If you’ve visited the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, perhaps you’ve noticed a large, bronze statue a hundred yards away, facing the façade of the church. The person with arms outstretched in the statue pictured above is St. Francis of Assisi.
I’ve been fortunate to visit Rome a handful of times, but it wasn’t until this summer that I looked into the story behind this statue. In the past I had likely thought his arms were outstretched in praise of God. Thanks to my ever-curious mind, I dug into this one night and found myself emboldened in my call as a Christian witness to our world in chaos, and our church in crisis.
The Reality of Evil
There is evil running rampant almost everywhere we turn. There is spiritual warfare that is constantly causing division, anger and hatred among strangers, neighbors, and even family—a warfare that is far beyond what our human intellect is able to grasp. There are challenges within our own personal lives unbeknownst to others. There’s incessant chatter on the inescapable subjects of 2020—the coronavirus, politics, and scandals in the church. The divisions among the Body of Christ have been especially painful.
There have been cries among the laity for courageous shepherds to speak up against the timidity of other seemingly lukewarm shepherds, and more recently there has also been ambiguous messages that have left many confused due to the lack of clarity from the Holy Father’s words, regardless if it was an opinion and not ex cathedra. Unfortunately this instance is not the first time this has happened. The confusion among laity mirrors the confusion among church leaders.
Souls are being led astray and swept up by societal culture. What certainly isn’t helping is that when physical access to the sacraments is taken away, there may be many that won’t come back at all. Perhaps there will be dioceses that won’t lift dispensations any time soon. Perhaps some of the younger, healthier people have grown too comfortable with this new normal of TV Mass. I honestly pray that I am so wrong on each of these.
There are many who’ve lapsed in their faith, who have succumbed to accepting the modern day adage “my truth is not your truth”. Moral relativism—another great tragedy for the church. Many lose their way and find themselves living a secular lifestyle, leaving a life of faith for a life immersed in the ever-changing beliefs of earthly life, rather than the unchanging teachings which aid us in our pursuit for eternal life.
In the political climate we are in, saint statues and churches are continually vandalized, the Blessed Sacrament desecrated, and people of faith ridiculed for their piety and their standing up against abuse & injustices. Many Christians are killed yearly simply because of the faith they profess. Red martyrdom happens more overseas than here in America, but who’s to say definitively that won’t come for us at some point; white martyrdom definitely is here.
So as you can imagine, the reality of churches still being closed in many places is horrific because the sacraments are not just some Sunday thing we do. It shouldn’t be reduced to something people do to simply feel good, check off the list. Rather, the celebration of the Eucharist and the graces outpoured at every single Mass are what the faithful are in most need of during such a tumultuous time.
The Eucharist is our lifeblood. Reconciliation heals us and brings us back to a life of sanctifying grace. We need the sacraments just as we need air for our lungs, food for our bodies. Without the reception of the sacraments, it’s much easier to fall into despair and commit mortal sins. And I said it’s horrific because it is committing mortal sins that damage our relationship with God. It separates us from His sanctifying grace and if not repented, our sins can separate us from God forever.
Weeds & Wheat
Behind the reality of evil is Satan’s doing, plans contrived for a long time. He’s been hard at work pitting God’s children against each other. Daily we are reminded via news headlines and social media feeds of these evils, plus misleading journalism, censorship, and the like have caused even further divide and misunderstanding. Everyone has their own opinions, and exchanges are seldom done with charity nor understanding, but instead with anger, scorn, and the proclivity to be right. Often I have to step away from social media altogether when I’m tempted to fall into sin or growing in hopelessness and anxiety. It’s too easy of a trap to get stuck in. I know this all too well.
As strange as this may sound after all of this said, I am growing more peaceful as I’ve accepted that this is necessary. In my recent prayer, I recalled the Parable of the Weeds (Mt 13:24-43). Jesus shared with His disciples a parable likening the Kingdom of Heaven to a man who sowed good seeds in his field. When the men were asleep, the enemy came and sowed cockle among the good wheat and went his way. Cockle, as detailed in the Douay Rheims Bible translation, refers to a type of poisonous weed. When the wheat had grown and produced fruit, there then also appeared the weeds. Confused, the servants asked the man: “Did you not sow good seeds in the field? Where did the weeds come from?” The man then replied saying that the weeds were sown deceitfully by the enemy by night. They responded back, asking, “Should we gather the weeds?”
