By Charlie Johnston
I have been trying to write this for a month, but keep ending up unsatisfied with the result. So I have chosen to write it as a letter to all of you. I am going to miss some points, which I will have to revisit another time, but I need to open this discussion. So here goes:
During the brief three years of His public ministry, Jesus sparked a great revival of joyful hope in those who had lost hope in and around Jerusalem and the Middle East. He sparked hope even in the Gentiles, who were considered unclean heathens to be avoided by pious Jews. He sparked hope even in many Roman pagans, as witness the various soldiers and centurions who saw God in Him, when they had not seen it in Jewish authorities.
Our Lord did not accomplish this outbreak of joy and renewed hope by more clearly stating and enforcing the commandments and the law. Jewish authorities had been doing that quite effectively – in a way that led many to despair, not to renewed hope. Our Lord did not accomplish it by “baptizing” people’s disorder and calling it good. Pagan cults had long been doing that effectively, leading only to dissolution and despair.
Our Lord did not just teach mercy, nor did He only teach justice. He taught that both must strive together in tandem. He taught that justice is necessary for us to fully have life within us, and that mercy is necessary to fit us to the yoke of His Word.
I sometimes think of Jesus as a Great Physician, who came to a battered world and healed us, His brothers. He set up a great hospital and called us to do the same, to bring the healing power of His word to our brothers and neighbors. Now looking about much of that Divine Hospital, I see some who, out of a false mercy and pity, enable the very disorders which have brought the sick such misery in the first place. At the other extreme, I see impotent physicians who simply denounce the sick for being sick. So I ask myself, who is doing the healing? If you content yourself with enabling disorder through justification or merely denouncing the sick for their misery, you may be doing work, but it is not God’s work. If you flatter yourself that you are more merciful than other men because you justify disorder, or more righteous than other men because you are quick to condemn those caught in disorder, you deceive yourself. You are not cooperating with God, but with the satan.
You must always temper your mercy with justice and your justice with mercy. If the way you give witness causes others to give up in despair or indulge even further their disorder, you are engaged in vanity, not righteousness. You have chosen a part of what the Lord commands, not the fullness of it.
I learned when I was yet a boy that some men are more deadly dangerous with a Bible in their hand than they would be with a pistol. I learned that some men can do great evil while only citing what is objectively good.
I have a family member who struggled for decades with addiction. At a time when he had already become a pretty good man, he told me during a visit that he was frustrated because he still sometimes stumbled. I told him that recovering from addiction is not like flipping a light switch from on to off, but a constant struggle – a real cross to bear. If we do it right, we steadily get more properly ordered, and the time comes when we succeed more often than we fail. If we keep getting up, in humility, and trying again with real resolve, we truly grow in goodness and grace – so neither indulge the addiction nor despair at the falls, but keep working in humility while asking the Lord to have mercy on me, a poor sinner.
If you are given to offering counsel to others the acid test is whether it sparks new hope in them and helps them to work to leave disorder behind. Many who are very sincere about learning the catechism and canon law still neglect learning the pastoral lesson of how to help those who are caught in a deeply entrenched disorder. Sadly, I have never heard any amateur canon lawyer discuss the pastoral issues of mitigation and diminished capacity, and how to steadily lead those in disorder onto the path of recovery without causing them to give up in despair. It is always the fruit that counts: does the way you give counsel lead people to deeper disorder or into despair, or does it inspire in them a resolve to go through the struggles to find their way to fullness of life, no matter how hard or how long it takes?
These things are very important now, for I have seen – long before I started writing about it publicly – that a time would come where confusion so reigned that the very best of men would have their minds clouded over, that they would do things they never imagined they could. Some will gain a real humility from this failure, but others, who are caught up in the vanity of thinking they know perfectly and are not weak like other men, will fall into complete despair. The chop of the waves around us in these early stages of the fullness of the Storm is going to get much worse before it gets better. That time I foresaw is upon us. Every single one of us is going to be shaken.
Colossians 3:13 must be our watchword in these times. We must bear with one another, forgiving each other and holding each other up as the Lord has forgiven each of us. Truly, each of us shall soon be judged and tried by the same standards with which we have held others. Mercy, holding fast to the truth, is mercy we will each need. Do not squander the mercy you will need…for the Lord works different than the world: the more you give, the more you receive.
I have cringed sometimes at comments made by the Pope. I have often cringed even more at the clarifications that come from the Vatican. But I keep my eye on first things. Casual comments, no matter how provocative, are not formal teaching. I have been struck, at times, by how clumsy Pope Francis seems on temporal matters – and yet how breathtakingly solid and orthodox he is on formal teaching. Over the millennia, we have had popes who actually wrote heresy while sitting as pope – yet none taught heresy in formal teaching. We have had Popes who sired children while sitting on the Throne of Peter. We have had Popes who sold off high Church offices for profit. Yet Christ’s promise that He will protect His Church from error has never been broken.
Personally, I think something very deep is going on. Pope Francis is going out to all the world, going out to the peripheries. I can’t help but notice how many people who were completely disaffected from faith and Church he has caused to consider anew the claims of the Catholic Church, even when I am cringing. You do not have to agree with that assessment to trust that Christ will not fail in His promise to protect His Holy Church.
