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For a while recently, I have found it a great struggle to look at the online Catholic world and still retain my peace of spirit.

While there is much that is good, there is also a great deal that is not ‘good’; and while there are many individuals whose words I read daily with great respect and affection, and from whom I learn much – still there are plenty, too, who present a version of ‘Catholicism’ which I simply do not recognise and which I wish no part of. That version seems, to me, to be nasty and mean-spirited; it is cold, judgemental and lacking charity; and it presents the Church as a theatre of sorts, where the important aspect is to know the rules; and what matters is the incidental, the superfluous, the superficial. It says nothing to me about a God of mercy and compassion Who greatly desires for us to be in relationship with Him and Who wants, more than anything, that we know and love Him. The language in this world is one of division and acrimony, of judgement and sentencing. It is not the language of the father awaiting the return of the prodigal son, but of the crowd, baying for the son’s blood.

I remind myself that this online world is not the real world – but it is an echo of the world nonetheless; those who are active online are, presumably, active in their own real worlds – their families, parishes, dioceses. And mindful of this, it seems that what is reflected online is a clamouring wave of vitriol spilling out across the continents – emanating often, as far as I can see, from the Church within the United States. And worst of all, it is not simply individuals, but the Church itself, which shouts out in this way – priests against priests, bishops against bishops, unity nowhere to be seen, all charity and humility cast aside.

Is this really what Catholicism looks like?

What message are we giving to one another and to those who do not share our faith? Where is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, Whom we profess to proclaim?

We have been overtaken by a spirit of division, of disunity – a dark and malevolent spirit who stops our ears so we can neither listen to nor hear one another. We just want to shout, ever louder. The problem is, the more we shout, the more we argue, the more we ignore ‘the other’, the more we become focussed on ourselves and our opinions; in time, ego takes over and it is no longer Christ crucified and risen that we are proclaiming – only ourselves. The Church has a word for that – idolatry. When we seek to make ourselves the main character in the story, rather than the Lord, something has gone very badly wrong.

This, then, is a good time to stop for a moment and to take stock.

It is a good time to begin to look around and to read the signs of the times.

At the Second Vatican Council, the Fathers spoke several times about reading the signs of the times, notably in ‘Gaudium Et Spes’, the ‘Pastoral Constitution On the Church In the Modern World’, and which I think turned out to be quite prophetic, as so many of the Council documents were. The Council Fathers wrote –

“..the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus.. she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live.. Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world. Triggered by the intelligence and creative energies of man, these changes recoil upon him, upon his decisions and desires, both individual and collective, and upon his manner of thinking and acting with respect to things and to people. Hence we can already speak of a true cultural and social transformation, one which has repercussions on man’s religious life as well.” (GS, para.4)

Clearly, then, the Fathers recognised that we are in a time of flux and change, one where we must read the signs of the times ‘in the light of the Gospel’. Only then can we respond appropriately to one another.

In these days, as in every other, our light comes from the Gospel – that Gospel which we, together, proclaim as ‘Church’. We need to be very careful here, however, as there are a number of traps we can fall into. There are, for example, many wolves dressed as lambs, who walk among us and who will present to us what they say is that Gospel in union with the Church – but it is not. It is the Gospel of Self, not of Christ crucified and risen. When our attention is deflected so that it focusses on anyone other than Christ, we are on the wrong path; and when the sanctimonious present themselves as more Catholic than the Church herself, so that they entice souls right out of the Church like a demonic Pied Pier, then, too, are we headed for ruin.

Who, then, has the authority to present the authentic Gospel?

For Catholics, we known the answer – it is the Church, united around the Holy Father, teaching in communion with the Bishops. Note the use of the word ‘with’ – Bishops without the Holy Father don’t cut it, no matter how loudly they shout. Quietly ignoring the Pope or subversively going against his ordinary magisterium should be a red flag to us. Similarly, priests who draw souls away from the lawful authority of the Church and the local Ordinary are just as ruinous – to themselves as well as to those who foolishly follow them.

So often these days, it seems to me that prudential judgement and a spirit of discernment are as dead as the language of Latin – even if it seems vaguely familiar, we are certainly not fluent in it’s use. When our prudential judgement and our discernment are absent, not only are we unable to read the signs of the times – we don’t even recognise the need to read them, nor even see them as signs to be read.

Pope Francis spoke a few days ago and he said something which struck me as being very much an authentic reading of the signs of the times. He said –

“The Paraclete is telling the Church that today is the time for comforting. It is more the time for joyfully proclaiming the Gospel than for combatting paganism. It is the time for bringing the joy of the Risen Lord, not for lamenting the drama of secularization.”

This struck me forcefully because much of what I see presents a view of the Church where she is nothing more than the enemy of the world, and the world as a great battlefield. And yet God created the world, so it can’t be all bad. And didn’t the Council Fathers seek to actively engage the Church – us – with the world? Wasn’t that the whole point of opening the windows? That comforting – oh, how we are in need it it today!

A great deal of the online rancour seems to wish to take the Church back in time, to before 1962. But the Holy Spirit moves forwards – not backwards. And as I read in an article the other evening – we form Tradition as much as it forms us; in other words, it is a living and beautiful thing, not a curiosity placed in a cabinet within a dusty museum, something we might peer at but which we cannot touch.

The Holy Father is essentially describing a process of evangelisation – proclaiming the Good News of Christ crucified and risen. His message is an authentic one and also one which is the antithesis of much that presents itself as Catholicism online in this present moment. We should listen carefully to him – his voice is a prophetic one and it is one of those signs of the times.

I don’t want a poisonous and vitriolic faith. I don’t want a detached faith. I don’t want an uncritical faith. I want a faith which, together with reason, leads me to a real, authentic and living relationship with Christ and with His Church; and this means a Church that remembers what she is and what she is for, whose arms are wide open – like the Crucified – and who welcomes all, who listens to all, and who engages with every soul with deep respect and compassion.

Pope Francis famously described a vision of the Church as a great field hospital and this is how I see it, too – a place where we come to be gently caressed in our needs, to be sacramentally transformed, to be intensely nourished by the living Word, and to experience all of this in a community of real and living faith.

The Holy Father goes on to counsel us –

“It is the time for pouring out love upon the world, yet not embracing worldliness. It is more the time for testifying to mercy, than for inculcating rules and regulations. It is the time of the Paraclete! It is the time of freedom of heart, in the Paraclete.”

In essence then, the Pope is asking us to re-evaluate what (or who) it is that we are proclaiming; are we truly evangelising, proclaiming the Lord of mercy and compassion, welcoming sinners and healing them; or are we proclaiming ourselves alone, shouting like a fishwife in the town square about our ‘interpretation’ of what it is to be Catholic in the modern world, even if we are mistaken? And however we answer that question – are we moving forward in the way described by the Council? The Council was the greatest sign of the times for the Church in recent history – we ignore or decry it at our great peril.

In these days, may the Lord grant us the grace to be animated by the Spirit; to be merciful to the world, to each other and to ourselves, seeking relationship with one another and radiating the love of the Crucified One, such that in the same way that He who is lifted up draws all people to Himself, we might help Him to do so.

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