Jesus finished the parable saying: “No—if they gather up the cockle, you uproot the good wheat also together with it. Suffer both to grow until the harvest, and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers: ‘Gather up first the cockle, and bind it into bundles to burn; but the wheat—gather into my barn.’“
Striving to live faithfully alongside weeds, watching evils take place before our eyes is agonizing. Sometimes it’s drawn out longer than we’d like and there’s no guaranteeing when the end is in sight. But this is what must happen until Christ comes again, to free us from this life on earth, from our fallen nature, from our inclination to sin. But thanks be to God, we have the gift of the sacraments to sustain us through all of this. This is why we need them. No matter what is happening in the world around us, yes, even regardless of this pandemic.
A Church Falling Down
Many times I come to prayer feeling completely depleted. While at times I come to prayer with great faith, other times I offer what’s left of my feeble faith asking God, “What on earth can I do?”
Well, learning about the story of the statue of St. Francis, as I said, emboldened me.
It commemorates a link between St. Francis and his friars to Pope Innocent III, and the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome—where the chair of the Bishop of Rome is. Today is the Feast of the Dedication of Basilica of St. John Lateran.
St. Francis’ story begins with asking God what to do, to which he heard Him respond: “rebuild my church, which as you see is falling down.” Not just physically, as Francis thought initially when he repaired San Damiano, but what God was referencing was the reform at the time that the church was in need of spiritually.
Years later, Francis and his friars traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Innocent III, to discuss reform. The night before, the pope had dreamt about a man that resembled Francis, holding up the collapsing Basilica of St. John Lateran. It was as if Pope Innocent III had a vision that Francis would be the one to hold up the Church at the time that was falling down, which he did, and again, not physically, but spiritually.
So now I see this bronze statue and I don’t just see Francis giving praise, but holding up with his outstretched arms a church that is falling down, and with his eyes fixed on the crucified Christ.
Our Call to Hold Her Up
Just as there was need for rebuilding then, so, too is there again a need for rebuilding. 800 years later, as the Church continues to fall (not because the Bride of Christ isn’t perfect, because she is, but it’s because the humans who make up the church aren’t), each of us has the mission by the virtue of our baptism is to hold the Church up in 2020 and beyond.
Christ beckons us daily to become saints who hold up the falling church of our time, to fight once more against the enemies outside of the church and even stand up against those within.
So where does that leave us?
This looks different for everyone as there are those in a different state of life and others who have adopted certain saints’ spiritualities, charisms, and so forth.
For some this may mean vocally fighting against the scandals plaguing our church today, whether it’s the sexual abuse, clericalism, or heresies, demanding for transparency, accountability, and justice; for others this may mean investing in stronger catechesis, faith formation programs for youth and young adults.
For some this may mean educating others in upholding natural law; for others this may mean raising children up deeply rooted in the faith, in the privacy of their homes.
For some this may mean mentoring a young man imprisoned at a local jail; for others this may mean physically taking care of the poor in a tiny village thousands of miles away from home.
For some this may mean volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center, providing support materially and emotionally to women, men, and their unexpected blessing; for some this may mean becoming active in the life of the parish and being a witness to how the Holy Spirit is actively working in your life to other parishioners.
For some this may mean choosing a life of quiet, contemplative prayer, away from the clamor of the world; for others this may mean evangelizing through their talent, their art, their words.
All of these and much more, in their own unique ways, are parts to holding up with our outstretched hands the church that is falling down as each is an extension of Christ’s truth, love, and mercy.
But the connecting link between each of these is a faithful “yes” in what God is asking of us—just like the yes that Our Blessed Mother gave when the Angel Gabriel came to her. It was a “yes” to a call that she didn’t have planned prior and yet with great faith, emptied herself entirely to a life filled with more constant yeses as she was solely devoted to doing the will of the Father.
Surely there is much evil, but we must also understand that any discouragement we experience is not of God, but a trick Satan uses to entangle us in his web of lies to paralyze us from setting the world on fire with the Gospel Truth. We combat this by believing that the heart of the living Christ is encountered on the Cross. It’s expected that as His disciples, we will suffer, but we must clench tightly to our Sovereign King, in Whom we put our complete dependence on. Upon this realization we can then fight evil fearlessly and hold the church up as she has been in the past by countless other saints who are now enjoying the eternal splendors of Heaven.
With the Most Holy Eucharist as our antidote to death, even the saints who choose to live heroic lives today can be antidotes for our poisoned world.
Stay Awake & Be Ready
Finally, even though we don’t know what the future holds, we must trust in God’s providence and remain vigilant; to fight as His army here on earth against the powers of darkness.
Because we do not know the hour or day of when Christ will come, may we not be like the five foolish virgins who were unprepared for the Bridegroom (Mt 25:1-13)—for it would be the ultimate tragedy to hear Him say, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”
It’s time to wake up and give our entire lives to Christ—to truly know, love and serve Him in this world to be happy with Him forever in Heaven. It is for this very reason that we were created, and for a place far greater than this poisoned world we for now call home.