“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSVACE)
It was 1054 only a few years after the Catholic Church completed the first millennium since the birth of Christ when the bishops of Rome and Constantinople had a disagreement about one word in the Latin Credo. Rivers of ink have flowed on both sides of the controversy since those days. Many have prayed incessantly for unity, to see the problem solved so that the Church can “breath with two lungs,” to use the words of St. John Paul II. In spite of the efforts of many on both sides, the solution is still to come.
Christianity divided was and is, a scandal. The division was not missed by the forces of Islam that had devoured the southern provinces of the Roman Empire from Spain to Syria, and were pressing towards Constantinople, aiming to conquer the heart of Europe. Schism was putting all Christians in terrible danger.
Unfortunately, things did not get better. The Christian countries of Africa and Asia were once teeming with various heresies like Arianism, Nestorianism. and Donatism, among many others. As Islam pressed on, many escaped and found refuge in various parts of Europe. Until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1492, numerous Christians from the Orient had immigrated deep into Northern Europe fleeing the Islamic invasion. They were carrying their own baggage of beliefs, some of them heretical, and also sentiments of distrust towards Rome and the Roman Catholic Pontiff, some harking back to the days of Emperor Constantine. Those ideas prepared the way for the great rebellion that was to come. In 1517, after a dispute over the matter of indulgences, Martin Luther, a German priest with a rather colorful past, set in motion the so-called German Reformation that changed the face of the Church forever.
The scandalous mishandling of indulgences was added to the rather common practice of simony. Rich individuals purchased Church appointments for themselves or for someone in their family. It was a dark and sad time for the Church that could not have happened if East and West had remained together.
Some of us may think that the influence of Humanism in the Church is something relatively new but it goes back to those days, when a Roman Pontiff decided to demolish the original St. Peter’s Basilica built by Emperor Constantine. The idea was to replace the first magnificent edifice —built in the shape of the Cross— with the new Basilica that we know today. To do that required a lot of money. All of Europe contributed; someone had the great idea of granting indulgences somewhat proportional to the generous donations of the faithful for the construction of the new Roman temple. Little did they know that the unforeseen consequences of that error were going to cause a new schism. Many of the scandalized schismatics pointed at the pagan-looking statues and paintings adorning the new buildings. The old Greco-Roman spirit was coming back to life in the Renaissance. Again, that would have never happened should East and West have remained together. The “modernization” of the Church was afoot.
After the Battle of Lepanto, the Muslim-Christian borders remained for the most part untouched until the Great War of 1914-1918. Europe began to change after the Reformation. The Roman Church lost most of the northern countries; England underwent its own Reformation also. Free from the constraints of the Roman Catholic Church, new Christian sects multiplied without end. In time, British and French Illuminism gave birth to new quasi-religious political movements: the French Revolution, and eventually Socialism, Communism, Fascism, and Liberal Capitalism. All of them set to destroy the old European order. By 1918, Europe was in shambles, many of the European monarchs had been deposed, and others were reduced to be mere figureheads. Some, like the Russian Romanovs, were executed. Christendom was no more and the age of ideologies was beginning.
Not long after the Great War, various forces began attacking the Church. We know now that Joseph Stalin had a plan to infiltrate young homosexual communists in the seminaries. According to Bella Dodd, a communist who converted to the Catholic Faith, four of those men were already Cardinals of the Catholic Church by 1954.
It is quite possible that as early as 1960, a number of those infiltrated men had gained enough influence in the Church. Now we know that many of them participated in the planning of the II Vatican Council. The rest of the story until our own days is, sadly enough, well known. The ancient Mass was unceremoniously tossed aside and every conceivable aspect of the Catholic religion was modified. Certain venerable practices disappeared; others were changed until they were made practically unrecognizable. The Church was “protestantized” supposedly to make things more appealing to the public but none of that helped to fill the empty pews. The image of a “religio depopulata” grew more and more common around the world: empty churches, abandoned monasteries, indifferent clergy, and the discovery of unspeakable vices among certain priests, Bishops and Cardinals are part of our daily news these days.
In my humble opinion, Catholics who want to be loyal to the “faith once given to the saints” in this Modern Age, have only a faint idea of what the whole Church looked like back in the days when we were all one flock from the western coast of Ireland to the eastern confines of Russia. It seems to me that we have been under constant attack since the beginning but something matured about one thousand years ago that increased the chances of those heretical attacks being successful. The onslaught of error and dissension continued until serious worldwide schisms were made possible. More and more leaders and laymen began to adopt worldly ideas.
Was this prefigured by St. Peter’s reaction when he first heard from Christ about the sufferings of the Cross?
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” Matthew 16: 21-23 (NRSVACE)
St. Peter was still under the impression that the Kingdom of God was going to become a reality in his own time. He thought perhaps that the Messiah was going to conquer the world in a glorious military campaign. The word he was hearing from Jesus about suffering at the hands of the Romans was not what Peter was expecting. His thoughts were still worldly thoughts. He was still far from the wisdom of the Cross.
The rather strong rebuke caught Peter by surprise. Only a short time before, he had been chosen to be the leader of the Apostles only to be called “Satan” when he offered his first sincere opinion on a matter at hand!
We can use those two extremely different moments in Peter’s life to exemplify what the Church is going through. At first the Church had its Age of Faith but towards the end of its first thousand years, worldly ideas began to slowly corrode the ancient edifice. The Christian world was now rich and orderly; the Church was prosperous and respected as the moral referent to which even kings had to submit. The simplicity of earlier times gave way to opulence. Great projects began to take shape. The need to take the Gospel to the pagans took a back seat to matters of organization. The missions were sent to far away places. The Christian formation of the locals was taken for granted. Then the ancient Church started to look small and provincial in the eyes of some. About that time it was decided to demolish the old Basilica in Rome and build a bigger, more impressive one. Little did those men know that their actions were the harbinger of the coming demolition of the Church at large.
Today we are fast approaching the end of that age. Read this short excerpt from Evangelii Gaudium:
“I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”
I wonder—and this is only a personal preoccupation— if it is necessary to transform the Church even more to suit today’s world. If Christ sent us to give witness of the Gospel to all nations, it seems to me that the world is what should be totally transformed by the Gospel. That transformation took place in the first millennium, when the pagan Roman Empire was converted into Christendom without any need for the Church to change a single doctrine. In the same manner, St. Peter was changed and eventually, in his old age, gave his personal witness of the wisdom of the Cross.
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:6-10 (NRSVACE)
The ancient faith is under a furious attack both from outside and inside. It is our privilege to suffer those attacks in the same manner that Our Lord suffered. That is part of our witness. That is the wisdom of the Cross. Soon Our Lord will rebuke those who are trying to conform the Church to the changing ways of the world. Those are building on sand and will come to utter ruin. We must make sure to build on the solid Rock which is Christ. He will not disappoint us.
 My italics. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, clergy, consecrated persons and the lay faithful on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world. Given in Rome, at Saint Peter’s, on 24 November, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and the conclusion of the Year of Faith, in the year 2013. Par. 27.