Because I Can’t Do It Alone

I have been talking with a dear friend who is in conflict about something. Like someone with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, he can’t understand why the conflict persists. Late into a recent night, I finally said, “But man, you can’t do it alone!” And there it was: another reason why I am Catholic.

As the liturgy does so often, the readings for today spoke directly to this question in my heart. Paul writes to the Romans: “The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” And a bit further on: “Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This is why we need the Church in its broadest meaning: the Holy Spirit working through the sacraments, the priesthood which administers the sacraments as vicars of Christ, and especially (it seems to me this morning) the fellowship of our fellow Catholics who share with us in the sacraments. Let’s face it: we “miserable” sinners need all the help we can get!

I thought of this especially this morning after mass, when I interviewed brothers Tony, John, and Frank Pietrini (left to right) for the parish newsletter. They are three out of ten offspring of an Italian-American couple who settled in Beverly over eighty years ago. They were raised on the third floor of a three-family house a couple blocks from St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church. All seven surviving Pietrini children and their families still lived within a mile of the church until just a year ago, when one sister moved fifteen miles away to be closer to her children.

This is not an “authorized” biography of the Pietrini brothers and I won’t go into more detail. (You’ll have to read the parish newsletter.) I will say that Tony, John, and Frank are three of the happiest-looking seventy- and eighty-year-old men you’re ever likely to meet, and when I began showing up at morning mass two years ago, they were among the first to welcome me. I feel about them the way I feel about Frank Kwiatkowski and Frank Gaudenzi: I want to be just like that when I’m a little older.

I don’t know all the details, but I’m quite sure that the Pietrinis have essentially configured their lives to and around the Catholic Church. They are unanimously and unequivocally loyal to the church and its many pastors through the years. Father Barnes is a very good priest, they agree, but they were also fond of Monsignor Deagan and Fathers Darcy, Shields, McNamara, Lahey, Johnson, Hughes, et al. You won’t hear a critical word pass their lips when they talk of the priesthood. 

That kind of loyalty, that kind of obedience to the church and its leaders, is something I am quite comfortable with. I understand the Protestant notion of sola scriptura—Scripture alone is enough, I don’t need the Church—but I am personally not strong enough to be guided by scripture alone. As Thomas More says to daughter Margaret in a different context, and I’m paraphrasing: “Some men may be capable of this, but I am loathe to think your father one of them.”

I have listened for years to the angel and devil debating from shoulder to shoulder. And like my friend I have remained in conflict, a conflict I alone cannot resolve. I need the Church, and since becoming a Catholic I am happier, more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been. The angel and devil still argue, but often I just shrug and smile.

I know the rebuttal: “You’re blindly obedient. You follow a Church that, time and again through history, has proved to be corrupt.” In fact, my own father anticipated this rebuttal when he wrote at the end of his memoir:

There have been times in my life when I wondered whether I couldn’t make a good monk. I believe strongly in discipline, though not unquestioning obedience to leadership. I believe that if you’re going to do something, you should try to do it as well as you can and work at it. I believe that satisfaction comes from the struggle of trying to do things well.

And the gospel reading for today spoke to this. “ . . . You hypocrites!” Jesus said. “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? . . . ”

As Father Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, taught, we are called to make judgments, and not to give what my father called “unquestioning obedience to leadership.” We can interpret the weather, but we don’t make the effort usually (we hypocrites!) to judge our experience from the vantage point of ultimate values, which are reflected in the deepest needs of our hearts.

We need the Church, yes, and God gave us freedom too. Which means that while adhering to the Church, while following, I must also exercise my freedom and make judgments. Because if I don’t, I will be turned over to the judge, and the judge will hand me over to the constable, and the constable will throw me into prison. Nor will I be released until I have paid the last penny.

I have enough of my father in me to know that I could never hold with the other Protestant shibboleth: sola fide—we are saved through faith alone. I think that making judgments and living a life of increasing sanctity is really something I have to work at. Other men may be capable of this, but I am loathe to think I am one of them. Because, at least in my case, the angel and the devil are still yammering at each other.