Judge the church by her saints

Life will be victorious

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

This past Sunday, I made a pastoral visit to one of our parishes.

In the meeting with parish leaders, it was brought to my attention that the parish had one of its largest groups in memory participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program.

In one sense, this was not surprising, because of the vitality of this parish family. At the same time, in light of the recent scandals that have rocked the church, I was encouraged and heartened to see evidence of how the Holy Spirit was inspiring individuals to explore the truth, goodness and beauty of our Catholic faith.

A number of people have told me that with the McCarrick scandal and the Pennsylvania grand jury report, they have been asked why they continue to participate in the Catholic Church. I suspect many others have been asked that question.

I was only a member of a wedding party twice in my life. Fifty years ago, I was the best man for my brother and, the year before that, I was a groomsman in the wedding of a cousin.

At the time, my cousin danced in the Washington (D.C.) Ballet company. All of her bridesmaids were also ballet dancers. I could not dance to save my life and still cannot. I had a fear that I was going to step on my partner’s foot and end her ballet career.

It would be foolish to base your opinion on ballet — or dancing in general — by watching someone like me attempting a pirouette.

The same is true of sports. It would be unfair to make judgments about baseball or soccer or basketball by watching someone who lacked athletic skills and ignored the rules of the game.

Similarly, it is not wise to judge Catholicism based on someone who failed miserably to live it. There would be no scandals in the church if its members, particularly we clergy, faithfully followed our moral teaching.

In part, what makes the clerical sexual abuse scandal so shocking is ordained ministers acting in a way that was completely contrary to the church’s doctrine.

If you are going to make a judgment about ballet or breakdancing, watch someone that is really talented with that particular style of dance.

If you want to understand why people love baseball, then watch someone like George Brett or Salvador Perez — not someone who does not know which end of the bat to hold.

If you want to know about Catholicism, examine its saints — not those who failed so profoundly to follow her moral principles. Many saints were previously great sinners. Yet, we do not venerate them for their sin, but the transformation of their lives by God’s grace.

What motivated the saints to live heroic lives of virtue is what Pope Emeritus Benedict identified as the heart of Catholic life — namely, an encounter with a person, the person of Jesus Christ.

Catholicism affords us many opportunities to experience encounters with Jesus — e.g., by praying over the Bible, receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist, baptism in the Holy Spirit, or times of quiet adoration, to name only a few.

It was these personal encounters with Jesus that transformed Peter from the coward of Good Friday to the martyr of Rome; changed Paul from a persecutor of Christians to the church’s greatest missionary; inspired Francis of Assisi to abandon a frivolous life of comfort in order to embrace a life of simplicity, poverty and humility; and motivated Thomas More to resign the office of chancellor for imprisonment and eventual martyrdom.

It was this personal encounter with Jesus that emboldened the North American martyrs to make the perilous crossing of the Atlantic to evangelize Native Americans, fully aware of the high probability that they would experience violent and brutal deaths; led St. Damien of Molokai to provide pastoral care for lepers, realizing the inevitability that he eventually would succumb to this most dreaded disease; gave Blessed Stanley Rother, a farm boy from Oklahoma, the courage to remain with his parishioners in Guatemala, knowing that he was a target of the government’s death squads; and inspired Mother Teresa of Calcutta to minister to the destitute and dying.

Of course, this is only a tiny fraction of Our Lord’s more well-known disciples that discovered abundant life by losing their previous lives in order to follow Jesus faithfully through their efforts to practice heroic virtue.

Nor does it include the millions of never- canonized saints who lived lives of virtue and faith out of sight from most of the world, but whose witness impacted powerfully the lives of their family and friends.

Recently, I met a very successful professional woman, who was baptized and raised nominally Catholic by her parents. She identified herself back then as not even a very good Christmas and Easter Catholic. Through God’s grace, she experienced a tremendous conversion.

Part of what motivated her to explore Catholicism was the memory of her grandmother with arthritic knees kneeling beside her bed to pray nightly the rosary.

Some have suggested that we suspend in the archdiocese our efforts to evangelize while negotiating the after- effects of the recent scandals.

To me, this would be another scandal. We cannot abandon our efforts to share the truth and beauty of the Gospel of Jesus because of fear of being rejected or criticized. In reading the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline letters, we see that the early Christian communities were not idyllic and free from scandal.

However, they did not wait then — nor can we delay now — from proclaiming the Gospel and offering the graces of the sacraments.

Too many souls hang in the balance.

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