CA: “If you spend any amount of time on social media, I’m sure you’ve sensed a lot of division in the Church today, be it over the Latin Mass, the pope, or any other number of things. Can you liken what we’re seeing today to any other period in Church history?”
Steve: “One reason why I wrote this book is to illustrate that crisis in the Church and larger society is a constant in Church history. Although we tend to focus on the present, and social media certainly contributes to what I term the “tyranny of the present,” cultivating an understanding of the past provides meaning to the present and leads to patience during current crises and hope in the future. Knowing Church history, and especially the crises in the Church through the centuries, provides not just a simple platitude that things were also bad (or even worse) than the current situation but even more importantly proves that God brings forth reform and renewal because of the crises.”
CA: “We hear the terms heresy and schism thrown around quite a bit. Can you explain what sort of baggage is attached to terms like these and if they legitimately apply to what’s going on in the Church today?
Steve: “Both those terms have precise canonical definitions and should not be used lightly. Simply stated, heresy is an obstinate post-baptismal denial of doctrine, and schism is rejection of the authority of the supreme pontiff. History is replete with examples of these type of offenses against Church unity. Based on a review of Church history, we should not be surprised that some may embrace heresy and schism in our own day and age. Sadly, there are examples of both.”
The Church in the Age of Social Media
The modern age presents a whole new set of challenges for the Church.
CA: “Does the pontificate of Pope Francis remind you of any other in Church history? How much do you think the explosion of social media and media coverage in general play into the sequence of events we’ve seen over the past couple of years?”
Steve: “I think each pontificate is unique and faces its own challenges in the context of the ecclesial and secular situation in which it operates. I do believe that reaction to this pontificate in some circles is exacerbated by social media and media coverage in general, both of which occupy a unique place in the life of the modern Church. Of course, it would have been fascinating if social media existed at the time of Pope Formosus and the Synod of the Corpse!”
The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against Her
Ask Catholics about the crisis in the Church today and you’ll often get one of two responses: The end is upon us! or Everything’s fine—the Holy Spirit is in charge!
CA: “How do you see the Church finding its way out of the current situation? I know reform is the answer, but what form does that reform need to take? Is it up to the laity? Is it up to the bishops? How do you see us finding our way back home?”
Steve: “The crisis in the modern world and the troubles in the Church today will lead to great reform and renewal since this is the clear pattern from the lessons of Church history. I think the time of renewal/reform in the modern age, as I indicate in the book, will result from the efforts of the lay faithful, who love Christ and the Church and want to see it focused on its authentic mission. The Second Vatican Council and recent pontificates have highlighted the vital role of the laity in the Church and the world. Of course, these efforts must be united to the mission of the Church and in obedience to the Magisterium and the hierarchy. The last chapter of the book provides a case study of two Catholics who lived in separate times of great stress and crisis in the Church, but they approached the reform/renewal of the Church in opposite ways. St. Catherine of Siena was forceful yet faithful in calling for reform and is recognized for her sanctity. The other, Savonarola, was self-centered and mixed his faith with politics, which led him down the path of schism and heresy, condemnation, and a terrible death.”
History Doesn’t Repeat, But it Often Rhymes
Don’t get bogged down in the “Tyranny of the Present”
CA: “I believe the phrase often used is “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” Can you think of challenges to the Church in the past that have repeated themselves throughout history, and if so, to what would you attribute that?”
Steve: “Well, I don’t think history repeats itself but there are times it rhymes. Although the historical and political context in which the Church operates changes through the centuries, there are several constant challenges. These include Church-state relationships, persecution (either external or internal and violent or nonviolent), evangelization, and catechetical efforts to ensure the gospel is spread and lived authentically. Ultimately, the Church must (and will) continue Christ’s salvific mission and should always be a missionary entity—not of the world but in the world. The key for Catholics today is to not get bogged down in the “tyranny of the present” but rather to hold fast to the long view of history, take solace in prayer and the sacraments, work diligently for reform (first of oneself and then the larger community), and trust in the Holy Spirit, who has and always will guide, guard, and animate the Church until our Savior comes again.”
Neither of those attitudes makes sense from the perspective of history, says Steve Weidenkopf (author of The Real Story of Catholic History). In his new book, Light from Darkness, Weidenkopf shows how the Church’s past ages were no less tumultuous than our own. Yet, whether it was decadent hierarchs selling out the Faith for pleasure and power, or hostile princes, heresies, or ideologies (sometimes all three at once) menacing Christendom, the Catholic Church not only persisted during hard times but came through them stronger than before.
