By Father Roch Kereszty
Special to The Texas Catholic
While keeping me from returning to my theme of the Year of Faith, the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina to the See of Peter inspires me to a reflection on the well-known slogan of those who are fed up with “the institutional church:”Jesus Yes, Church No.
Such a position in itself really makes little sense. How could they know anything about Jesus without the church? If they claim to know Jesus through the Scriptures alone, they still need to ask themselves where the Scriptures came from. They were written by the church’s apostles and their immediate disciples for the church; they have been preserved and proclaimed by the church. If we discard the church, we discard Scriptures and, ultimately, Jesus.
On the other hand, the slogan points to a legitimate concern: Does the church represent Jesus and proclaim him? Has it become worse since the composition of Scripture in the age of the apostles? We may argue the opposite. One of 12 apostles became a traitor; their leader disowned his master, and all the rest, except for John, abandoned him when he was captured. Yet, except for Judas who hanged himself and John who lived to an old age, all the apostles became martyrs for their master. A beginning consistent with today’s situation of the worldwide church in which this year alone more than 10,000 Christians have died as martyrs.
A distinct pattern emerges from the church’s 2,000 year history: mediocre and weak popes, including some weighed down by horrendous scandals, are offset by a long series of martyrs and saintly ‘servants of the servants of God,’ a title St. Gregory the Great introduced. And even those popes who did not excel in holiness, recognized and promoted the work of holy men and women. For example, the arguably most powerful pope of the Middle Ages, the triple-crowned Innocent III discovered in the dirty, sack-robed beggar standing in front of him, the great future saint and defended Francis of Assisi against those bishops who mistrusted him. And now with Padre Bergoglio (the way the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires preferred to be called), the humble St. Francis has ascended to the chair of Peter.
Even after an uninterrupted succession of saintly popes since 1846, Pope Francis bears witness once again that the institution of the church is more than a human organization.
The church is the sacrament, the visible sign and means of Christ’s presence. The rivers of water and blood flowing through the sacraments from the wounds of Christ and the unexpected interventions of the Holy Spirit constantly rejuvenate and re-create her in many ways—one very important one being the papacy.
In his first homily to the cardinals, Pope Francis captured this twofold nature of the church when he imagined St. Peter in his weakness, reluctant to embrace the cross or allow Christ to embrace it:
“The same Peter who professed Jesus Christ, now says to him: ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God. I will follow you, but let us not speak of the cross. That has nothing to do with it. I will follow you on other terms, but without the cross.’ When we journey without the cross, when we build without the cross, when we profess Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.
“My wish is that all of us, after these days of grace, will have the courage, yes, the courage, to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Lord’s cross; to build the church on the Lord’s blood which was poured out on the cross; and to profess the one glory: Christ crucified. And in this way, the church will go forward.”
Father Roch Kereszty, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column will appear occasionally in The Texas Catholic.