The Church of Surprises

One of the most ridiculous misrepresentations of the Catholic Church is that it is an old fashioned, stuck in time, unchanging and inflexible institution.

From the wordling’s point of view, it seems a no brainer. Here is a two thousand year old institution run by old white guys. They have guards with halberds for goodness’ sake–standing around in renaissance costumes. Speaking of costumes, the clergy all wear outlandish gear and wild old time hats. They maintain ancient traditions and customs and operate a closed shop inside a secretive walled city.

But is the Catholic Church so unchanging and inflexible. In some ways it is, in other ways the old girl never ceases to pop surprises. The first one in my memory is the election of John Paul II. Nobody saw it coming, and his papacy was revolutionary. Under his guidance the Catholic Church became a world player–assisting in the fall of communism and speaking out forcefully in world events. Then nobody predicted Benedict XVI, and yet he too stepped on to the world stage and continued the high influence  of the pope in the modern world, but as a quiet and gentle scholar.

Consider his surprises: the erection of the Anglican  Ordinariate, rapprochement with the traditionalists, and traveling the world and writing books despite being in his eighties. Now the Catholic Church pops another surprise: a humble man of the people with the name Francis–a man who will win hearts and command admiration and yet stand firm for the fullness of the Catholic faith–a man from the New World for the new world.

The reason the Catholic Church is able to pop surprises is because she is ever ancient and ever new. As Pope Benedict said at the beginning of his papacy, “The Church is young!” This is also why age doesn’t matter that much when they are choosing the pope–because despite his age the gospel he preaches is invigorating and always youthful in it’s truth and beauty.

This is the real surprise: that when people stop to listen–really listen to the gospel of Jesus Christ they find a timeless, energetic and forever youthful and relevant message. We may have messed it up. The Church may have clouded it with human frailty and we may have betrayed the gospel with our sin and hypocrisy, but the gospel itself is forever vibrant, alive, powerful and full of surprises.

Finally, have you ever stopped to consider why the worldlings attack the Catholic Church so heartily? Yes, it is true, that there are some who hate goodness and truth and beauty. There are some who hate God and Jesus Christ and his Blessed Mother, but I believe more attack the churchs because they want to believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is all we say it is, but we’ve let them down.

They want to believe that sanctity is possible. They want to believe that a group of people can change the world through love alone. They want to believe that someone loves them so much that he would die for them. They want to believe that they too can be heroes–saints–eternal souls shining in the darkness like eternal stars. They want to believe the great and the good and the true and the beautiful gospel of Christ, and they attack the Catholic Church because we have too often disappointed them.

If and when we live the gospel of love and live the gospel we profess, then and only then will they listen to that gospel and decide to give it a try. And lest you think I am only talking to myself or to my fellow clergy–I’m talking to you dear reader. Yes, you. The one who stares back at you in the mirror.

All of us are called to this heroic holiness, and this is the greatest surprise of all–that ordinary people like you and like me can achieve it if we will only go with God’s grace–even a little and show forth in our lives the radiance of his love.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • http://oldbob44.blogspot.com Bob Wirth

    Well done, Father! Thank you!

  • marco de puna

    Aloha e Fr. Longenecker, what an excellent posting!
    Is this why Revelation says ” Behold, I am making all things new…these words are reliable and true.”?
    Would it be possible for me to use this in our parish bulletin with a link to your website? Mahalo! (Thanks!)

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I’m happy for you to use this and link to the blog

  • Paul Rodden

    How many times I print (hope you don’t mind, Father) these sorts of articles for my boss, ‘the vicar’, and this latest fits the bill!

    One of the things I ask atheists when they challenge the ‘stayed-ness’ of the Catholic Church, is whether they think Newton, by articulating his Laws, changed reality. Of course, they’ll agree it didn’t, but it did bring a way of articulating coherently something about that reality (the nature of things), as Archimedes’ ‘Eureka’ moment did too, which we didn’t have before.

    In other words, science doesn’t create anything new, it merely discovers what was there already in incohate form, and articulates it coherently. The Higgs-Boson Particle couldn’t have been been proposed before a whole string of previous events and concepts came together in what Lonergan called a ‘Heuristic Structure’, for example.
    But, Lonergan also pointed out that this was the scientific equivalent of Newman’s ‘Illative Sense’ – the coming together of tiny ‘steel threads’ which, when put together make a steel cable far, far stronger than a single steel bar of the same thickness. In other words, as disjointed threads they amount to nothing (like bible verses or isolated doctrines).

    When questioned however, the scientist (as in Scientism) will always propose a historico-progressive view of reality. But then it is time to ask why they still believe in the ideas of someone who died around 200BC (Archimedes) and in the 18C (Newton)? They’ll normally say that it’s because they’re still true, but say that the Church, when it chooses, changes things to suit itself. But that’s simply wrong-headed.

    We can point out that Einstein built on Newton as Pope Benedict did on our ‘greats’. The ‘Development of Doctrine’ happens in both spheres, yet neither jettisons what’s true of its past, they build on what’s true. In fact, Newton is credited with saying that he saw further only by standing on the shoulders of giants…

    When it comes down to it, this is what separates Science from Scientism, I feel. True Science recognises its debt to its past, and how good science is identical to the ‘stuffy old church’, and that allowing market forces, popular opinion, short-termism, etc., to drive science creates bad science and error, and likewise the Church would agree, for the same reasons. Both are rightly cautious.

    The idea that science is nothing like the ‘stuffy old Church’ is one of the biggest lies out there, I think, and that’s why the comparison of the ‘New Atheists’ with Fundamentalists is so apposite, because both are in your face, and so taken to be the reality of something when it’s actually a sham, a caricature.
    If anything, I believe Science (as opposed to the predominant Scientism) is probably the greatest analogy for the truth of the Church. That man, when he’s fully open to Natural Reasoning, discovers reality, and it develops into a greater understanding of itself (thereby remaining one), rather than evolving into something else (Schism). Science doesn’t shape reality to his own whim and reduce reality to our understanding of it. It unpacks the glory of it.

    Rant over.

  • Joe

    “You may be able to find 100 people who hate the church, and millions more who don’t understand the church” Fulton Sheen

  • u3

    “Ever ancient, ever new.” No better quote describes the Catholic Church. There are plenty of people out there who are not for peace, who are not for beauty, truth, and goodness. Anyone who has ever been present at an exorcism can certainly attest to this. Satan hates any type of goodness and truth and sends his demons to stomp out anything that will bring people to closer union with God. So many people are filled with hatred and anger–these are certainly not fruits of the Holy Spirit…rather the dead fruit of the father of all lies. God’s Word though is not static, it is alive and dynamic and is sharper than any two-edged sword! It pierces to the heart of man…but only if we are docile to it and allow our lives to be shaped, formed, and molded by the Gospel message. Going against the Word of God is only ice-skating uphill…good luck.

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  • dpt

    “One of the most ridiculous misrepresentations of the Catholic Church is that it is an old fashioned, stuck in time, unchanging and inflexible institution.”

    It is the moderns way of saying the church needs to change its views on abortion, birth control, women clergy, etc.

    Many Protestant denominations have already traveled this “modern” path yet too face empty pews and rapidly declining participation. Said denominations are quite inert and invisible on the world and civic stage despite holding positions approved by modern thinkers.


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