In concentration camps, diabolical methods of torture abound. Besides the various forms of physical abuse, prisoners are also subjected to harrowing psychological pressures.
Imagine that after a week of torture, a languishing victim receives a visit from a physician. After checking him over, the doctor declares the poor captive to be in excellent health, well-nourished, possessing the energy levels and fitness of a youth!
What would the prisoner think of this diagnosis? Surely that it was another act of psychological torture perpetrated by his captors…perhaps to make him continue with his ‘labor’. Clearly, such a doctor could only be considered one of the prisoner’s worst enemies.
The sufferings Holy Mother Church is currently enduring are shared by many Catholics. Many are concerned about the lack of religious and priestly vocations, the decline in the number of practicing Catholics around the world, and the generalized neglect of the Sacraments. The faithful see popular piety suppressed and the family recitation of the rosary considered a thing of the past, and they are shocked at the conduct of so many even Church authorities. They are aware that Catholics are being persecuted and slain in Muslim countries, and that the use of religious symbols and images and the very name of Jesus is being banned even in former Catholic nations.
Therefore, Catholics have come to hinge their hopes solely on the promise Christ made guaranteeing the immortality of the Church, without which many would ask themselves whether the Church would survive the present crisis. The tragic situation does not succeed in making them doubt this promise, but rather unites and rallies them to better combat the evils at hand.
However, when we hear from the mouth of the shepherd, at this juncture in history, that ‘the Church has never been better’… we can’t help remembering the prisoner of war’s ‘clean bill of health’. Truly, worse than the evils themselves is the declaration, by the very one who could remedy them, that all is well.
Once again, if it weren’t for unshakable faith in God and trust in the Blessed Virgin Mary, it would be enough to drive anyone to insanity. Nevertheless, God has never abandoned his Church; He always sends saintly souls who come forward to lead her to victory.
Enter the various parts of our study
II – In times of great crisis God sends true saints to confront and defeat heresy. The world despises them but the faith triumphs through them
III – Though attacked by countless and mighty enemies, the Church will not be destroyed. What lesson does the past have to teach us?
I – Benedict XVI and John Paul II were deeply concerned about the critical situation of the Church. Why?
In 2007, there were 227 million adults in the United States, and a little more than 78% of them – or roughly 178 million – identified as Christians. Between 2007 and 2014, the overall size of the U.S. adult population grew by about 18 million people, to nearly 245 million. But the share of adults who identify as Christians fell to just under 71%, or approximately 173 million Americans, a net decline of about 5 million. This decline is larger than the combined margins of sampling error in the twin surveys conducted seven years apart. Using the margins of error to calculate a probable range of estimates, it appears that the number of Christian adults in the U.S. has shrunk by somewhere between 2.8 million and 7.8 million. […] The new survey indicates there are about 51 million Catholic adults in the U.S. today, roughly 3 million fewer than in 2007. (America’s Changing Religious Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow – Crux news item on the same statistics)
Over the 50 year period surveyed, the number of priests has fallen by around 36%. The decline in graduate level seminarians is even higher at 56%. […] As of 2015, only 66% of diocesan priests are active in ministry (a fall of 28% since 1965). […] The number of religious brothers and sisters has declined sharply over the period (by approximately 66% and 73% respectively). (American Catholic Statistics: 1965-2015)
El Diario (statistics)
Spain is no longer a practicing Catholic country. Religious practice has become quite limited to the elderly and women from small townships, the working class, having either primary or secondary education, generally belonging to the rural areas of Spain. The great majority of Spaniards (64.7%) neither accept Church teaching nor attend Mass, 63% do not get married in the Church. According to the Eurobarometer of 2006, 56% accept same-sex marriages, do not observe lent, do not respect premarital chastity, and a series of other points. (El Diario, April 16, 201.4)
El Mundo (statistics)
In 1950, Catholics represented 98.2%, reduced in 2010 to 89.3%. In these terms, it may appear to be a small difference, but in terms of numbers of the faithful it is significant because, if the percentage had been maintained, there would exist 17.4 million more followers of Catholic doctrine who have fallen away in this timeframe. (El Mundo, March 23, 2011)
La Nación (statistics)
In Latin America, Catholicism continues losing its faithful to Protestantism. […] 84% of Latin Americans claim to have been raised in the Catholic faith, which corresponds to 15 percent more than those currently recognizing themselves as Catholics. For example, approximately one out of every four Nicaraguans, one out of every five Brazilians and one out of every seven Venezuelans are no longer Catholic. (La Nación, November 14, 2014)
