“When the Son of Man comes, will He find any faith on earth?” (Lk.18:8)
This was always one of those Gospel quotations which I used to wonder about as I didn’t understand it – and I’m not sure that I do now. How can it be that there might be no faith left in the world? Is that even possible? And yet, the words quoted above are a question Jesus asked and so this alone gives the question merit and demands we at least look at it.
Growing up as a child in the 1970s, my faith came from my home and from my school and from my parish Church – and in all three places, it was simple and secure, faithful to the Church and required no addition or clarification; we were simply “Catholic”. I experienced none of the variances in faith – either the belief or the practice – which are often mentioned in relation to that moment in time. I was taught well and I have held on to that faith. I continue to hold onto it now for one very simple reason, the same reason that has always been there for me – I believe.
Today, looking around at the popular media, it is difficult not to conclude that it is a miracle of sorts that any faith remains in the world at all.
Our world is, for the most part, very secularised and quite indifferent to the belief of faith. Our age looks for immediate satisfaction and instantaneous answers to every question; it is less inclined to even consider those questions which cannot be answered easily or quickly. And it is the ‘disposable age’ – our use and subsequent discarding of plastics is perhaps something of a metaphor for so many other things in life, things we take up then cast off without a second thought.
And yet despite all this, faith does continue to exist in the world – people do continue to believe; I know this, because I am one of them and I know so many more who are the same as I.
But amongst this group, I see something changing – and it is this noticing which has reminded me once more of that question of the Lord about the persistence of faith in the world.
Watching and noticing are not always good things – one begins to identify trends, movements; and our response to what we notice can begin to have an effect on the one who notices. This can be negative as much as positive.
One of those trends I see is a movement away from the Church as an institution. It seems to me that a great many people are losing faith – not in the person of the Lord, but in the Church He founded to guide and guard us. There is the same longing for the Lord – just not for His Church.
Why is this?
Over the last several decades, the reputation of the Church has been enormously damaged to the extent that she has lost almost all of her moral authority. Unfortunately, this is a mess very much of her own making.
One scandal after another unfolds before the watching eyes of the world, damage piling upon damage until sheer incredulity builds, with catastrophic effects. With each scandalous revelation, the eventual responses from the Church are always the same – initial silence, then denial, with a hollow apology often uttered at some later point. Such apologies are patently intended as a form of damage limitation; rarely does there seem to be any real heart or compassion behind the words. The response is driven by the fear of litigation and written by the lawyers, so the foundations of such apologies are built on sand. Behind the scenes, victims of these crimes are ignored and vilified and their reputations blackened by figures within the Church; and all the while, the priests and bishops at fault are protected, even if doing so places others in very real danger.
Everything then returns to ‘normal’ – until the next scandal erupts.
Most often these scandals are sexual in nature, as everyone is only too well aware already. Just as often, they are coupled with cover-ups from the hierarchy, who appear unable to learn lessons from these past decades, despite their protestations to the contrary. Many will think here of the McCarrick Report, whose content was horrific to read and which cast so many Bishops in a very dark light indeed.
And who could have foreseen that the Pope would ask for the resignations of every single Bishop in one country? Incredulously, those nations considered as being “most Catholic” are not only immune to all this, but some seem to be sparing nothing in their own fall from grace.
Along with the sexual scandals are the financial ones. Presently, the world is not only astonished that a Cardinal is to go on trial for alleged financial crimes – but also at the revelations of just how much money the Church actually has at it’s disposal. Luxury properties in the most exclusive areas of London are not cheap.
Scandal is one thing. But at the present time, there is something else which is enormously damaging to the Church, although in a different way.
The Church is most often viewed as being out of step with the moment, decades behind in her morality and in the foundations upon which that morality is based.
A good example of this is the current treatment of gay people, who are – for the most part, although there are wonderful exceptions – vilified, demonised and ostracised by the Church as an institution as well as by many of her individual members. Note well that this is not a call for Church teaching to be changed – but it is a demand for a re-evaluation of the language used by the Church in reference to our gay brothers and sisters. Language matters a great deal – it forms the context in which opinions and judgements are made, and in which behaviours are allowed, justified or even expected.
In this area, the Church needs to do so much better than it has done until now. The Church is failing a great many people and casting them to the side. She has forgotten that the Lord dined with sinners and with such people on the peripheries. And I am sure the Church will one day have to answer before the Lord for her failure to do the same today as her Master did then.
For anyone looking in upon the Church from the outside, what is there for them to see which would attract them?
It is not enough to blithely say ‘Jesus’ – people are finding Jesus away from the Church. And it is not enough to say ‘the Eucharist and the Sacraments’ – the faithful have lived without these for more than a year and believe themselves to be doing just fine; the Church has, after all, offered us new ways to worship remotely, and has reminded us that we can be the People of God without necessarily being physically present in Church.
Perhaps what the world and Church needs is a prophet.
My view is that we already have one – in the person of the Holy Father, Pope Francis. I believe that we were given this particular Pope at this particular moment of time for a very good reason.
Throughout his pontificate so far, the Holy Father has reminded us over and over of the need to reach out to people where they find themselves, rather than waiting for them to be where we might like them to be. In this way, he echoes the approach of the Lord very clearly indeed. He has spoken of the shepherds needing to be among the people to the extent that they take on ‘the smell of the sheep’, as he phrased it. Many bishops, of course, did not like this – such a way is threatening to them.
He has consistently shown us the way of humility and poverty of spirit – his choice of Papal name should have been a clue to the Church – and of his vision that the Church once more needs to be re-built. His namesake experienced something similar. Again, many in the Church hierarchy have clearly signalled their silent and passive-aggressive resistance to this – such an approach threatens those career bishops and priests, as well as those who want the Church to instead re-instate 1962. For them, ‘Church’ means power and prestige.
Pope Francis offers as a vision for how we can engage with the world in an effective way, so that the world has the best possible chance of coming to know and to love the Lord. It is nothing less than a vision of evangelisation which means going out and meeting people where they are in their lives, no matter now muddled those lives might be; and once there, it means engaging with them in what the Holy Father constantly refers to as ‘encounter’. This encounter is comprised of listening, closeness, compassion. His entire approach can, in fact, be summed up in one short word – mercy.
For all those whose vision of the Church is one of a great culture war, whose concern is not relationship with the Lord but with rigour and rules, with the superficial rather than the substantial, I would ask you to re-evaluate your view. And for those who would happily establish a theocracy across the world, as though faith can be forced upon anyone – I would suggest that you have entirely missed the point.
All of these are questions I ask myself at the personal level as much as from a broader and more objective perspective. Like so many others in the Church, these questions affect me and have an impact on my own faith and upon how I see the Church and my relationship to it. And so the issue is a personal one as much as anything else.
I don’t know what the future holds for the Church, but as things stand, it is looking fairly grim.
If we are to be able to positively respond to that question of the Lord about there being any faith upon the earth when He comes again, then we all have a lot of work to do – but we need to do it as one, united Church, sharing the vision of the one Shepherd whose task it is to guide us.
It might not be easy – but it is certainly possible.