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The Church of Latter Day Sinners | Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R. | From Arise From Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense

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I think that the Catholic Church should be called the Church of Latter Day Sinners. That's all we claim to be. There are those churches who feel they are perfect. I feel sorry for them. Jimmy Swaggart had one of those churches going for a while, but he dropped out. Perhaps much for his own spiritual benefit, the bottom fell out. Members of his church all thought they were saints, but it's a good thing that they weren't. Jesus Christ did not come to save the saints. He came to save the sinners. "For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mt 9:13). Jimmy has announced himself to be a penitent since the time when he ran into disgrace. That was very wise. He should have been doing it all the time. The followers of Jesus Christ are all poor, self-confessed sinners if they are wise. I have been privileged to know a few people who some day may be canonized saints, but they all thought that they were poor sinners.

You must expect that these poor sinners in the Church are going to get hurt and that they are going to hurt each other. To be let down by the Church is not a reason to leave her, anymore than to be let down by your family is a reason to give up family life and move to a desert island. Are there any who have not been hurt by members of their family? In his City of God, St. Augustine wisely observed that it breaks the heart of any good person to see that even in one's own home one is not in a safe place and that one may be attacked even there by an enemy posing as a friend or even by an enemy who used to be a loved one. [1] If we all gave up on the human race because we have been hurt, we'd have to move to separate planets.

What to Do

We've all been hurt by people in the Church, even those in authority. When this happens, the first thing to do is to calm down. In fact, that's a good rule when you get hurt by anyone. Take a walk and calm down. The Irish have a saying, "Take counsel with your pillow", which means to sleep on it. Then ask yourself, when you calm down, "Is this really my problem? Did I expect too much from mortal human beings? Am I looking for something in the Church that legitimately I may hope for?" The answer is probably "Yes." It was reasonable, even just. But I cannot absolutely demand kind and faithful treatment, because Jesus Christ himself did not find this in the Church he established. As we have seen, the Church has always been made up of weak individuals. When we are hurt by the Church we recognize that the problem is that "the Church" can be very inconsistent. The people in the Church can be nice one day and bad the next. Even on the same day and in the same parish, there are those who can be terribly charitable and terribly unkind.

Next I ask myself the question, "Am I overly dependent on the Church? Has my reliance on Church people caused me not to rely enough on God and his Son?" You know, many people have very positive experiences in the Church. They work for the Church, and it's been a very positive experience. They went to a Catholic school, and they learned a lot. They were part of a committee or a movement or something in the Church, and it was the most positive thing they ever did in their whole lives. They think that's going to last forever. That's what you call a honeymoon, and it doesn't last. All things pass away. Don't depend on a particular part of the Church. Depend on God.

The Saint Who Wanted Nothing

The life of St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite mystic, is a case in point. This good man was always in trouble. He was a very bright, extremely spiritual and devout man. At the direction of St. Teresa of Avila, he once built a novitiate for the Carmelite friars of her reform. When she went to see it, there were crosses all over the place. She said, "Too many crosses. Take some of them down." She was very direct and much older than St. John of the Cross. Already he had suffered very much for her reform. John of the Cross, when he was in the regular old observance of the Carmelites, was arrested, imprisoned in the monastery, and beaten so severely in the refectory that he carried the scars with him to his grave. He started the new community at the behest of St. Teresa, and after her death his own friars tried to throw him out of the community. St. Teresa could not come to his rescue. Can you imagine?

St. John of the Cross gives this advice to religious: live in the world as if you lived there all by yourself with God. Don't look for anything. Don't get involved in all the comings and goings. Don't have great expectations. Just do what you are supposed to do and say your prayers. [2] That does sound a bit severe, doesn't it? Yet there is more than a grain of truth in it. We always get hurt by the people we love.

The people we don't love can't hurt us very much. St. John of the Cross did not die a bitter man, although his confrères were trying at that point to throw him out of the order on the charge of being stupid-this great Doctor of the Church. I don't know when they ever decided to throw anybody out for being stupid. No one defended John of the Cross. There were all these young friars whom, as novice master, he had trained. He had taught them about the spiritual life, and yet not one of them defended him. I guess you can say that the Church-or the part of the Church that was most important to him--let him down. But he remained calm and at peace. He busied himself in his final assignment by working on his great books and doing pastoral counseling with the lay people, since none of the friars would even listen to him.

The Most Misunderstood Man

And then we come to St. Francis of Assisi. We are all familiar with happy pictures of St. Francis and the friars. To tell the truth, St. Francis lived the last years of his life pretty much in exile. He had few companions, and his order was governed by a man, Elias of Cortona, who was really his worst enemy. Elias did not even die a Franciscan.

