dedicate themselves to the Word of God with true sacrifice and devotion.
But, if this scandal has taught us anything, there are many bad people in the clergy as well, including people who have made it to the very top levels of authority in our Church.
And it is very discouraging to see that the top authorities in our Church have such vile sins attached to them. It is a scandal and disheartening and just… shows you how pervasive and persuasive evil is.
And yet… I can’t help but think of an old story that was told centuries ago…
Way back sometime in the middle ages, a priest who argued with his Jewish friend about the truth of Christianity. Finally, his friend said he would go to Rome himself and see for himself whether Christianity was worth following. At this statement, the priest despaired, for he knew that there was plenty of corruption that went on at Rome and he knew that his friend would see the hypocrisy and corruption clearly and be turned from the faith once and for all.
So, when the friend came back, the priest was surprised to hear that his friend had decided to become a Christian.
“But! The corruption and hypocrisy!” the priest cried. “Didn’t you see any of that?”
“Of course,” his friend replied. “And I’ve decided that any institution that could be so poorly run by so many terrible people for so long must be run by God. Otherwise, it would have never lasted.”
Hillaire Belloc echoes that sentiment with his quote:
“The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
Throughout the history of the Church, we have plenty of stories of horrible leadership and power plays at the highest ranks. And these people can and do affect the Church in negative ways that can have a lasting effect.
Yet, it is not that we remember when we remember Church history…
It is the saints that we remember.
It is the people who stood up for the truth, sometimes losing everything in the process.
It was the saints that launched the movements that changed the world.
It was the saints that convert our hearts, even today.
And so, for today I would to present you an image of Saint Francis:
It’s an artwork depicting St. Francis of Assisi in ecstasy, his hands spread out wide and his gaze turned toward Heaven. He is in a simple robe which is the traditional garb of the Franciscans, which he founded, and unshod, though his sandals are nearby. And, all throughout the picture, there are all sorts of reminders of his life that are placed to remind us of the life that he lived.
A bird is placed to remind us that he used to preach to the birds and to remind them of the glory of God. As the story goes! He was walking along with some friends when he saw a great flock of birds. He rushed toward them out of excitement and was surprised that they didn’t fly away at once. And so he began to preach to them in earnest, reminding them they were God’s creatures and thus they should always love God.
Then the donkey! St. Francis used to call his body “Brother Donkey” because he saw himself as a vessel of God. And, just as a donkey once carried Christ to His Passion, St. Francis carried Christ to others. St. Francis also liked donkeys; as they legend goes, while St. Francis was on his deathbed, he thanked his donkey for having carried him. And the donkey wept upon hearing these words.
There are also shepherds! St. Francis loved lambs. He used to train lambs to follow him around and he saved many of them from being slaughtered. He once had a lamb when he stayed at Rome and then, when he left Rome he gave it to a woman who used its wool to make many garments. When he died, he wore some clothes that were made from the wool of the sheep.
But the painting doesn’t only refer to his extraordinary love for animals. In fact, though he is facing the world, utterly enthralled, it seems as if he has only just turned to the world after praying hard at a prie-dieu, or a prayer kneeler, which has a skull on it. Why the skull? Because of memento mori, or in English, remember that you will die. In his famous prayer, The Canticle of the Sun, he prays to Sister Death, who will reunite us to Christ, who will bring us home to Heaven.
If that doesn’t strike you, just look at where he has seemingly emerged from: a cave. This is both a nod to the Resurrection, which Bellini typically depicted as a cave, and also to St. Francis’s own life, as he spent a lot of time praying in a cave and hiding from his father when he was trying to determine his own vocation.
This one man changed the world in an absolutely extraordinary way because he followed the call of God and let the Holy Spirit work through him.
And here’s the thing: he was only a man.
But God is God. And when you let God work in your life and you become a conduit of the Holy Spirit, then nothing is impossible.
After all, nothing is impossible for God.
So! Let this be a rallying cry for us to follow God and aim for sainthood! There is plenty of evil in the world, and there will be many who will embrace it. We have to keep our eyes open to these snares for ourselves, as they can be well-hidden at times. And yet, let us look to Jesus Christ and follow the path toward Him.
Because with Christ, there is always life.