A Thought-Provoking Angelus Address
by Christopher A. Ferrara
August 14, 2017
At the Angelus on August 13, Pope Francis gave a brief address that provokes thought, although perhaps not in the way he intended. Speaking on the Gospel account of Peter walking on the water until his fear overcomes his faith, so that he must call out to the Lord to save him, Francis observed that “today’s Gospel reminds us that faith in the Lord and his words does not open us a path where everything is easy and quiet; it does not spare us from the storms of life. Faith gives us the reassurance of a Presence that pushes us to overcome the storms of life, [it is] the certainty of a hand that grabs us to help us cope with difficulties, pointing us towards the way even when it is dark. Faith, in short, is not a loophole out of the problems of life, but is a support on the journey and gives it meaning."
This is a valuable insight into the role of faith: it is not the “opium of the people” as Karl Marx declared, a mindless escape from the sufferings of this world, but rather the means to confront the reality of suffering and overcome it by God’s grace. Consider the sixth of the fifteen promises Our Lady made to St. Dominic and Bl. Alan de la Roche regarding recitation of the Rosary: “Those who shall recite my Rosary devoutly, meditating on its mysteries, shall not be overwhelmed by misfortune….”
Our Lady did not promise freedom from misfortune, but only the ability to endure it, for everyone must bear his crosses in this life on the way to salvation. Paradoxically, but no less truly, it is those who are bereft of crosses, who seem not to have any care in the world, who are “living large” and loving every minute of it, who ought to wonder and worry about their ultimate fate. For as Our Lord Himself warned such persons, immediately after having uttered His Beatitudes to comfort those who suffer in this world:
“But woe to you that are rich: for you have your consolation. Woe to you that are filled: for you shall hunger. Woe to you that now laugh: for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when men shall bless you: for according to these things did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6: 24-26)
Having provoked much thought with his words on Peter and his cry to Our Lord for help, however, Francis provoked still more thought with this perplexing remark: “This episode is a splendid picture of the Church’s reality at all times: a boat that, during the crossing, must also clash against headwinds and storms that threaten to overwhelm her. What saves her is not the courage and the qualities of her crew; the warranty against shipwreck is faith in Christ and his words.”
Is this entirely true, or do we find here another of the false alternatives that seem to be a staple of Francis’ peculiar mode of expression? Respecting the Church’s mission on earth, are “the courage and the qualities of her crew” of no moment in avoiding shipwreck? Is the human element of no account in Christ’s promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church? Does it matter not in the least whether the ministers of the Church are faithful stewards of the Gospel and courageous defenders of the Faith or faithless and cowardly shepherds who abandon the flock to the wolves or are even wolves themselves?
Or is it not the case, rather, that Christ’s promise of the indefectibility of Church is intimately bound up precisely with the “courage and the qualities” of the shepherds who not only hear His words but do them, as God has deigned to employ human agents in the work of salvation? Does not the survival of the Church always depend upon human cooperation with God’s grace on the part of at least a remnant of the faithful, without which the Church as a visible institution would cease to exist and the gates of hell would indeed have prevailed against her?
No, the survival of the Church in times of crisis does indeed depend upon “the courage and the qualities of her crew,” even if much or even most of the crew is in a state of mutiny. Thus, the Church could not have survived the Arian crisis of the 4th century if there had not been at least some members of “the crew” who, like Saint Athanasius the Great, corresponded to God’s grace and displayed the courage and qualities of true shepherds.
For if it were otherwise, what would be the point of the Church herself as a visible institution composed of men, through which God deigns to provide the supernatural means of salvation through the actions of human ministers?
We ought, then, to avoid a facile reductionism that would blithely excuse all the failures of the Church’s leadership as irrelevant, thus effectively dispensing with the role of the human element of the Church in God’s plan, in favor of a blind fideism that throws up its hands in times of grave crisis and declares: “Don’t worry about the faithlessness of the Lord’s ministers, for God is in charge of His Church.”
God is indeed in charge of His Church. But the sign that He is in charge is that He raises up Church leaders, including great and courageous Popes, who stand against the powers of this world and steer the Church aright when shipwreck seems imminent. We await that sign today, with confidence, in the midst of the greatest crisis the Church has ever seen.