Dealing with the temptation to fear Print
From the Diocesan Administrator
Written by Msgr. James Bartylla, Diocesan Administrator   
Thursday, Mar. 21, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
From the Diocesan Administrator column

Greetings in Jesus Christ to the catechumens and candidates gathered here today at the Rite of Election!

In the Gospel today, Our Lord Jesus Christ enters the desert of temptation -- not in fear, but in a step of fulfillment of His Incarnation among us. We are still tempted today, often in fear, and currently it is in relation to fear associated with the Church.

I ask three things of you today, all related to the admonition of our Lord, which was often repeated by Pope St. John Paul II: "Do not be afraid!" Don't be afraid of the mystery of the Church; don't be afraid of the sacred doctrine of the Church; and don't be afraid of the works of the Church.

Don't be afraid of the Mystery of the Church

I recently watched a show on EWTN (Catholic television), entitled Call to Communion, in which a theologian, Dr. David Anders, answered a question from a concerned mother.

She said, "My college-aged children are being challenged, and I mean really attacked, as a result of the recent scandals in the Church . . . any words of advice that you could share for them to respond charitably?"

Dr. Anders' answer, summarized below, surprised me. Dr. Anders said that from an apologetics point of view, the way to engage the question of corruption in the Church hierarchy is to tackle it head-on, and to put our worst possible examples from history up front. For, if the Church can't survive the worst possible popes in history or the worst scandal or crisis, then She can't survive by definition.

The faith we have in the Church, as an institution created by Christ, means we believe Jesus created an institution in which He fully understood and allowed for the probability of corrupt and incompetent leadership.

That's what it means to believe in grace. It does not mean that Christ created an institution that would change the world by always and everywhere being a moral or bureaucratic exemplar through all its members (i.e., the Church isn't Apple or Microsoft convincing you through universal product satisfaction and three-sigma quality assurance of all Church members' holiness). Rather, through broken and wounded people, grace nevertheless pervades this society called "the Church" and through it flows to the whole world.

You have to look at the Church through that lens to understand Her as Holy Mother Church.

Also, remember the hierarchy alone is not "the Church." The Church is the whole people of God -- which includes the hierarchy. Among the whole people of God, clergy, and laity, there are saints of extraordinary heroism and sanctity, and some real "nincompoops" (this was my mother's technical term for me when I would get silly, or stupid, or really mess up and do the wrong thing when I should have known better). That's the society that Christ founded, which, even just among his 12 Apostles provided the range of heroic sanctity, cowardice, and "nincompoopery."

We should all take heart in that realization, because, well frankly, "I am a nincompoop," and every one of us has been at some point in our lives, and our lives are broken, wounded, and storied and we have to confront that reality in our own hearts every day.

Yet, when we look at the society in its totality which is the Church, and see in spite of this, grace working through this institution, through the sacraments, and through the proclamation of the Word of God, then we see some people lay hold of that and come to tremendous sanctity. Then we think, "Whew! There is hope for me too!" That's what it means to believe in the Church.

Let me provide you a concrete picture of this. I briefly met Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan in the 1990's during my real estate consulting days in New York City. His story is dramatic.

He was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon on April 24, 1975, just six days before it fell to the communists. He also had family connections to the previously-ruling Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. As the communists rolled into Saigon, Archbishop Van Thuan was put in prison (re-education camp) for 13 years, nine of those in solitary confinement.

He beautifully reached out to his flock through smuggled messages and eventually forgave his captors. He was exiled after imprisonment, and was named by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 as the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome.

Cardinal Van Thuan died in 2002, and was declared Venerable on May 4, 2017. Now, I would bet that the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick met Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan during those years in Rome. A picture of the two meeting is a picture of the Church -- sanctity and corruption. I think this is what Pope Francis means when he says that the Church is a field hospital. I prefer to call it a pressure cooker of grace, for sanctity.

This doesn't mean the Church is not gravely obligated to root out corruption and scandal within the Church. Actually, to the contrary, it is our duty and privilege in seeking holiness to make the Church a place of safety for all and an example of sanctity.

However, to believe in the Church instituted by Christ only if it has an earthly perfection, free of all corruption or imperfection of all its members, is not really to know or understand the Church that Christ founded in his tender mercy for us -- his group of nincompoops.

Don't be afraid of the Sacred Doctrine of the Church

Second, do not be afraid of the Sacred Doctrine of the Church. For the purposes of an example, I would expand that statement even to saying, do not be afraid of the discipline of the Church. Many scoff at the discipline of priestly celibacy, as just one example related to the teachings of the Church.

I remember one trip I made to Milwaukee for a meeting at St. Francis de Sales Seminary when I was vocations director some years ago. I stopped at a café in Milwaukee an hour before the meeting to get some tea and read my Catholic periodicals. I approached the barista, wearing my Roman collar. As she took my order, she said, "Are you one of those Catholic priests?" I answered yes, as if I was an endangered species rarely seen before. As she processed my order, I could see her mind working hard on the issue. Suddenly she said, "You're one of those guys who can't have s-e-x." I almost burst out laughing as I said, "Yes, I'm a celibate priest."

As her young mind continued to work on the issue, she said, "How do you even live?" That was just too much! As she prepared my drink, I couldn't let this golden opportunity pass as I was bemused by the incident, but also sensing God's Providence in the moment. I said to her, "So how are things going" as I picked up my drink. Her tone suddenly shifted and she said "Not so well."

She, a single mother, described losing her baby in miscarriage. She described the relatively "cool" response from health care staff, family, etc., to her sorrow at losing her child.

As she finished, I described to her that she is still the mother of her deceased daughter, and she has the opportunity and a God-given duty to pray for her child. This response quite surprised her in the moment and offered her some comfort. As I left with my drink, I saw the irony -- it took a celibate priest to tell a mother that she was and remains a mother to her daughter. Celibacy is not a burden; it is a gift.

Don't be afraid of the work of the Church

Lastly, don't let receiving the sacrament of initiation be a premature "finish line" in your Catholic faith. There are many rewarding apostolates that are ways to serve the Church in merit before Our Lord as we further His Kingdom.

I'll give you one recent example. I, along with a rotation of priests, serve Oakhill Correctional Institution near Oregon. We have Mass on Friday nights. I'll admit to you, I never relish ahead of time spending a Friday evening behind an electrified fence and razor wire. However, every time I leave, later in the evening, I thank the Lord immensely for giving me the best way to spend a Friday night.

This is like much work in the Church. Just this past week I received a contribution to the Diocese of Madison Annual Catholic Appeal -- I think it was $7.32. It was from one of the inmates (wheelchair-bound) at Oakhill Prison who is so grateful that we make the sacrifice to celebrate Mass on Friday nights at the prison. He saved his monthly stipend money for spending on toothpaste and deodorant at the prison commissary to make a contribution to the Church. I admit it is a most cherished Annual Catholic Appeal gift -- it is the widow's mite. I will never forget it.

The Lord grants us many joys in His Church to which you're invited. May we not squander the opportunity through fear of the mystery of His Church, fear of the Sacred Doctrine that is a supreme gift, or fear of performing the meritorious Works of Mercy that help us on the road to salvation.

May God bless you in your journey.