The Habit of Fidelity
Some years ago, the parish where my parents had retired used a rather strange “altar bread”. It was so sweet that it seemed to have substantially more in it than wheat flour and water. When the oldest priest of the parish said Mass, he always brought his own traditional hosts. He never said anything, but I think I understand why.
My guess is that the Eucharistic bread was illicit but valid matter, yet even the validity was in doubt. On one Sunday when I was visiting, I talked with a new young priest who had given a fine sermon, and asked if he knew what the host was made of. He didn’t, but he assured me it must be all right because it was made “at the monastery.” I didn’t share his confidence and I soon wore out my welcome by urging him to check into it. He hastened away from me as if I had the plague.
Despite my undoubted charm, it is not hard to understand his reaction. The parish climate had not been high on fidelity for a long time. This was the same church in which a previous priest had announced after Mass that he was called to the priesthood but not to celibacy, so he was leaving. He was given a round of applause. I suspect the moral is that if you don’t take Church discipline seriously in small ways, you’ll end up mired in bigger sins. I know this isn’t always true; in fact sometimes those guilty of major sins compensate by being letter-perfect elsewhere. But in a lax atmosphere, nobody wants to look at anything too closely.
Bishop Fulton Sheen used to tell the story of a young curate who came to him in evident distress to explain all the doubts he was having about his Faith, in particular concerning the Eucharist. Sheen listened carefully for quite a long time and, when his priest had finished the tale, asked only one question: “What color is her hair?” In a similar vein, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus famously wrote a few years ago that there were three main issues in the priestly sex abuse scandal: Fidelity, fidelity and fidelity.
When temptation arises—large or small, mortal or venial—we resist it best by reminding ourselves to remain faithful to Christ. If this is true for our own lives, it is even more true in attempting to right wrongs perpetrated or permitted by others. The added public dimension demands greater courage. Correction is often a matter of challenging what has become commonplace among the lukewarm, who do not respond kindly to criticism. Yet this is a work of mercy, an expression of love. If we are to be faithful to the good shepherd, we must care enough about others to act for their benefit.
Our Lord said a great deal about faithful and unfaithful servants. In one of His parables, the master of the household returns to set those who were faithful in small matters over greater things—and to punish the unfaithful “with the hypocrites” (Mt 24:51). In another place, He taught that when we have done all we are commanded to do, we are to regard ourselves as unprofitable for not having done more (Lk 17:10). “The disciple is not above the master,” says Jesus Christ, “nor the servant above his lord” (Mt 10:24). We need desperately to recover the habit of fidelity.
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