One challenge of Catholicism has always consisted in looking around and resisting the impulse to fall into despair at (depending upon the era and your own personal gripes) the priests, parishioners, liturgy, hierarchy, music, architecture, literature, emphasis on social justice, emphasis on contemplation, failure to be sufficiently conservative, failure to be sufficiently liberal.
The impulse is to believe people will improve if we point out their faults to them. The impulse is to exhort. But to think that the Church will improve if other people act better is like making our life’s work exhorting “Marriage is imperfect!” Or “People can be unkind!” Or “You live and then you die!” We already know those things.
“Where are the courageous ones?” the indignant voice perpetually asks. “Where are the saints, the heroes, the martyrs? Where is the real follower of Christ?”
At some point you realize: Oh. I’m supposed to try to be that person myself.
“Christianity has not been tried and been found wanting,” observed G.K. Chesterton. “It has been tried and found difficult.”
“Narrow is the gate,” Christ said, and you can rig little fake cardboard dioramas on either side to make it look wider, but it is still going to be narrow. To be a follower of Christ means being certain that we are to love each other as he loved us, and being very uncertain about what that means in any given situation. It means being certain that the light will prevail, and then consenting to walk in almost complete darkness. It means being certain about Christ, and very, very uncertain about ourselves.
“The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, “which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”
Nineteen years ago this month (why August?: long story) I was confirmed and took my First Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
I never thought the Church planned to solicit my vote to see how it should be run. I never thought the Church was going to be one bit more perfect than I am which, to put it mildly, is not very. I read the news. I go to Mass, often daily. I see what is wrong with the world, with the Church. I have aesthetic tastes, homiletic preferences, and spiritual sensibilities that over the years have been crushed, again and again, to the ground.
But my experience has also been this: There has never not been a church, a copy of the Gospels, a breviary, an altar, a place to kneel, a cross with a body on it, a priest to say Mass and hear my Confession. I have never once been encouraged not to die to myself, not to serve the poor, not to quest, seek, pray, lay down my life. I have never been invited to hold myself to anything less than the very highest standard.
I can’t think of a more appropriate place to have been confirmed and taken my first Communion than in the middle of Hollywood. For religion is not separate from life. It is life: our heart, our pain, our divided selves, our shattered dreams, our longing for the infinite.
“We shed tears because we were given a glimpse of the way life was created to be and is not,” observed the writer Frederick Buechner, and no-one felt that gap more keenly than Christ. “O Jerusalem,” he wept before going to his Crucifixion. “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
After Mass, when everyone leaves and the lights are turned off, there Christ still hangs, broken and bleeding, alone, above the altar.
Out on Sunset Boulevard, sirens blare, traffic races, signs pulsate: “RoRo’s Chicken,” “Crossroads of the World,” “Crazy Girls!!”
I think of St. Maria Goretti (stabbed to death rather than yield her virginity), St. Agatha (breasts twisted off with pincers rather than deny the faith); St. Rose of Lima (rubbed pepper on her face so as not to tempt with her beauty, then died serving the street people of Peru).
I think of how the mark of the saint is a capacity for love so extreme that the world often sees it as insane. I think that, after nineteen years of toil, sweat, pondering, loneliness, and often seemingly barren prayer, I still don’t much focus on what’s wrong with the Church.
I focus on the miracle that She took in a wretch like me.