The Brightness of the Church: Leaving No Part Dark

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 06, 2013

As Catholics, we are so often the Church’s worst enemies. When we ask why the Church has so much trouble leading men and women to salvation throughout so much of the world, we can frequently find more answers in the mirror than anywhere else. I would not want to minimize other factors, including especially the slow rise of a hostile secular culture in the West. But even in that prolonged historical transformation, Catholics high and low have played their part. Still, we do not need a history lesson. A few contemporary or near-contemporary examples will suffice.

Take those in the Catholic educational establishment for the past few generations. Their deliberate evisceration of Catholic doctrine and the Church’s teaching authority in order to place themselves in the cultural mainstream has severely hampered all attempts at genuine renewal of the Church throughout the West, proving (in effect) two important lessons to the world: First, for those who may have been interested, there is nothing special about Catholicism that merits serious attention; second, for those who are most definitely not interested, nothing is easier politically and socially than dividing and conquering the Catholic Church.

Or take the Catholics of the Irish Republican Army not so long ago. Their consistent advocacy and use of violence and terror to advance what they regarded as a Catholic cause did nothing but confirm our cultural elites in their belief that all religion is a serious threat to social stability and peace. The involvement of some Catholics and Catholic leaders in recent African tribal warfare and ethnic cleansing served handily to demonstrate the same point. Certain attitudes among Catholics toward immigrants do the same thing.

Or again take the sex abuse crisis. Nothing in recent memory has been so calculated to seriously offend the human sensibilities of those who might be attracted to the Church while also fueling the prejudices—and the propagandistic success—of those who wish mainly to sweep the Church under the rug of history.

Let us also consider the failure of so many Catholic laity—or at least laity who claim the name of Catholic—to live with any visible difference from others in their community, participating in the same entertainments, voting for the same policies, living the same moral values even at the most intimate of levels, motivated by the same calculations of material well-being. The polls do not lie about this. Nor does our own daily experience.

Of course I know that many Catholics present a very different picture to their neighbors. They exhibit a striking generosity in family life, a healthy indifference to the material success of their neighbors (the Joneses), a peaceful joy in times of distress, a rocklike stability to troubled friends, an unfailing clarity about the good, and a deep faith tied to an active devotional life. I would sincerely like to consider myself in this group, if only haltingly. But I confess I cannot look in the mirror and see anything that looks very much like a saint.

Perhaps some people can, but then those who can are generally farthest from the goal. I do not wish to say that self-deprecation proves holiness; readers will certainly recognize my own frequent preoccupation with the sins of others. But let us consider one final and unfortunately common case. All smug Catholics of whatever hue, whether those who think themselves more Catholic than the pope, or those who are sure that the pope is quite irrelevant, seem to have no trouble seeing saints in the mirror. And what is the result? They prove by their very rejection of our God-given principle of unity that even Catholics cannot agree on what is true or live together peacefully in the love of Christ. These divisions also conceal the Church’s mission, her call to new life.

Not Magic Mirrors, But Light

In any case, the mirror works no magic for me. I see in it the shabbiness of one who is dangerously slow to dress for a great feast. How many times have I given scandal through a harsh word, a lack of sympathy, a failure to speak the truth (or a rushed and clumsy presentation of it), an avoidance of another’s need, a clear and concrete bad example, a laziness about prayer or fasting or almsgiving, a shirking of an opportunity to bear witness, a refusal to make even gentle and well-directed waves, a criticism of the good (including what the Church bids me to recognize as good), a hope to live more comfortably than the Lord I claim to serve—in all, the constant manifestation of the gap between what I formally profess and how I really think and speak and live?

The question is worth asking, for in this matter we must make no mistake. The scandals which imperil the Church’s mission—I mean the scandals caused by those who simply do not grasp their deep and unwavering need for Christ despite their bearing of His name—these scandals will not be overcome by mere practicing Catholics, by what we generally call “good” Catholics. They must be thrown into sharp relief for a watching world by a witness far greater than that. Only a witness of holiness will suffice, a witness so luminous that the Church no longer appears primarily in the shadows of the sins of her members, but in a brightness that dispels those shadows.

How else can anything be evaluated in the light of Christ? Our Lord speaks of this light many times, but most strikingly as a lesson to us in three texts. Curiously, He begins all three texts with the same metaphor, insisting that a lamp is not to be lit only to be placed under a bushel. Yet he develops each text in a different direction. They all have different endings.

St. Matthew records one ending: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16).

St. Mark records another: “For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. If any man has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk 4:22-3).

And St. Luke records yet one more: “Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light” (Lk 11:35-6).

Now, what we have in these three sayings of Our Lord is the command, the warning, and the means to heed both without disaster. For our task is simply to leave no part of ourselves dark. This is holiness. This is how the Mystical Body dispels shadows. This is how the Church bears witness, grows, and saves.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Sep. 09, 2013 12:33 PM ET USA

    You know the truth of an essay like this in those of its words that make you squirm, the recognition that a point directly involves you; I felt that more than once while reading it. I noticed the mention of the IRA (NOT one of my squirm points!). It might be good to note that most modern active IRA members are anything but Catholic, in contrast to many of the claqueurs who support it in NI and south of the partition line. The activists tend nowadays to be extreme Leftists who hate Catholicism.

  • Posted by: mleiberton3126 - Sep. 07, 2013 12:18 PM ET USA

    WOW! You keep hitting my mark, Dr. Mirus. Thank you, thank you, thank you, dear Lord, for offering us these truths. And thank you, Dr. Mirus, for sharing what He has given to you.