St. Francis suffered because very few people really shared his vision. Some of his followers, not able to live up to his incredible example, slipped into silly rationalizations. Others slid the other way into fanaticism. Some chose this and others chose that as the part of his message they would emphasize. In the end almost all deserted him, and yet they all cried at his funeral. Stuck between indulgence and arrogance, sentimentality and fanaticism, they never really understood this holy man, who saw himself as very simple. In the end he got hurt by those who in fact loved him but did not understand him. We learn from both St. John of the Cross and St. Francis not to depend too much on any particular part of the Church but to put our trust in God.

If you get hurt by the Church, sit down and ask yourself, "Did I forget that the Church was made up of human beings with original sin? Did I forget that she is a great dragnet cast into the sea? Did I forget that at any given time in the Church you can find some of the best and some of the worst people?" Begin to look at the Church differently. St. Francis, speaking about the possibility of being persecuted by the clergy, wrote:
God inspired me, too, and still inspires me with such great faith in priests who live according to the laws of the holy Church of Rome, because of their dignity, that if they persecuted me, I should still be ready to turn to them for aid. And if I were as wise as Solomon and met the poorest priests of the world, I would still refuse to preach against their will in the parishes in which they live. I am determined to reverence, love and honour priests and all others as my superiors. I refuse to consider their sins, because I can see the Son of God in them and they are better than I. I do this because in this world I cannot see the most high Son of God with my own eyes, except for his most holy Body and Blood which they receive and they alone administer to others. [3]

When to Move

Sometimes people come to me and say, "I can't stand my parish. The sermons are not really authentic teaching of the Catholic faith." Sadly, this can happen in these times. It has happened before in Church history. When you consider that only one of the thirty bishops in England remained loyal to the Church at the time of Henry VIII, it's quite possible that you could go to a Catholic Church and hear what is not authentic Catholic teaching. And people ask me, "What do I do?" If you have a car, drive. If you don't have one, either get one or a bicycle, or a horse, or hitch a ride with a friend. Move, or buy bus tokens. Go someplace else. This is a world of transportation. If you are in a parish where you are uncomfortable because you think the people in charge are not enthusiastically loyal to the teaching of the Catholic Church presently interpreted by the Bishop of Rome, move. People always ask me, "What should I do?" Travel.

Make Your Voice Heard

If things aren't that bad, but are disquieting, make an intelligent noise. Unfortunately, most of the time the noises that people make are not very intelligent. I learned this because sometimes I have to follow up on complaints, and at least half the complaints are just off the deep end. They're silly or trivial or crazy. At times good complaints are submitted, but the one complaining arrives with an axe. You're trying to do the best you can to keep the local Church going, trying to represent the Mystical Body of Christ in the messy world we live in, and someone is all upset because a priest wears blue vestments in Advent or something like that. Many devout but troubled Catholics don't know how to make the distinction between someone being heretical and someone being naughty.


[1] St. Augustine, City of God, book xix, chap. , ed. Vernon Bourke (New York: Doubleday, 1958), 44.

[2] St. John of the Cross, Points of Love: The Complete Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. E. Allison Peers, vol. 3 (Westminster, Md.: Newman Bookshop, 1946), 256.

[3] The Testament of St. Francis: Omnibus of Sources, ed. Marion Habig (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988), 67.

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Author Page for Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel

Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., is loved around the world for his bold and powerful witness to the Gospel. For many years Fr. Groeschel has tirelessly worked with the poor and needy, spoken to tens of thousands of Catholics, and written numerous articles and books.

In May 1987 he founded, with eight other friars, the community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The Community, which follows the Capuchian Tradition, now has over eighty friars and sisters. It is dedicated to preaching reform within the Church and caring for the homeless in the South Bronx and Harlem sections of New York City, as well as in London and Honduras.

Fr. Groeschel is Director for the Office for Spiritual Development for the Archdiocese of New York. He founded and is on the staff of Trinity Center—a center for prayer and study for the clergy. John Cardinal O’Connor appointed him promoter of the cause of Canonization of the Servant of God, Terence Cardinal Cooke, in 1984.

Fr. Groeschel earned his doctorate in psychology from Columbia University in 1971 and is professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary of the Archdiocese of New York. He has taught at Fordham University, Iona College, and Maryknoll Seminary.

He is also chairman of the Good Counsel Homes and the St. Francis House, which provides residence and programs for homeless young mothers and homeless youth. For fourteen years, Fr. Groeschel served as chaplain of the Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Fr. Groeschel has appeared on EWTN numerous times and has written many books, including - Arise From Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense, The Reform of Renewal, Rosary: The Chain of Hope, Still Small Voice: A Practical Guide on Reported Revelations, and, most recently, The Drama of Reform, all published by Ignatius Press.

When Fr. Groeschel was nearly killed in a traffic accident in early 2004, tens of thousands prayed for his life. Miraculously, he lived. IgnatiusInsight.com interviewed him and asked him about his recovery, what he has gone through since the accident, and his book, Praying To Our Lord Jesus Christ: Prayers and Meditations Through the Centuries.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


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