I think it is good that the Pope and the Bishops should hear the fears and complaints of the faithful – provided those fears and complaints are voiced lovingly and respectfully by devoted sons and daughters of the Church. Let your complaints and criticisms be directed to reform of the great structure, not its destruction, for if you dash yourself in fury against the cornerstone which Christ laid, it is you who will be crushed.
What is certain is that we are at sea in a great storm, so we must all pull together lest we capsize. Let us bear with one another, building each other up even when someone says or does something offensive. It is a sad truth that when people need love and charity most, it is at a time when they are usually the most unlovable. Let us remember Genesis 9. When Ham saw his father, Noah’s nakedness, after a drunken debauch, he exposed it to his two brothers, Shem and Japheth. Those brothers chose to respectfully cover their Father’s nakedness. The Lord condemned Ham and blessed Shem and Japheth. Let us remember this before getting too eager to expose each other’s nakedness. Let us cover each other and pull through this terrible Storm unfolding around us. There will be time enough for recriminations later.
That is why I so want people to start thinking of Church as the Family of God. A healthy family does not tear each other down, even when one has fallen into disorder. Rather, a healthy family will sacrifice much to build each other up and to support, without enabling, those who have fallen into disorder. Too often, much of the laity has seen themselves as mere recipients of the Sacraments. Much of the clergy has come to see themselves merely as Divine Bureaucrats who dispense the Sacraments. In many cases, the clergy has no choice, because their flocks do not see themselves as partners in faith, but just receive and are done with it. So the clergy has not the support it needs to truly build a Family of God. Our love has grown cold.
It is why I am so focused on seeing Eucharistic and Marian Processions spring up like dandelions after a warm, spring rain. It is a way of proclaiming our faith boldly, of lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness in these stormy times. It calls for the intimate collaboration of the clergy and the laity to make it work well. In the process, our clergy and laity will find the filial devotion that should exist between them spring forth anew. We will be the Family of God, calling on our two great pillars, Christ in the Eucharist and Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception, together.
While I certainly expect to do some traveling this year, I do not expect to do an extended tour like last year. There is other work I must prepare for. Besides, if I did, it would be counter-productive. Last year, as the marginalization and hostile targeting of Christians became more apparent, I knew many would feel oppressed and isolated. The primary purpose of my visits was so that people could see that they were not alone, that committed Christians were abundant right in their hometowns. I am grateful that my visits seemed to spark some new hope in many corners of America. But this year, I want you to do the same in each of your home areas, by collaborating with your spiritual leaders, the clergy, to publicly proclaim your faith through these Processions, giving witness to our Glorious Lord while knitting together the bonds of affection and faith in the Family of God.
I am now in contact with literally hundreds of Priest, Deacons and Pastors. They are ready to lead, but need to know that their flocks will stand with them. The witness of so many from last year’s visits and on this website demonstrate that much of the laity is ready to stand in filial devotion to their Pastors and Bishops. So do it. Keep it simple. Keep it so that even the fellow who has not been to Church in a decade but worries about how crazy the world has already become, will say, “I can do this…and I am going to do this.” Fall in love with each other as the Family of God and you will fall in love with Our Lord and Our Lady anew – and will bring many who had lost hope to find it anew in your public witness.
I will give you support by developing, through the tnrs team, a calendar of upcoming Processions – and then a section with pictures from the Processions and witness of some who participated in it. I have spoken with Dan Lynch, who has much experience in organizing processions about helping you. Anthony Mullen is contemplating extensive travel this year, and he may be a profound devotional resource, as well. This is not the ‘Charlie Show;’ it is the ‘Jesus and Mary Show.’ I helped spark a little renewed fervor last year, now I call on you to do the same in your home diocese. May these Processions spring up around the world that all may see that the Family of God is alive and vibrant – and filled with joy and confidence.
On Saturday, March 5, my Archbishop Samuel Aquila will lead a Procession around Planned Parenthood in Stapleton, Colorado. He emphasizes that there is to be no arguing or shouting, only prayerful witness, as all process around the facility seven times. I hope that many of you will come out. Many of us are quick to criticize our spiritual leaders when they don’t say or do what we prefer. I pray that support for this inspired, pastoral and spiritual witness brings out a host of supporters. If it does, you should know that it will be an inspiration to many Bishops, Pastors and faith communities around the country and the world. Let this be the first dandelion in a vast field of them, a harbinger of what will rise. The Archdiocese of Denver will update the itinerary as we get closer.
I would like to close with this thought, a phrase I wrote on the spot about a year ago, but that I have come to think was deeply inspired:
“As you look at your life, you cannot measure it by the books published , the soup kitchens worked, the refuges built-though if you do those things they are good. Rather, you must judge it from the perspective of the hope inspired, the peace you spread, the joy you engendered, the love you kindled- for these are the sure marks of the Kingdom of God. All else is detail.”
Let us rise together as the Family of God.
Ave Maria, Stella Maris!