Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Medieval Church: Lessons for Modern Times

In teaching medieval history a few years ago, I noticed a pattern. During that time of tremendous growth in the Church, over and over again some of her own children turned against her. Yet each time, a saint would come along to counter the heresy or corruption, a saint whose personality and fidelity to the Holy Spirit formed the ideal duet to meet the dilemma.
     When Nestorianism began spreading in the fifth century, the Lord raised up St. Cyril of Alexandria to combat its errors. Soon after, Manichaeism and Donatism were met by the brilliance of St. Augustine, and Pelagianism and Monophysitism by Pope St. Leo the Great. When the iconoclast heresy took hold in the Eastern Empire in the eighth century, St. John Damascene—a Christian courtier in a neighboring Muslim land—was in the perfect place to write on the truth about icons without fear of reprisal from the Byzantine emperor. And in the twelfth century, St. Dominic was the right man in the right place to pull the teeth of Albigensianism. Each time, the Lord did not merely defuse the heresy, but He used the opportunity to bring forth a clearer understanding of His teachings.
     Heresy has not been the only threat to the Church arising from within her ranks. Time and again, complacency led to a worldliness and corruption creeping into the lives of Church members. And time and again, God has called forth saints to oppose materialism and sloth, especially by their exemplary lives. I
n the late fourth and early fifth centuries, St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople followed St. John the Baptist's example by critiquing the emperor and empress' moral failures. St. Boniface made enemies by calling priests to obey their vows in Germany in the eighth century. In the twelfth century, when many were content with a Christian veneer, the challenge to die to self for love of Christ was given by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the monastery and St. Francis of Assisi in the world. In the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Siena respectfully reminded the popes of her day of certain duties, and Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross in the sixteenth century countered laxity in their religious orders, while encouraging alllay and religiousto seek the joy of meeting God in contemplative prayer. And these are merely the most famous of such voices calling for reform.
     The pattern is perhaps most clear at the end of the Middle Ages. In the early sixteenth century, Rome was so rampantly corrupt that it is no surprise that Martin Luther was scandalized when he visited there as a young monk. Yet about this time, St. Philip Neri was born—a saint whose extraordinary love of God and neighbor, joy, preaching, and example would lead to a reform in that city and to his being dubbed the “Apostle of Rome.” At the same time that the laity were confused about the Church’s actual teaching on indulgences and Luther was concluding that he need not obey the Pope anymore, St. Ignatius of Loyola was forming a new religious order that would
catechize the laity and dedicate themselves to doing whatever the Pope might ask of them. 
      When the Church at last managed to convene a general council to sift through the protests against her, St. Charles Borromeo was there to help define doctrine and establish reforms. And he eagerly carried out these reforms in his own archdiocese, especially in rooting out error from the clergy and founding new seminaries. In the same period when five million Europeans left the Catholic Church, nine million native Americans entered the Church in the decade following the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego in 1531. 
     This pattern is instructive to us in two ways. First, we must realize that this problem will always be with the Church. This shouldn’t surprise us, for didn’t Christ give parable after parable on this: wolves in sheep’s clothing; weeds amid the wheat; sheep and goats being separated at the end of time?
     Secondly, when we see false teachings and scandals in our own time, we must look for the saints God is raising up to counter them. We may recognize among them Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, confounding the materialism and selfishness of our age, and Blessed John Paul II, already called “the Great” for his profound and rich illumination of the truth in the darkness of this "culture of death" in which we live. 
     But it's not enough to look around, wondering where the saints are, why there aren't more of them stepping up to the plate. We must also look in the mirror and recognize that God also has a part for each one of us to play.

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