Allow me to refer here to an aspect of Germany’s particular situation. The Church in Germany is superbly organized. But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit. I would add: the real crisis facing the Church in the western world is a crisis of faith. If we do not find a way of genuinely renewing our faith, all structural reform will remain ineffective. (Benedict XVI. Address for the meeting with the Catholic lay faithful in Germany, September 24, 2011)
In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings. Only by examining carefully the many elements that gave rise to the present crisis can a clear-sighted diagnosis of its causes be undertaken and effective remedies be found. Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person. Urgent action is needed to address these factors, which have had such tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, and have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing. (Benedict XVI. Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, no. 4, March 19, 2010)
A cause of great suffering to the Church today in Europe and in the West is the lack of priestly vocations, but the Lord always calls; it is listening that is lacking. We have heard his voice and must also pay attention to the Lord’s voice on behalf of others, we must help make his call heard and thus ensure that it is accepted and that a path is opened to the vocation to be pastors with Christ. (Benedict XVI. Lectio Divina, meeting with the Parish priests of the Rome Diocese, February 23, 2012)
While the first evangelization continues to be necessary and urgent in many regions of the world, today a shortage of clergy and a lack of vocations afflict various Dioceses and Institutes of consecrated life. It is important to reaffirm that even in the presence of growing difficulties, Christ’s command to evangelize all peoples continues to be a priority. No reason can justify its slackening or stagnation because ‘the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church’ (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 14). It is a mission that ‘is still only beginning and we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service’ (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, no. 1). How can we not think here of the Macedonian who appeared to Paul in a dream and cried, ‘Will you come by to Macedonia to help us’? Today there are countless people who are waiting for the proclamation of the Gospel, those who are thirsting for hope and love. (Benedict XVI. Message for the 82nd World Mission Sunday, no. 3, May 11, 2008)
[Question] Most Holy Father, I am Fr Anthony Denton and I come from Oceania, from Australia. Here tonight are many priests. But we know that our seminaries are not full and that in the future, in various parts of the world, we expect a decline, even sharp. What can we do to encourage new vocations? How can we propose our way of living, all that is great and beautiful in it, to a young man of our time?
[Answer] Thank you. You too have touched upon a great and painful problem of our time: the lack of vocations, because of which local Churches are in danger of perishing, for lack of the Word of life, missing the presence of the Eucharist and other Sacraments. (Benedict XVI. Address for the international meeting of priests, June10, 2010)
It is essential to realistically admit, with deep and pained sentiment, that in part, Christians today feel lost, confused, perplexed and even disillusioned; ideas conflicting with the revealed and consistently taught truth have been widely spread; real heresies in dogmatic and moral fields have been promoted, creating doubts, confusions, rebellions, even the Liturgy has been manipulated; immersed in the intellectual and moral ‘relativism’, and consequently permissiveness, Christians are tempted toward atheism, agnosticism, vaguely moralistic illuminism, and a sociological Christianity, without defined dogmas and without objective morality. (John Paul II. Address to participants of the Italian National Congress on the theme of ‘Popular Missions during the 1980’s, no. 2, February 6, 1981)
We are witnessing the emergence of a new culture, largely influenced by the mass media, whose content and character are often in conflict with the Gospel and the dignity of the human person. This culture is also marked by a widespread and growing religious agnosticism, connected to a more profound moral and legal relativism rooted in confusion regarding the truth about man as the basis of the inalienable rights of all human beings. At times the signs of a weakening of hope are evident in disturbing forms of what might be called a ‘culture of death’ (cf. Propositio 5a). (John Paul II. Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, no. 9–10, June 28, 2003)
