Friday, April 15, 2011

Flirting With Despair

I’ve been strolling along the edge of despair lately. Or so it feels. A handful of voices, past and present, have been calling me back from (or are they edging me closer to?) the brink. Elizabeth Scalia (aka the Anchoress) wrote a reflection, Another Long Lent, and Broods of Vipers, earlier this week that was featured in the On the Square section of the First Things website. She points to all of the scandals and rumors of scandals that continue to plague the Church, then reminds us to look up. The One that we follow, the only one who will never let us down, is Christ. He (in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit) is the proper focus of our faith, not any of the Church’s human members.

Her words were reassuring.

Then I read some of the comments and was brought back to the edge of despair.

Then there’s Patrick Madrid’s contribution, Don’t Be Discouraged. Subtitled “Hold Your Head Up High, This is a Great Time to be Catholic,” the Envoy Special Report comes complete with an illustration of a band of Christians praying in the stadium dirt as hungry lions and tigers are released to do what hungry lions and tigers do to helpless humans. Patrick has two essays, one on what we can learn from St. Francis DeSales and one on common excuses for not evangelizing. His message seems to be something akin to “Man-up and accept your mission! It might be a tough time to be a Catholic, but do it anyway! If you aren’t suffering like the saints, you should be!”

This is supposed to be comforting?

A significant portion of my temptation to despair stems from the realization that, as our country hurtles toward a debt crisis like a car speeding toward an abyss, we are incapable of doing anything about it. While a handful of politicians frantically try to slam on the brakes, it has become evident that the brake lines are ruptured, and their efforts result only in the spurting of fluid on an over-heated engine. I desperately want to believe that enough of my fellow Americans are awake to the danger to make avoiding the catastrophe possible. Unfortunately, as Peter Robinson recently learned from conversations with Mark Steyn and Tucker Carlson, too much of the electorate is on the receiving end of government largesse, and they are not inclined to give it up.

My thoughts have turned from whether there will be a reckoning to when. If we’re lucky, it won’t be for another 15-20 years, but any perturbation could spark the panic. If you thought 2008 was fun, just wait until the next big financial crisis arrives. I don’t know what happens then, but it fills me with dread.

And that is exactly what Wormwood wants.

Yes, I’ve been reading The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis. In the 15th letter, Wormwood is advised by his uncle, Screwtape, to keep his man’s attention on either the past or the future, whether a future of hope or of anxiety. Anything that takes his attention off of the present will do, so long as he is not “aware that horrors may be in store for him and is praying for the virtues, wherewith to meet them.” Preparing for tomorrow doesn’t count, either, since the duty to prepare is today’s duty.

So, then, my task is to remain focused on embracing and fulfilling God’s will today, to pray for the virtues that I will need tomorrow, and to make preparations. If I had the resources, I think I would be building and stocking my bunker.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Vincent's Pope

Yesterday was the feast day for St. Vincent Ferrer. His feast day rolls around every year on April 5, although it wouldn’t be observed if it were on a Sunday, during Holy Week, or during Easter Week. The same could be said of St. Isidore (April 4) or St. John Baptiste de la Salle (April 7). Yet St. Vincent Ferrer got an awful lot of notice this year. It wasn’t a particularly significant anniversary of his death (592 years ago, yesterday), so I am genuinely puzzled as to why he got all of this sudden attention.

I don’t know much about St. Vincent, but I can’t call myself a fan because he got one of the biggest questions of his day wrong.

After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, the cardinals elected a new pope, Urban VI. When Pope Urban VI didn’t do what the cardinals expected him to do, they tried to invalidate his election and elect a new pope who took the name Clement VII. There were two men who claimed to have been elected Bishop of Rome – one of them had to be an anti-pope. St. Vincent Ferrer backed Clement VII. St. Catherine of Siena supported Urban VI. Both St. Vincent and St. Catherine were Dominicans, and indeed, the whole Dominican order fractured at the time.

Eventually, there were three claimants to the papacy, which was reduced back down to two at the Council of Constance in 1415 and finally to one in 1429 (ten years after St. Vincent’s death). Today, most Catholic scholars acknowledge that Urban VI was legitimately elected and that the Office of St. Peter was handed down through his successors. In other words, St. Vincent was backing the wrong horse. Nevertheless, 36 years after his death, Vincent Ferrer was canonized by Pope Calixtus III.

The main things that I draw from this episode in Church history are that even a saint, with all the gifts of grace and holiness that is implied in that title can make wrong judgments; and making a wrong judgment about a person does not necessarily reflect negatively on an individual’s personal holiness. The most glaring modern example would be the judgment of Pope John Paul II regarding Fr. Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

It follows from this that I am wary of appeals to holiness and legitimacy by association. So, when somebody tells me that an alleged visionary’s confessor was a canonized saint, therefore her visions are legitimate, I immediately think of the counter-examples cited above. Vincent Ferrer might be a canonized saint today, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t follow the wrong pope during his life on earth.