O Fortunate Ruin

{This is an old post from summer of 2012}

The other day I was speaking on the phone with someone who has worked for a few decades in a Catholic institution, and in the course of the conversation they related some painful job-related difficulties. In the course of the conversation this person said in exasperation, “Sometimes I wonder if Jesus has anything to do with the work we do.”

It set me wondering.

Solus Christus

Having worked within the Church Institutional for the last ~24 years, I have noted that original sin is alive and well in its unoriginal hosts.

The bumps, bruises and blows I have endured, and have doled out, over the years have served to reinforce in me a bedrock truth upon which I have tried to build my own work and protect my inner joy: the Church is, in the final analysis, Christ’s and not mine or ours. Further, the Church rests on an unstable paradox: the Church’s one foundation is the terrifyingly unjust execution of the divine Creator and the Creator’s terrifyingly merciful re-creation of his human executors. She’s built on human sin and divine grace, human violence and divine peace, human rage and divine compassion. Human infidelity is built into the Church’s very founding event, making sin into a strange fountain in our midst that upwells with superabundant grace (cf Rom. 5:20).

Take this into prayer and allow the Spirit to weave it into your soul and watch the transformation happen — the way you will see powerful divinity appear in weak humanity.


Back in 1989, I met an elderly priest (probably in his 90’s) at a Lourdes Grotto in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He randomly grabbed my arm and said to me, “Son, the secret to a lifetime of priesthood is found in Jeremiah 17:5 and Psalm 146:3. Look them up.” I went and looked them up as spoon as I was able.

Thus says the Lord:
Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings,
who makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord. — Jeremiah 17:5

Put no trust in princes,
In mortal men in whom there is no help. — Psalm 146:3

After I read them I thought, “Cynical.” I was sad to think at his age that that was where he was ending.

But now, I get it.

From the vantage of faith, success in life isn’t determined by the absence of hardships or difficult people, but on how tightly one has cleaved to Christ in all things. Only in that way can the ups and downs of life open up into so many singularly graced opportunities to sink my anchor deep into the only Rock.

I love you, Lord, my strength,
my rock, my fortress, my savior.
My God is the rock where I take refuge;
my shield, my mighty help, my stronghold. — Psalm 18:1-2

Long learned wisdom

If I had to name those men and women of faith that I most admire, all of them, as I call them to mind right now, are people who have suffered hardships and disappointments within the Church, but have refused to succumb to bitterness, cynicism or flights from reality. An old priest I know and greatly admire not long ago said to me (and consented that I share these words), referring to his lifelong ecclesiastical tribulations,

I’ve been through hell, but it’s taught me heaven. In the blackness of my worst pain, I have caught a glimpse of St. John of the Cross’ stanza:

O night that led me true,
O night more fair than morning’s earliest shining,
O night that wrought from two
lover, beloved entwining
beloved and lover one in their combining!

Had I not gone there, I would never have come here. Jesus. Jesus. It’s all Jesus.

You see, for me it’s people who have been “through it” that have something to say, and who can, like Jesus, “speak with authority.” And though I myself cannot yet speak with such authority, I can share with you the hard-won wisdom of those who do.

Italian-American theology

Let me leave you with the well-known words of the late Italian theologian, Carlo Carretto, who here starkly expresses this paradoxical vantage, and the words of Frank Sheed, brilliant American lay Catholic theologian/author of the mid 20th century, who captures the same tension.


The Church has the power to make me holy but it is made up, from the first to the last, only of sinners. And what sinners! It has the omnipotent and invincible power to renew the Miracle of the Eucharist, but is made up of men who are stumbling in the dark, who fight every day against the temptation of losing their faith. It brings a message of pure transparency to God but it is incarnated in slime, such is the substance of the world. It speaks of the sweetness of its Master, of its non-violence, but there was a time in history when it sent out its armies to disembowel the infidels and torture the heretics. It proclaims the message of evangelical poverty, and yet it does nothing but look for money and alliances with the powerful.

Those who dream of something different from this are wasting their time and have to rethink it all. And this proves that they do not understand humanity. Because this is humanity, made visible by the Church, with all its flaws and its invincible courage, with the Faith that Christ has given it and with the love that Christ showers on it.

When I was young, I did not understand why Jesus chose Peter as his successor, the first Pope, even though he abandoned Him. Now I am no longer surprised and I understand that by founding his church on the tomb of a traitor, He was warning each of us to remain humble, by making us aware of our fragility

How much I must criticize you, my church,
and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone
and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed
and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal
and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything
more compromised, more false,
yet never have I touched anything
more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
Countless times
I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face
– and yet, every night,
I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you,
even if not completely.
Then too–where would I go? To build another church?
But I could not build one without the same defects,
for they are my defects.
And again, if I were to build another church,
it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
No, I am old enough, I know better.


We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the Cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. Christ is the point. I, myself, admire the present pope (John Paul II), but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if his successor proved to be as bad as some of those who have gone before, even if I find the church, as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope (or a priest) could do or say would make me wish to leave the church, although I might well wish that they would leave.

2 comments on “O Fortunate Ruin

  1. MB says:

    Can’t beat a little Sheed on a Saturday.
    You shore are good about serving up that humble pie, friend.

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