On the path of evangelization there is no shortage of difficult situations. In certain countries particularly, you are suffering from the lack of vocations that weakens your dynamism. This trial is not limited to you: today it takes place in many dioceses and religious families. But the crisis strikes you especially, since you have always given a great deal of attention to vocations in your missionary apostolate, creating small seminaries in the young Churches entrusted to your care. Your special concern has also led to your being put in charge of the Pontifical French Seminary of Rome. Take care to help prepare the seminarians for their ministry through a human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral formation that enables them to be integrated into the ecclesial life of their dioceses. This includes a familiarity with the history and life of the local Churches and a continuous dialogue with their Pastors. The decline in the number of seminarians and missionary vocations must not water down the quality of discernment nor the spiritual and moral formation needed for priestly ministry. Indeed, the proclamation of the Gospel to the men and women of our time demands faithful witnesses, motivated by the Spirit of holiness, who are signs for their brothers and sisters by the power of their words, and, by the authenticity of their lives. (John Paul II. Message to the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, May 24, 2002)
At this point I cannot hide two serious concerns connected with certain negative statistics: they concern participation in the Eucharistic celebration and the shortage of vocations. While I appreciate all that you are doing to protect Sunday in social and economic life, I also feel obliged to urge you: constantly and firmly remind the faithful entrusted to your care to fulfil their Sunday obligation, as Bishops have done from the earliest centuries down to our day. ‘Leave everything on the Lord’s Day and run diligently to your assembly, because it is your praise of God. Otherwise, what excuse will they make to God, those who do not come together on the Lord’s Day to hear the word of life and feed on the divine nourishment which lasts forever?’ (Didascalia Apostolorum, II, 59, 2–3). (John Paul II. Address to the Bishops of Austria on their ad limina visit, no. 8, November 20, 1998)
Christian revelation presents the two vocations to love: marriage and virginity. In some societies today, not only marriage and the family, but also vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, are often in a state of crisis. The two situations are inseparable: ‘When marriage is not esteemed, neither can consecrated virginity or celibacy exist; when human sexuality is not regarded as a great value given by the Creator, the renunciation of it for the sake of the kingdom of heaven loses its meaning’. A lack of vocations follows from the breakdown of the family, yet where parents are generous in welcoming life, children will be more likely to be generous when it comes to the question of offering themselves to God. (Pontifical Council for the Family, The truth and meaning of human sexuality, no. 34, December 8, 1995)
In a climate of cultural and religious relativism, and sometime because of the inappropriate conduct of Christians, a proliferation of ‘new religious movements’ has occurred. These are sometimes called sects or cults but, because of the abundance of names and tendencies, are difficult to categorize in a comprehensive and precise framework. From available data, movements of Christian origin can be identified, while others derive from oriental religions, and others again appear to be connected with esoteric traditions. Their doctrines and their practices are of concern because they are alien to the content of the Christian faith. (Congregation for the Clergy. General Directory for Catechesis, no. 201, April 17, 1998)
II – In times of great crisis God sends true saints to confront and defeat heresy. The world despises them but the faith triumphs through them
At the beginning of the New Year let us look at the history of Christianity, to see how history develops and how it can be renewed. It shows that saints, guided by God’s light, are the authentic reformers of the life of the Church and of society. As teachers with their words and witnesses with their example, they can encourage a stable and profound ecclesial renewal because they themselves are profoundly renewed, they are in touch with the real newness: God’s presence in the world. This comforting reality namely, that in every generation saints are born and bring the creativity of renewal constantly accompanies the Church’s history in the midst of the sorrows and negative aspects she encounters on her path. (Benedict XVI. General audience, January 13, 2010)
Athanasius was undoubtedly one of the most important and revered early Church Fathers. But this great Saint was above all the impassioned theologian of the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God who – as the Prologue of the fourth Gospel says – ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn 1: 14). For this very reason Athanasius was also the most important and tenacious adversary of the Arian heresy, which at that time threatened faith in Christ, reduced to a creature ‘halfway’ between God and man, according to a recurring tendency in history which we also see manifested today in various forms. […] His intransigence – tenacious and, if necessary, at times harsh – against those who opposed his Episcopal appointment and especially against adversaries of the Nicene Creed, provoked the implacable hostility of the Arians and philo-Arians. (Benedict XVI. General audience, June 20, 2007)
