3/28/2013 9:00:00 AM SEMINARIAN'S DIARY To stick with the Church,
we must tolerate paradox
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BY DEACON SCOTT VANDERVEER
A few weeks before the election of Pope Francis, I received an email message from a parishioner I got to know during a summer parish assignment I had a few years ago as a seminarian. She is a faithful churchgoer and I feel quite confident that her faith is the center of her life. Her distress came through the screen as I read her message.
She said she feels that the Church she has loved and served throughout her life is falling apart. Pope Benedict XVI's resignation and the rumors about corruption in the Vatican that have been featured lately by some media outlets have unleashed a flood of her bottled-up worries.
How are we going to keep afloat with so few priests, she asked? How many more parishes are going to close? How much more bad news can we take? Why is the Church breaking down?
She asked me to comment on how I can face all this as someone who, God willing, will be ordained as a priest in June.
I hear her, loud and clear. When we hear news about the Church that shows how imperfect it can be - news that sounds like it should be coming from the underbelly of a political machine or from some corporate backroom, rather than from the "Bride of Christ" - it's natural to want to condemn that. It is tempting to say, "Clearly the Church is not what it presents itself to be. Its sins tell us all we need to know. It is a sham. Only fools can stay faithful to such a flawed system."
But how do conclusions like that lead us to life?
I will never forget a Sister of Mercy I had as a theology professor at Boston College a decade ago. One day, when asked about how we can make sense of the flaws of the Church, she said, "I'm a sinful and graced woman and this is a sinful and graced Church." The way she understood the Church's flaws was similar to the way she understood her own.
Blessed Mother Teresa was once asked to name what was the first thing, in her opinion, that should change in the Church. Her answer was: "you and I."
Now, this does not solve the whole problem. Just because none of us is in a position to cast the first stone does not mean that the Church can be complacent and brush off authentic calls for reform.
Even the head office is troubled by the Church's sins: Pope Benedict XVI said on Good Friday in 2005 that there is indeed "filth" in the Church that must be flushed out. He continued, "The Church often seems like a boat about to sink, taking in water from every side."
Unfortunately, our polarized culture consistently ignores what can best help us to stay afloat on the stormy seas of life, turning away from the wisdom that is required for us to accept life in this fragile and imperfect Church and in the fragile and imperfect world beyond: We need to learn how to tolerate paradox.
We need to be able to accept, as my professor did, that the Church is both holy and flawed at the same time. And the way we know this can be true about the Church is by seeing that it is true about each one of us.
Our sins, as real as they are, do not erase God's image from us. Likewise, being made in God's image does not automatically absolve us from our sinful ways.
It is not our fault that we have a hard time accepting paradox. Our training set us up to reject it. Aristotle famously taught that two contradictory things could not be simultaneously true: "Where one reality is, an opposing reality cannot at the same time be."
Clearly, he was wrong about this. We see it every day: Saintly people get cancer. Diligent workers lose their jobs. Brilliant politicians are foolish. Children who were raised with love and good values become addicted to drugs.
We see it in the Scriptures: Moses, the greatest prophet, was a murderer. Good King David arranged for a soldier fighting his army to be killed so he could steal the man's wife. St. Paul, the greatest evangelizer and Apostle to the whole world, admitted that he was literally addicted to sin (Romans 7:14-20).
And we see it in the teaching of Jesus. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. If you want to be the greatest, be the least. If you want to live forever, you have to face the cross of death.
We will possess no deep wisdom until we make peace with paradox. These days of uncertainty in the Church demand more than quick black-and-white, yes-or-no answers to life's great questions. Authority alone does not persuade modern people. We need to dig deeper.
It seems to me that the first step toward growth in this skill of tolerating paradox is to make a sincere effort to accept life, exactly as it is. When we see a contradiction in the Church (or anywhere else), we need to learn how to sit with it patiently and allow it to be as it is, taking time to study it closely and learn more about it, without rushing to explain it or demand that it change.
Notre Dame University Professor Nathan Mitchell recently wrote that the essential work of a Christian is "to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are." He continued, addressing God: "For that is what you do, and we were not made in your image for nothing."
In moments of calm, we can see that perhaps, paradoxically, the Church of Christ is not breaking down but is breaking open in ways we never have seen before. It is time to be grateful that God chose us to be alive for these remarkable days.
(Deacon VanDerveer is studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass. He formerly taught at St. Pius X School in Loudonville.)