In each case, though, Weidenkopf demonstrates how the Church’s survival was not an accident or a last-minute miracle. Instead, good Catholics (lay and clergy alike) cooperated with God’s grace to beat back error and corruption and reform the house of God from within. They resisted the twin temptations of cynical schism and Pollyanna passivism and went to work—first in their own hearts—bringing good out of evil, light from darkness.
St Catherine of Siena, OP, (1347-1380 AD)
“Born on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1347, Catherine was the twenty-third child of the wool dyer Jacopo Benincasa and his wife Lapa. From a young age, Catherine was devoted to Christ and the Church. She wished to join a group of third-order Dominican women known informally as the Mantellate or “Cloaked Sisters” and formally as the Sisters of Penance of St. Dominic. The group of laywomen wore a white woolen dress with a white veil and black cape and lived in their own homes.
Her family desired marriage for Catherine, however, and they persecuted Catherine in an effort to convince her to acquiesce to their plan. Her personal room was taken away and she was given a multitude of chores around the house to keep her so busy that she would have no time for prayer. Distraught at the behavior and unsure how to convince her family otherwise, on the advice of a Dominican friar Catherine cut off her hair to dissuade potential suitors. Finally, she informed her family of the visions of Christ she experienced as a youth and her pledge of virginity out of love for him. This admission finally convinced her father that her desire to join the Mantellate was authentic and so the family acquiesced. Catherine joined the group in 1366 at the age of nineteen.
Catherine experienced a rich spiritual life from an early age, with locutions from Christ and visions of the Savior—the first when she was six—the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Dominic, Sts. Mary Magdalen, John the Evangelist, Peter and Paul, and even King David. When she was still a little girl, a vision of the Blessed Mother prompted Catherine to request her assistance in remaining a virgin for life so that she could be espoused to Jesus. Her prayers were answered and when she was twenty-one, Jesus appeared to her and presented an invisible engagement ring as a sign of their spiritual union. Catherine could see the ring and it remained visible to her for the rest of her life, but it was invisible to others.
Catherine’s spiritual life included also great spiritual gifts and miraculous events. She had great concern for the sick and suffering in Siena, especially those afflicted with diseases that repelled others. Catherine cared for a woman afflicted with leprosy, which she contracted in her hands as a result. When the women died, Catherine buried her, and the leprosy miraculously left, and she was healed. Catherine desired the salvation of all souls and interceded with the Lord on the behalf of others; for this, the Lord gifted Catherine with the ability to know the state of another’s soul. This special spiritual illumination allowed Catherine to sense the “beauty or ugliness” of the souls in her presence but also those she could not see. Souls in a state of mortal sin reeked in Catherine’s presence. In the presence of Pope Gregory XI, Catherine would inform the pontiff that his court, “which should have been a paradise of heavenly virtues” was instead full of “the stench of all the vices of hell.” When in Avignon on a mission to convince the pope to return his residence to Rome, Catherine met a young beautiful woman, who was the niece of a cardinal. The woman could not look Catherine in the eye and when Bl. Raymond of Capua, Catherine’s confessor, asked Catherine about the woman later, that told him the young woman, beautiful on the outside, reeked of decay. The woman was an adulteress and a priest’s mistress.
In 1376, Catherine received a spiritual gift from the Lord reserved to only a few holy saints: the stigmata or the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion. But Catherine begged the Lord not to allow the wounds to be visible on her body, for fear they would attract others out of curiosity and detract from proper attention to Christ. He agreed, and so Catherine suffered silently with the wounds for the rest of her life; they became visible on her body only at death. In one of her many ecstasies, in which she was oblivious and impervious to the outside world, Catherine received a supernatural garment from Christ, which provided the ability to wear the same amount of clothing in winter or summer with no physical discomfort. Catherine wore a single tunic over a petticoat in all seasons thanks to this exceptional gift.
Catherine lived during the time of the Avignon Papacy, when the papal residence and court was in southern France, causing great scandal throughout Christendom. St. Bridget of Sweden (1302-1373) had worked tirelessly to end the scandal and bring the popes back to Rome, sending letters to the popes in Avignon urging their return.
When St. Bridget died, the holy cause passed to Catherine, who wrote to the pope in one letter: “Come, come and resist no more the will of God that calls you: and the hungry sheep await your coming to hold and possess the place of your predecessor and champion, Apostle Peter. For you, as the vicar of Christ, should rest in your own place.” However, Catherine realized that letters were not sufficient to effect such a change, so she decided that a personal visit to France was necessary to bring Christ’s vicar home.
Prayer, virtuous living, trust and hope in divine providence, and respectful obedience to the hierarchy, as found in the life of St. Catherine of Siena, are the foundation of authentic Catholic response to crises in the Church. That foundation will effect genuine change and yield enduring reform in Christ’s Mystical Body.”
Love & trust in Him,