[Saint Hildegard] Within the walls of the cloister, she cared for the spiritual and material well-being of her sisters, fostering in a special way community life, culture and the liturgy. In the outside world she devoted herself actively to strengthening the Christian faith and reinforcing religious practice, opposing the heretical trends of the Cathars, promoting Church reform through her writings and preaching and contributing to the improvement of the discipline and life of clerics. At the invitation first of Hadrian IV and later of Alexander III, Hildegard practised a fruitful apostolate, something unusual for a woman at that time, making several journeys, not without hardship and difficulty, to preach even in public squares and in various cathedral churches, such as at Cologne, Trier, Liège, Mainz, Metz, Bamberg and Würzburg. The profound spirituality of her writings had a significant influence both on the faithful and on important figures of her time and brought about an incisive renewal of theology, liturgy, natural sciences and music. (Benedict XVI. Apostolic Letter proclaiming Saint Hildegard of Bingen, professed nun of the Order of Saint Benedict, a Doctor of the Universal Church, October 7, 2012)
Three times Christ on the Cross came to life, and told him: ‘Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins’. This simple occurrence of the word of God heard in the Church of Saint Damian contains a profound symbolism. At that moment Saint Francis was called to repair the small church, but the ruinous state of the building was a symbol of the dramatic and disquieting situation of the Church herself. At that time the Church had a superficial faith which did not shape or transform life, a scarcely zealous clergy, and a chilling of love. It was an interior destruction of the Church which also brought a decomposition of unity, with the birth of heretical movements. Yet, there at the centre of the Church in ruins was the Crucified Lord, and he spoke: he called for renewal, he called Francis to the manual labour of repairing the small Church of Saint Damian, the symbol of a much deeper call to renew Christ’s own Church, with her radicality of faith and her loving enthusiasm for Christ. This event, which probably happened in 1205, calls to mind another similar occurrence which took place in 1207: Pope Innocent III’s dream. In it, he saw the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the mother of all churches, collapsing and one small and insignificant religious brother supporting the church on his shoulders to prevent it from falling. On the one hand, it is interesting to note that it is not the Pope who was helping to prevent the church from collapsing but rather a small and insignificant brother, whom the Pope recognized in Francis when he later came to visit. Innocent III was a powerful Pope who had a great theological formation and great political influence; nevertheless he was not the one to renew the Church but the small, insignificant religious. It was Saint Francis, called by God. (Benedict XVI. General Audience, January 27, 2010)
Today I would like to talk to you about a woman who played an eminent role in the history of the Church: Saint Catherine of Siena. The century in which she lived – the 14th – was a troubled period in the life of the Church and throughout the social context of Italy and Europe. Yet, even in the most difficult times, the Lord does not cease to bless his People, bringing forth Saints who give a jolt to minds and hearts, provoking conversion and renewal. Catherine is one of these and still today speaks to us and impels us to walk courageously toward holiness to be ever more fully disciples of the Lord. (Benedict XVI. General audience, November 24, 2010)
Saint Robert Belarmine, of whom I wish to speak to you today, brings us in memory to the times of the painful division of western Christendom, when a grave political and religious crisis brought about the separation of entire nations from the Apostolic See. […] He was ordained a priest on 25 March 1570, and for a few years was professor of theology at Louvain. Later, summoned to Rome to teach at the Roman College, he was entrusted with the chair of apologetics. In the decade in which he held it (1576–1586), he compiled a course of lessons which subsequently formed the Controversiae [Controversies], a work whose clarity, rich content and mainly historical tone earned it instant renown. The Council of Trent had just ended and in the face of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was impelled to reinforce and confirm her identity. Bellarmine’s action fitted into this context. […] Saint Robert Bellarmine carried out an important role in the Church of the last decades of the 16th century and the first of decades of 17th. His Controversiae were a reference point, still valid, for Catholic ecclesiology on questions concerning Revelation, the nature of the Church, the sacraments and theological anthropology. In them the institutional aspect of the Church is emphasized because of the errors that were then circulating on these issues. Nevertheless, Bellarmine also explained the invisible aspects of the Church as the Mystical Body and illustrated them with the analogy of body and soul, to the point that he described the relationship between the Church’s inner riches and the external aspects that enable her to be perceived. In this monumental work that endeavours to organize the theological controversies of that time, he avoids any polemical and aggressive approach in speaking of the ideas of the Reformation. Instead, using the arguments of reason and the Tradition of the Church, he illustrates the Catholic doctrine clearly and effectively. (Benedict XVI. General audience, February 23, 2011)
III – Though attacked by countless and mighty enemies, the Church will not be destroyed. What lesson does the past have to teach us?
