When Brian Moore’s extraordinary novel Black Robe was published in 1985, I asked my mother whether she planned to read the book. In theory, she was a natural audience for the fictionalized account of the Jesuits’ foray into North America to minister to Indigenous communities. A teacher of Canadian history who could quote extensively from the Jesuit Relations, she surprised me with her answer. “I don’t want to know that my heroes have feet of clay,” she said firmly. Conversation closed.
I thought of our talk when news broke of Jean Vanier’s abuse of a number of women. A born cynic, I cannot remember the last time I was as shocked by a church-related story. As I let the news sink in, however, it was my own shock that surprised most.
The church — or my perception of it — has changed markedly in the 35 years since my mother expressed her fears of learning something that might disappoint about the institution she loved. In the intervening years, we have wrestled with systemic sexual abuse, the torture of residential schools, financial scandals, the death of vocations, a church increasingly divided between hyper-orthodoxy and a craving for growth, the continued denial of the rights and dignity of women, the flight of once-devoted Catholics from the pews and the ongoing questions around Pius XII and his wartime role. That anything shocks anymore is the true surprise. Many now see the institutional church as a house of cards, as fragile as feet of clay.
It is all too easy to despair. Despair is a natural outcome from profound disappointment and disillusionment. But from the ashes of the church of my childhood, there remains hope for the emergence of a place that reflects not only the spirit of Vatican II, but also that of the New Testament — the church of the apostles, of Paul, of Mary of Magdala.
The church I long for is one that is built upon what Notre Dame theologian Fr. Tom O’Meara, O.P., calls a horizontal ecclesiology. He argues that the discussion of the universal call to holiness in Vatican II’s Lumen gentium makes clear that we are all to be engaged in the act of building church — an act that is not about spires and statues but about feeding the poor and comforting the sick and building a true kingdom on earth. While priests, saints and the hierarchy will always have a place, the rest of us are also called upon to be church, too, understanding that we are just as integral as the people who currently rest on pedestals. It offers important empowerment to laity because it asks us truly to embrace the call to be priest, prophet and king.
But answering this call requires profound change. One of the best lectures I heard while studying theology came from a priest who argued that St. Paul would not recognize a modern Mass because of its focus on transubstantiation itself, rather than the change brought forth by transubstantiation on the people gathered together in Christ’s name. Thoughts like these can rock the complacent and enrage those who stand on constant watch for hints of sedition.
One of the beauties of the Mass we hear today is that we are sent forth not with ite, missa est, which to the uninspired is merely a marker of time, but with the option to “go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life” or with a call to announce the Gospel of the Lord. We are meant to do something when we leave, something that reflects the change we have undergone by participating in liturgy.
But we live in a time of great distraction, with warring social media factions focused on sneering or cheering Cardinal Burke’s love of the cappa magna or debating Cardinal Sarah’s assertion that receiving communion in the hand is a sign of Satan at work among us. With a truly empowered laity, these debates would fade away; they simply would not matter because we would all be too busy.
If we were all better engaged, our focus could shift from an upward gaze to a gaze at those among us. Those like my mother, who quietly adopted Therese of Liseux’s little way. She often cited the passage in L’Histoire dune ame in which the saint discussed fighting her annoyance with a community member who persistently splashed her while they worked in the convent laundry. My mother recognized that small acts of patience, of kindness, of charity, in their own small way, could make a difference. It was always easier to see the face of Christ in my mother than in a hidebound cleric.
We are at a moment of great opportunity, a time to truly create the church envisioned not only at Vatican II, but the church that created such zeal in Mary Magdalene, in Paul, in the martyrs. It’s time to tear down the pedestals so that we are no longer upended by disappointment. But that means insisting on parish councils in all churches so that we all have a voice; ensuring that parishes become true community centers rather than stopping-off places; making a concerted effort to ask ourselves what we are doing to become church.
It isn’t easy, but surely it is worth the effort.
Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.