An Advent Meditation
We all seek happiness. But lasting happiness is elusive because we live in a troubled world. So it is somewhat healthy to look to role models and heroes to show us the way. They often provide helpful examples of virtuous and successful living.
But we tend to have false expectations of our leaders. We often require perfection from them and we are crestfallen when our favorite hero turns up with considerable flaws. Even the lives of the saints, upon close inspection, can disappoint. So we’re continually in search of a new and improved hero.
Biographers depict General Douglas McArthur as a great American warrior. But great men can be impressive on the one hand (McArthur was incredibly brave in battle), but dishonorable on the other. His introduction of the “right” to abortion in the post-war Japanese constitution is a terrible blot on his moral character.
There is no need to restrict our disappointment to American heroes. Every great man is disappointing: King David with his lustful amour Bathsheba, and their son, King Solomon. Solomon was the wisest of men and wrote many of the Psalms. But he squandered his pious legacy with unholy political alliances and left his kingdom divided and in disgrace. Indeed, “Common folk are only a breath, great men an illusion.” (Psalm 62:9)
Perhaps our expectation of perfection is misdirected. Those Old Testament failures and scoundrels lived before the coming of Jesus. Shouldn’t we now expect perfection from the Church?
According to the Apostles’ Creed, the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Mary is the model of the Church. But when we factor in the reality of the members of the Church—like you and me—we’re prone to disappointment. The litany of our grievances over the last 50 years just adds insult to injury. How do we recover from this mess?
But we should not be surprised or paralyzed with discouragement. Saint Matthew’s genealogy in the first chapter of his Gospel traces the roots of Jesus back to Abraham, our father in faith. In Jesus’ lineage, the evangelist identifies several sinners and scoundrels. The family tree of our Savior has a lot of dead branches. So does the history of the Catholic Church.
We might have asked Jesus a desperate question when He came into the world. Lord, what are you going to do about all that deadwood on your family tree? The history of Israel is in disarray. The religious leaders are corrupt. The Twelve include Judas among their number. The Romans are in charge. The people are demanding your crucifixion. Depressing.
Jesus turns the question back to us: What are you going to do with the memory of all those sinners and scoundrels and errors of doctrine that preceded you? Will you walk away from me? Renounce the faith of Israel? Join the crowds before Pilate and chant, “Crucify him!” Proclaim, “We have no king but Caesar?”
Point taken. Indeed, we need not look to history for all the scandalous sins and anomalies of faith. We can begin by looking at our own life chronicles, known only to God and to ourselves. For better or for worse, the ancestors of Jesus represent the thoughts, words, and deeds throughout our lives. Each of us has a hero or a secret scoundrel or two lurking in our hearts.
What can we do? What is our hope?
Many years ago, a priest reported an amusing and illustrative exchange with his bishop. The bishop asked him how things were going with his new pastor. Things were not going well, and the priest thought of himself as a pious victim soul. So the priest replied: “Do you like movies, bishop? Do you like WWII movies? The Caine Mutiny? Sometimes I feel like I’m on the USS Caine, and the captain is directing us to navigate across the tow lines, and there’s not a [darn] thing I can do about it!”
The wise bishop responded: “Do you like movies, Father? Do you like Westerns? Shane? The priesthood is like Shane. You ride into town. You see a lot of bad. You do a little good, and you ride off into the sunset.” The bishop gave the priest humble and reasonable advice, affirming Saint Therese of Lisieux: “Remember that nothing is small in the eyes of God. Do all that you do with love.”
It takes a lifetime to develop the “little” attributes of virtue. A good character is honest, dependable, polite, respectful, moderate, cheerful, and pure in thought word and deed. (We would all do well to use the traditional law of the Boy Scouts as an examination of conscience.) Authorities must correct subordinates when necessary, with justice and kindness. “See everything; overlook a great deal; correct a little” (Pope John XXIII). One elderly couple gave the top two reasons for the success of their marriage of 60 years: They said they prayed together every Sunday, and never used profane language in arguments.
A priest’s simple duties before God are essential, and, frankly in many cases rarely fulfilled: promote frequent Confession, celebrate Mass with reverence, encourage liturgical stability, and hold fast to the doctrines of the Church—“so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.” (Eph. 4:14)
Jesus is always present to his Church. He acts within her in word, sacrament, and works of charity. He shows us the way to happiness and success: “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” (Luke 16:10) Jesus does not disappoint.
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