The Church of Christ, built upon an unshakable rock, has nothing to fear for herself, as she knows for a certainty that the gates of hell shall never prevail against her (Mt 16:18). Rather, she knows full well, through the experience of many centuries, that she is wont to come forth from the most violent storms stronger than ever and adorned with new triumphs. (Pius XI. Encyclical Quadragesimo anno, no.144, May 15, 1931)
Despite the unequivocal outcome of the Council, which clearly affirmed that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, these erroneous ideas shortly thereafter once again began to prevail – in this situation even Arius was rehabilitated […] Thus, the Arian crisis, believed to have been resolved at Nicaea, persisted for decades with complicated events and painful divisions in the Church. At least five times – during the 30 years between 336 and 366 A.D. – Athanasius was obliged to abandon his city, spending 17 years in exile and suffering for the faith. But during his forced absences from Alexandria, the Bishop was able to sustain and to spread in the West, first at Trier and then in Rome, the Nicene faith as well as the ideals of monasticism, embraced in Egypt by the great hermit, Anthony, with a choice of life to which Athanasius was always close. (Benedict XVI. General audience, June 20, 2007)
From the consideration of this event and its attendant circumstances, two points arise and stand out, and these we wish, as far as possible, to make yet more clear. They are: the primacy of the Roman pontiff which shone forth clearly in this very grave christological controversy and, secondly, the great importance and weight of the dogmatic definition of Chalcedon. Let those who, through the evils of the time, are separated from the bosom and unity of the Church, especially those who dwell in Eastern lands, not delay to follow the example and the customs of their ancestors in paying due respect to the Roman primacy. And let those who are involved in the errors of Nestorius or Eutyches penetrate with clearer insight into the mystery of Christ and at last accept this definition in its completeness. Those, also, who are led by an excessive desire for new things and, in their investigation of the mystery of our redemption boldly dare to go beyond the sacred and inviolable limits [of true doctrine], should ponder this definition more truly and more deeply. Finally, let all those who bear the Catholic name draw from it strong encouragement; let them hold fast this evangelical pearl of great price; let them profess and hold it with unadulterated faith; let them render it due honor inwardly and outwardly; and – what is still more important – let them pay it the tribute of lives in which, through God’s mercy, they shun whatever is unworthy, incongruous or blameable, and in which they shine with the beauty of virtue, so that they may become sharers of this divinity, who deigned to be a partaker of our humanity. (Pius XII. Encyclical Sempiternus Rex Christus, September 8, 1951)
The dilemma posed by the iconoclasts involved much more than the question of the possibility of Christian art; it called into question the whole Christian vision of the reality of the Incarnation and therefore the relationships of God and the world, grace and nature, in short, the specific character of the ‘new covenant’ that God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. […] Thus Pope Hadrian could write: ‘By means of a visible face, our spirit will be carried by a spiritual attraction towards the invisible majesty of the divinity through the contemplation of the image where is represented the flesh that the Son of God deigned to take for our salvation. May we thus adore and praise him together while glorifying in spirit this same Redeemer for, as it is written, ‘God is Spirit’, and that is why we spiritually adore his divinity’ (Letter of Hadrian I to the Emperors: Mansi XII, 1062AB). Hence, Nicaea II solemnly reaffirmed the traditional distinction between ‘the true adoration (latreia)’ which ‘according to our faith is rendered to the unique divine nature’ and ‘and the prostration of honor (timetike proskynesis) ‘which is attributed to icons, for ‘he who prostrates before the icon does so before the person (hypostasis) who is represented therein’ (Horos: Mansi XIII, 377E). (John Paul II. Apostolic letter Duodecimum saeculum, no. 9, December 4, 1987)
Our Most Merciful Redeemer, after He had wrought salvation for mankind on the tree of the Cross and before He ascended from out this world to the Father, said to his Apostles and Disciples, to console them in their anxiety, ‘Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world’ (Mt 28:20). These words, which are indeed most pleasing, are a cause of all hope and security, and they bring us, Venerable Brethren, ready succor, whenever we look round from this watch-tower raised on high and see all human society laboring amid so many evils and miseries, and the Church herself beset without ceasing by attacks and machinations. For as in the beginning this Divine promise lifted up the despondent spirit of the Apostles and enkindled and inflamed them so that they might cast the seeds of the Gospel teaching throughout the whole world; so ever since it has strengthened the Church unto her victory over the gates of hell. In sooth, Our Lord Jesus Christ has been with his Church in every age, but He has been with her with more present aid and protection whenever she has been assailed by graver perils and difficulties. For the remedies adapted to the condition of time and circumstances, are always supplied by Divine Wisdom, who reacheth from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly (Wis 8:1). (Pius XII. Encyclical Miserentissimus redemptor, no. 1, May 8, 1928)