"I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile."
-Pope St. Gregory VII
T.S. Eliot once said, “When the Christian is treated as an enemy of the State, his course is very much harder, but it is simpler. I am concerned with the dangers to the tolerated minority; and in the modern world, it may turn out that most intolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated.”
He may, in fact, be right. Whenever the people of God throughout biblical history became too mainstream, or too assimilated by the world, their fidelity to God was compromised. On the other hand, when the Church of God suffered as castaways in exile, her mission seemed to prosper all the more. She was in a better position to fulfill what God required of her.
Take for instance a recent example: The Catholic Church in America.
Between 1940 and 1960, the Church doubled in size. A remarkable growth spurt to be sure. Construction for church buildings, Bible sales, Mass attendance, priest and religious vocations were through the roof. Archbishop Cushing of Boston was reported to have said in the 1950s that he expected to have 100 ordinations. And why not? And Bishop Fulton Sheen hosted an Emmy award-winning television show, Life is Worth Living, in that same decade. And in 1960 the first Catholic won his bid for the presidency. Even Pope John XXIII, two years later, in his opening speech for the Second Vatican Council, predicted the following: “Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era.” Indeed, things looked promising.
Yet, not even a decade later, in 1970, Joseph Ratzinger, future pope, said that the "City of Man is striking terror in our hearts.” The Church was being shaken to its core. And in 1971, Sister Lucia, the only surviving seer of Fatima, wrote to her nephew warning him about the diabolical wave that would produce spiritual casualties. In fact, it became apparent that the Church’s influence on culture would come to an abrupt end. In fact, it was more true to say that the world’s influence poured into the Church in unprecedented fashion. And the result is that the Church is relearning what it is like to be a marginalized and persecuted Church.
But in recent decades, not a few Catholics forgot that the Church is a Church in exile; never at home in any nation or civilization. As with each individual soul in search of a better place, the Church, as a body of believers, is a pilgrim and a foreigner in a strange land…away from her true home.
Decades ago, when the future of the Catholic Church looked promising, it would have done us well to remember the words of the Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, who said the following:
“Christ came not to bring peace but a sword and that the Kingdom of God comes not by the elimination of conflict but through an increasing opposition and tension between the church and the world. The conflict between the two cities is as old as humanity and must endure until the end of time. And though the church may meet with ages of prosperity, and her enemies may fail and the powers of the world may submit to her sway, these things are no criterion of success. She wins not by majorities but by martyrs and the cross is her victory.” (The Kingdom of God and History, 1938)
As if to build upon the truth that Dawson voiced decades earlier, the Second Vatican Council, inspired by the Holy Spirit, reminded the Church where she stands in relation to the world. In The Pastoral Constitution on the Church it reads: “Israel according to the flesh, which wandered as an exile in the desert, was already called the Church of God. So likewise the new Israel which while living in this present age goes in search of a future and abiding city is called the Church of Christ." And to drive the point home, the document adds: "The Church, while on earth it journeys in a foreign land away from the Lord, is like in exile...”
In the bible, to be in exile was both a sign of divine punishment and an instrument of liberation; “liberation” because suffering and persecution are meant to serve as reminders that the hopes of God’s people ought to be placed in their native country, namely, heaven.
Exile began with Adam and Eve. When they yielded to the Serpent’s temptations, they were sent out of the Garden of Eden, also known as Paradise. Although sinners, the First Couple were still friends of God. Yet, they were the first to be sent into exile; away from home, if you will. And their sin left a mark on every soul that would descend from them; a kind of emptiness and void in the human heart. That void would only be satisfied when the soul sees God face to face in heaven.
Curiously, God too was compelled to go into exile, away from the world he created. In the liturgy we pray to him, “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” But the shadow of death loomed over the world because of sin. And just before God decided to flood the earth in Genesis 6:3, he also decided to withdraw his Spirit because of the sins of his chosen ones, the descendants of Seth or as they are identified in Scripture: The Sons of God. Only from a distance would God lead his people. And it wasn’t until Pentecost, that his Spirit would come back into the hearts of his people. God too, from the great Flood to Pentecost, was in exile…away from the world he created.
Part two of The Church in Exile will be published on December 20th.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.