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We can lean on the Church’s stability in unstable times
“Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
— Matthew 16:18
The powers of death strike and the ground shakes. The tremors of instability and uncertainty roll under our feet. The well-trodden paths of our familiar customs have shifted, and we step with confidence neither here nor there. To what may we entrust ourselves? What will bear our weight?
Jesus Christ founded his Church on the faith of Peter to offer enduring stability in an unstable world. Those who have come before us knew instability in their times, and now we have our own way of knowing the instability of even those things we thought most durable. Nothing in this world endures forever except for the Word of God, and the stability of the Church rests on the fidelity of Christ, the Word.
Fifty years ago, the young Joseph Ratzinger spoke in another unstable time as the worldwide optimism of the early 1960s turned into the late ’60s’ global pandemic of gloom and precarity. Then as now, people had trusted too much in their own designs and the work of their hands, and found themselves in urgent need of certain hope. And so in his lectures introducing Christianity — or, perhaps, “re-proposing” Christianity — Ratzinger taught a fundamental truth:
“Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received. … For to believe as a Christian means in fact entrusting oneself to the meaning which bears up me and the world, taking it as a firm ground on which I can stand fearlessly” (“Introduction to Christianity”).
All hope for creating stability for ourselves is fleeting because everything we create is subject to change. The only hope for stability is in accepting the Word of God as our firm foundation. Faith is trust — entrusting ourselves to one another. And faith comes from what is heard — that is, from what is received. Christ builds the Church on Peter hearing him.
But where is that stability today when our global pandemic has led to the suspension of public Masses, the emptiness of parishes and the scattering of the faithful into the sequestration of their own private homes?
The Church’s stability is in the consistent preaching of the Gospel: the Good News of Jesus Christ. Even as each day seems to bring new uncertainties, the Lectionary of the Church continues unimpeded. Throughout Lent, the Church rehearsed and heeded the calls to repentance. In Holy Week, the Church followed the Lord into his passion. Now in Easter, the Church witnesses to the end of the powers of death in the resurrection of Jesus. He is new life, and he gives what he is. This is the ultimate perspective.
Hearing the Word of God puts us under pressure to examine ourselves and to repent. Following the Word of God leads us to see and share in his suffering. Receiving the Word of God into our hearts opens us to the hope that cannot be shaken in the fierce uncertainty of our times. Our duty as “hearers of the Word” is to trust in God more than our own understanding. That is an utterly practical matter, because it means trusting him each day, come what may. The Church proclaims Christ even when everything else is suspended, and that proclamation both relieves us from hysterical worry and cures us of our naïve optimism in our own power. Christ has the power: “I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33).
The Church’s stability is in the relentless preference for the poor and the vulnerable. The means for survival and self-protection lie disproportionately in the hands of the rich. The stories that are broadcast most widely are shaped to the contours of the wealthy’s concerns. And when competition for resources separates those who will live and prosper from those who will suffer, the spoils go to those with the influence to shape policy and sway outcomes.
Now as ever, the solemn duty of the Church is to remember the poor, especially when few others will. Who is being neglected? Who is being exploited? Who is hidden from the eyes of the powerful? God’s view of history is through the perspective of the down and out, the lowly and neglected, the meek and humble. Mary’s Magnificat is the anthem of the Church, and it rings out in every generation as the critique of the world’s power. This song is the stable commitment to siding with countries without means, to minority communities without access to goods and health care and grocery stores (let alone delivery services), to the homeless for whom there are no quarantines. God’s preference for the lowly is the charter of the Church.
The Church’s stability is the perpetual commitment to charity, which takes the form of mercy in times of trial. The mandate of the Church is to do as God has always done, from the beginning of salvation history until now: Look for suffering, recognize it, and respond. Christ himself is the incarnate response of the Father’s recognition of our need. Founded upon Peter’s hearing of Christ, the Church assumes Christ’s mission in the concreteness of the works of mercy.
And the Church’s stability is in the fidelity of the sacramental life. It sounds strange to say this when the regular celebration of public Masses — and of sacramental penance, and of baptisms and Confirmations and even weddings — have been interrupted, but the sacramental life of the Church persists. Mass is still offered, even when the people cannot gather together in the same space. The Eucharist is still made present, even when it is received by few but the priests who offer it. The love of God still enters the world — daily — upon altars and within churches all over the world, in every diocese across the globe.
The fact that Christ abides with us in this world, that he comes to us in humble bread and wine, changes the meaning of the world. In fact, he is the meaning of the world — the meaning who comes to us, not the meaning we seek in vain to make for ourselves. The Church receives him, and our stability — even now, especially now — is founded upon that gift which the Church never fails to receive.
We stand on solid ground.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D. works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. You can find him on Twitter at @leodelo2 or online at leonardjdelorenzo.com.