When Human Leadership Fails Us

In February of 1798, French troops marched into Rome under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte. Pope Pius VI was imprisoned by Napoleon, where he died in 1799.  Later that year, a new pope was elected by 34 cardinals from across Europe who gathered in secret, since Napoleon had made their gathering an illegal act.  Eventually, Napoleon learned of the new pope, and he met with Pope Pius VII.  The story goes, that Napoleon told one of the Pope’s advisers that it was his goal to “destroy your faith and your church.” The adviser calmly replied, “If in 1,800 years we clergy have failed to destroy the Church, do you really think that you’ll be able to do it?”

Many of you have probably heard a version of this story, or this quote, before (please forgive me for paraphrasing both the quote and the story).  It is usually told in a self-deprecating fashion, as a way to both laugh at the internal struggles in our church, but also to boast of our strength and endurance.  There is also a theological approach we can take to interpreting it: This is God’s Church. How on earth could there be any way that human beings could be capable of destroying God’s Church?

As we all know, this past week our Archdiocese declared bankruptcy.  While, in truth, this event will most likely not affect St. Peter’s in any way, it is still yet another benchmark in the painful scandal that our local church has endured over the past year-plus. After the experiences and pain that our parish itself has endured during this time, we are acutely aware of the struggles that the People of God are having in dealing with this crisis.  I know it has been a great struggle for many Catholics to reconcile their faith with their disappointment and anger at leadership in the church (not just here, but all over the universal Church).  A few weeks ago, after a segment on WCCO Radio about the scandal, a parishioner wrote in to the station afterwards saying, I emailed the . . . Archdiocese to let them know of my disgust at being a Catholic in this archdiocese. I am a 5th generation Catholic in Minnesota, have 3 kids in Catholic schools and am actively looking for another faith to worship in.”  While this may be understandable to many people, it is so painful for me to read as someone who loves the Church.

Human beings are sinful. We all fail at some point and in some way to be the people God wants us to be.  Our Lord knew this when he established our Church.  He chose as the first Pope a man who had just recently denied him.  Our Church is created by God, and while it is populated by and overseen by imperfect people, it is also divine. And that divinity can never be damaged or broken, even if it can seem at times to be obscured.  In Matthew 16:18, just after Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on which the church will be built, he also tells him, “The gates of hell will never prevail against [the church].”

In this week’s Gospel, Christ calls his disciples to follow him, just as we are still called to follow him as well. It is important for us to always remember that no matter what sins are committed by us on earth, they don’t change God, and they don’t change our calling. They don’t lessen God. They don’t minimize the sacrifice of Christ. They don’t change what happens at the altar during the Sacrifice of the Mass, and they don’t in any way, shape or form lessen the grace that I am able to receive when Christ comes to me in the Eucharist. No matter what my opinion is on the actions of current or past leaders in our Archdiocese, the Eucharist never changes. No matter how much I like or dislike my pastor, bishop or pope, the Eucharist never changes. No matter how angry, disappointed, frustrated, or _______ (feel free to insert your own adjective in the preceding blank space) I get at the human leadership in our church (local or universal), I can always go to Christ in the Eucharist.  I can always look for God’s love, mercy and grace in the other sacraments. And I can’t get that anywhere else, because I truly believe that this is the church that our Lord intended when he commissioned the disciples, and sent them out before his ascension. I believe that our Church is where the truth can be found. No matter the follies and sins of her mortal leadership and human members, our Church is always my home.

This faith does not mitigate or lessen my anger and outrage, or the pain I feel when I see my church in crisis. But when I come to the altar each time to receive the Precious Body and Blood, the grace that I receive gives me the strength to continue on in faith. It gives me the strength to go into the world and profess my faith, even if the secular world thinks that I should have the grounds to walk away, in a fashion like one would cancel membership at a health club.  It gives me the strength to defend my faith, if not the people who lead it, because I know the gates of hell will never prevail over my church.

God has given us this beautiful, wonderful faith that we call Catholicism.  I do not believe for one second, that he will ever allow us to destroy it. In fact, it is beyond our capabilities. This Sunday, I’ll be coming forward at communion time, trying my hardest to help bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.  I hope that you all will continue to join me: this Sunday, next Sunday, and all the Sundays after.

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