May 2, the Feast of St. Athanasius
In 2002, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — then the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — said that “a bishop must do as Christ did: precede his flock, being the first to do what he calls others to do and, first of all, being the one who stands against the wolves who come to steal the sheep’ [emphasis added].
For a typically mild-mannered Ratzinger, his words were untypically sharp. They were also warranted. Ratzinger was well aware, from long experience, that whenever the Church does good work, she draws the attention and resentment of those who oppose her — not just from without, but even more painfully from within.
Examples abound. An editorial in one of our nation’s chronically unhappy religious publications recently lumped the Knights of Columbus, EWTN, Legatus, the Napa Institute, the Busch School of Business and Economics at Catholic University of America, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), and the Chiarascuro Foundation together as a kind of big money conservative alliance to take over the Church’s task of evangelization.
This is odd. It’s odd because, in practice, all of these groups are faithful to the teaching of the Church and eager for good relations with local bishops (note that Chiarascuro is a secular foundation inspired by Catholic principles). In fact, they embody one of the main messages of the Second Vatican Council: the empowerment of laypeople to take on the roles of apostles and missionaries. FOCUS alone has been and continues to be massively successful in evangelizing young adults.
The real problem for critics is that none of these groups is controlled by the “right kind” of ecclesial politics or bureaucracy, and thus their effectiveness at what they do … scalds. Whatever their flaws — and yes, the Church in her humanity is loaded with flaws, from left to right on the ecclesial spectrum — these groups are honestly committed to serving the Church, doing good, and bringing people to Jesus Christ.
Some of the best Catholic evangelizers in our country belong precisely to these organizations. They need our gratitude and support, and when necessary our fraternal correction, but not paranoid venom.
We live in an anxious time, and while the mission of the Church finally depends on God, it also depends on us — bishops, clergy, religious and laypeople alike — and how courageously we live our faith; how deeply we believe; and how much apostolic zeal we show to an unbelieving world that urgently needs Jesus Christ. In that light, undercutting the sincere, good-will mission efforts of fellow Catholics is a peculiar way of expressing one’s love for the Gospel.
Of course, the Church has seen periods of internal strife many times before. The fourth-century Council of Nicaea, so crucial to formulating the creed Christians believe, was also one of the most bitterly divided gatherings in Church history.
That council, and all the long conflict over the substance of Catholic belief that followed it, could have turned out very differently. It didn’t because of one man — a young deacon and scholar at Nicaea named Athanasius of Alexandria, whose feast day we celebrate each year on May 2.
Athanasius fought for the true Catholic faith at Nicaea and throughout his entire career. Arian bishops excommunicated him. Arian scholars loathed him. Emperors hated him. His enemies falsely accused him of cruelty, sorcery and even murder. He was exiled five times for a total of 17 years.
And in the face of it all, he became the single most articulate voice defending the orthodox Catholic faith, which is why even today we remember him as Athanasius contra mundum: “Athanasius against the world.”
He never gave up. He never compromised on principle. He never lost his zeal for preaching the true Jesus Christ. And in the end, the truth won out. Athanasius became one of the best-loved bishops and greatest Doctors of the Church — and the faith we take for granted today, we owe largely to him.
That’s my idea of a Catholic believer fully alive in the Lord. And the lesson is this. If we can’t all be the servants and defenders and evangelizers the Church today urgently needs, then at least we can get out of the way of those determined to try.
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