Cut to the Quick

Our neighbors have these big willows that they planted years ago. Every so often, they have someone come in for them and chop them down, which makes it look like the willows are done-for.


It happens in early spring, and it almost makes me sad to look at them. It looks like a hack-job. It looks like the first step before they will be cut down for good. But then, as spring comes on and the weather warms up, you start to see something amazing.


All over the stumps are little branches, springing out of what looks dead and gone. Tiny leaves, opening up and peppering the trunks with green specks of life. As spring turns to summer, full branches come out, covered in leaves! By fall, the only sign that these willows have been cut back so much is the size of the stumps supporting the many, many newer branches.


Crepe Myrtles are the same way. Each February, my husband hacks the entire top of the bush off, leaving only the largest branches whole. And our lilac bushes are similar. Lilacs will only bloom on old growth, but it all needs to be trimmed back to be healthy. Sometimes, that means removing big branches or large sections of the bushes that are still blooming. It can look pretty extreme sometimes.

Somehow, God brings renewal out of what looks, to human eyes, like death.

Right now, it’s not easy to be Catholic. Really, when you are trying to truly live your faith, it’s never easy to be Catholic – but at this moment in time, there isn’t just disagreement with the Catholic faith, but actual animosity against Catholics and the Church. And who can blame people, with reports of not only abuse of minors, but of seminarians. Reports of cover-ups. Reports of one bishop after another turning a blind eye. Reports of clergy who only pay lip-service to their vows. Attorney Generals in several states are looking into past abuses and cover-ups. Thankfully, many dioceses are not only cooperating, but had also already started investigating (and even putting third-party groups in charge of the investigations).

And yet it still feels like it’s not enough at times. And so there are people who are walking away from the Church. They’re hurt, and they can’t be with the people who have and are hurting them. The idea that the the people in charge of our spiritual direction are so far off from where they ought to be in their own spiritual lives is too much to bear.

Honestly, I can’t completely blame them.

The response cannot be trite messages about not leaving Jesus because of Judas, or even heartfelt pleas that point to the Eucharist as a central reason to stay. Our first response has to be to listen and understand why someone is leaving. And we must get to work, somehow cleaning up the mess in the Church.

The mess isn’t new, you know. St. Peter Damian wrote Letter 31, also called the Book of Gomorrah, condemning sexual immorality among clergy in the 11th Century. There were the years of the Renaissance Popes, who were known for their lavish lifestyles, mistresses, and many illegitimate children. Saint Dominic worked to counter the Albegensians, who rose to power in the south of France precisely because the clergy there were paying lip service to the gospel that they preached.

Time and again, it looked like the Church was being cut to the quick, ready to die off. But time and again, God has resurrected His Bride.

I think there will be some kind of reckoning that comes to the Church as an institution. I think we might see a real culling of the Church in the near future. After all, in 1969, then-Cardinal Ratzinger predicted:

“…From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly it will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Along-side this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize the sacraments as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.

“The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain — to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. …”

This road that the Church is on will not sort itself out in a simple season. I really do think a season of winter is coming, and it will be hard-going for those of us who stay. I also don’t believe that we’ll see the progress that will bring about a flowering of the Church in our own lifetimes. It’s a long way back, and growing souls takes longer than growing little shoots from a willow tree stump.

The difficult thing for Catholics today is to have faith that God will bring about renewal from what will very likely look like a dead stump. But our examples from Scripture show us that this is exactly what He does – and has done – for centuries. From Abraham and Sarah came a great nation through their son Isaac. Rebecca never thought she would have children, and yet she did. Elizabeth was barren until old age, when she was suddenly the mother of a little boy. The nation of Israel seemed doomed after being exiled and assimilated into other countries, even adopting their culture and worshiping their false gods. And yet God rescued a remnant who had been faithful even during those times of exile. Even after their return, there were times when it seemed that everyone had abandoned the faith except for a few people. And those few people worked to rebuild and spread faith in the Lord. (Just look at what this family goes through in 2Maccabees!)

Catholics! Have faith! Have faith in Christ and His promise to never abandon us, even in times of trouble. He knows what we are going through, and He weeps with us. Work to save our Church, to rebuild our Church. Pray and fast and help strengthen those whose faith is faltering in this troubling times.

Photos and text ©2019 Christine Johnson, all rights reserved

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