When St. Francis had a vision of Jesus, he made an honest mistake. The Lord told him to rebuild his church, so St. Francis, with a willing heart, set to work rebuilding the literal, physical church right in front of him. Block by block, he put the chapel of San Damiano back together.
But of course Christ had bigger plans. He meant for St. Francis to do the much vaster work of renewing and restoring the Church in general, which was in a much sorrier state.
I have been thinking of this lately when I hear people — myself, included, say something a lot of people have been saying lately: “I’m so tired of the Church.”
There are a lot of reasons to be tired. There are a lot of reasons to be weary, discouraged, disgusted, fed up, furious, maybe even done with the Church.
First, let me be clear. There are people who feel this way, who have truly done their best to seek out the good, true, and beautiful in the institution founded by Christ, but it seems that every Catholic they encounter is on a mission to show them the bad, false, and ugly. I know people who are trying tremendously hard to refocus their hearts and minds on what is essential and eternal about the faith, but they are met, again and again, with Catholics who wound them profoundly. And I will not tell them that they should just work harder to get past it.
I know people who have tried to get away from what is hurting them in the church, and they have found that they can’t, because they’ve already been wounded so deeply. They carry their wounds with them, and when they walk, they bleed. I’m not going to tell people in this state what they ought to do, or where they ought to go.
But that’s only some people. There are others, who, when they say, “I’m so tired of the Church,” are in a different place entirely. I know, because sometimes this is me.
Sometimes, when I’m in this mode and I say “the Church,” what I really mean is a specific, self-selected group of celebrity Catholics I chose to perseverate on. When I say “the Church,” I really mean a narrow collection of reliable sources of gross news that I can return to again and again whenever I want to reassure themselves that wicked people are still wicked, and they’re definitely not like me. I mean that I’ve fallen into a perverse habit of seeking out the things that make me feel bad about the faith and about my fellow Catholics, and it works: I do feel bad, all the time.
Very often, when I say I’m tired of the Church, what I really mean is that I’m tired of the weird, ugly little quasi-church I’ve half-consciously built around myself out of sheer cynicism and snark and self righteousness. It’s a very flimsy, ugly, broke-down church indeed. No wonder I don’t like it there.
But I go there because it scratches some kind of unhealthy psychological itch. It makes me feel like I’m canny and hardened enough to see through façades, and world-weary enough to reject them with disgust — and there’s more relish in this disgust than I like to admit. There’s even an element of belonging to an in-group of people who feel this way. Some part of my psyche gets rewarded for hanging around in the crummy old ruins that I profess to despise, and going back there again and again.
This is a real phenomenon, too, just as real, and just as threatening to souls, as the phenomenon of people who’ve been gravely wounded and cannot seem to find a safe home in the church no matter how hard they look.
If you, like me, find yourself complaining often about how tired you are of the Church, it’s worthwhile to look at your habits, and see what state of mind they support. What do they build?
But here’s the thing. In either case, we’re talking about people who have been wounded, whether those wounds are shallow or deep, or whether they’ve been self-inflicted or not.
In either case, let us think about St. Francis.
He wasn’t actually wrong to start with working on rebuilding the physical chapel of San Damiano. Jesus did mean that he wanted Francis to restore the Church as a whole through the institution of the order of Franciscans. That is what he eventually did, and that is what the Franciscans continue, through their works and prayers, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to carry out in their continual work of perpetual restoration of the Body of Christ to this day. It wasn’t just about that one little chapel; it was about the whole Church, and still is.
But God was also asking Francis to look around and see where he was, physically, spiritually, personally. He was asking him to start with what he, himself could actually control.
And this is what Jesus asks of everybody, always.
Sometimes the problem with the Church is something that is very much out of my control — something like how some archbishop is handling the sex abuse crisis, or something like a specific doctrine that I can’t get my head around.
But there are still rebuilding projects I can handle, that have more to do with how I dwell inside the church than I may realize. Habits of prayer; habits of how I allow myself to think about other people. What I prioritize each day. How tightly I hold onto sins. How ardently I seek goodness. How much I really mean to change when I say I’m sorry. How much I’m willing to acknowledge change in others, when it happens. What I do first thing every day; what I do last.
I always do well when I remember that Francis got his commission at the foot of the cross.
The chapel of San Damiano wasn’t empty. There was a crucifix on the wall, and it was Jesus crucified who spoke to him, who told him to rebuild. I always do well when I remember this, when I picture this.
There is a huge difference between “I don’t like or understand or accept this doctrine of the church, so I will spend all my time hanging around with ex-Catholics who tweet snarky hot takes making fun of it” and “I don’t like or understand or accept this doctrine of the church, so I will commit to bringing it to prayer at the foot of the cross over and over again, trying not to have any expectations for what will happen next.” There is a huge difference. You can tell me your experience has been different, and I will believe you, but this has been my experience.
If you‘re one of the many, many Catholics who looks around at the Church today and sees what a poor state it’s in, you‘re not wrong. But when you‘re done looking around, look up. Are you at the foot of the cross? I will not tell you where you need to end up. But I know this is where you need to start.
A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on January 7, 2021.
Image: Detail of photo by Renaud Camus via Flickr (Creative Commons)