It Has Always Been This Messy…

By Deacon Branson Hipp

For anyone that even glances at the internet or occasionally watches the news, the Catholic Church appears  a complete mess. Arguing bishops, dissenting lay catholics, corruption and scandals run amok. The wide ranging reports on the bishops’ synod on marriage and family have brought even more confusion, particularly on whether or not the Church’s teachings are changing (and on an even deeper level, can they change and should they change?).

For many catholics, any news coverage on the Church can lead one to despair, either because it grossly misunderstands the Church’s teachings, or it is reporting another scandal. It is no wonder that so many people hate the Catholic faith when their encounter with it has been either entirely second hand through poor journalism or through the poor example of many of us today. Let’s face the facts:

The Church today is a mess.

But we have to step back here and ask ourselves whether or not this is the full picture. Very often, what we see and what is actually occurring do not line up. It is like when a mother has been patiently taking care of her kids all day, and the youngest boy throws a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. The mom finally snaps, yelling at her son. The spectators watch this exchange thinking: “What a terrible mother, yelling at her kids like that.”

But it is not the full picture; they haven’t been with her all day, seen the way she has loved her children and been faithful to them, feeding them and caring for them. They only see her at her worst moment, a moment that does not sum up who she is or who her children are. They see a mess, but when we take a step back, we see a good mother who has, in an instant, simply lost her temper.

I had the opportunity when I was in Mexico to meet a community of religious sisters who have dedicated themselves entirely to the apostolate of being with the dying in their last moments. These sisters would pray and sleep during the day and then would stay up all night caring for the dying, particularly the poor and those that had no one to be with them. These women left everything so that they could quietly and humbly love the most forgotten of people with little notice from the outside world. There was no glory to their work, just late nights with those finally forced to face their mortality, often experiencing great deal of pain and bitterness.

And those sisters were so joyful.

The media could report on every sin and scandal of the sinful members of the Church day and night, and all the while those sisters would continue to hold hands and pray with the dying, giving their entire selves to Christ in this quiet, forgotten work.

When asked in an interview about the scandals of the Church, Pope Francis very beautifully said, “You know that one tree that falls makes more noise than a forest that grows.”

And this is a very human reality; in a classroom full of students quietly studying, our eyes will focus on the one kid trying to light another kid’s hair on fire. It is flashy, loud, and easily noticeable. We won’t even see all the other kids faithfully studying. The story we tell people about that class afterwards will be about the little pyromaniac. What has marked our experience of that classroom was that one moment of chaos.

For all that we hear of scandal and confusion, we will hear nothing of the faithful, humble Christians who day in and day out strive to follow the Lord in the circumstances of their everyday lives, who quietly love their kids or their parishioners and try to build them up. We don’t hear the forest growing, just the tree that falls.

This is the fuller picture: yes, there are tragic scandals that cannot be ignored, and there are divisions and confusions, and a huge number of Catholics that see no connection between their faith and everyday life; it is so easy to lose hope in the face of all that is happening around us. It is easy to be cynical, because we see the big, flashy mess. And for all of Church history, all of it, onlookers have said that the Church is crumbling and will shortly fall. The writer Walker Percy once said over thirty years ago,

If one judged only from the media, the national press, or network news, one would conclude that the Church is washed up, hopelessly divided politically, the Holy Father hopelessly behind the times. Yet one goes to Mass on any ordinary Sunday and there they are, the Catholic people, more than ever, at five, six, seven Masses a day. And there is the priest still, thank God, holding aloft the body of Christ. And let the Holy Father, this marvelous man, appear anywhere and there occurs all over the world a tumult not of despair and division but of rejoicing and hope, and not merely among Catholics.

Brothers, we have to see the fuller picture: there have been easier times to be a Catholic and there have been much more difficult times. Our role is not to lose hope, to become cynical, or to withdraw from the brokenness around us. We are in the business of hope, for the Lord is victorious. This hope is not a false optimism that denies our circumstances, but a steady trust that Christ is who He says He is: the lord of history and the savior of the world. In following Him despite the mess that we experience (in the world and in ourselves), we will discover something that is more true, more realistic than the cynicism so rampant today. We will discover authentic Christian hope.