If you are, then you’re not alone. A lot of people wonder about what will happen to the Church throughout this century and beyond. When I find myself worrying about the Church’s future—and believe me when I say I do—there is one place that I can turn that invariably gives me hope. I hope for the Church’s future for the simple reason that I have studied its past.
Our history is filled with many inspiring, miraculous, and beautiful moments. It tells tales of heroism and self-denial, of selfless love and generosity of soul. But like any institution, it's also made up of people who made bad decisions and terrible mistakes that impacted the Church for centuries.
I am not proud of those latter episodes. People I meet who aren’t Catholic are quick to point them out: look at the Inquisition, they say; look at the Crusades. How can you still be Catholic? these people demand. How can you still be a part of that Church?
I think that at the end of the day we can see in the history of the Catholic Church the history of a loving God reaching out to his people and telling them the kind of behavior he expects of them, forgiving them, nourishing them, transforming them. Do his people always live up to those standards, to that challenge? Of course not. But the most important thing is that even though the actual image of the Church as it is lived in history will never attain the ideal image of the Church given by Christ, it lives in continual conversion through the mercy of God.
Our own families aren’t that different from our Church family. As we raise our children, we don’t expect them to never make mistakes, to never fail. To the contrary: part of parenting is knowing from the start that in some ways, our children will inevitably disappoint us. They have to: you could say that it’s in their job descriptions! If your child refuses to do the dishes, or is rude to a shopkeeper, or deliberately misses a curfew, do you cut ties with them? Do you give up on them ever getting it right? Do you withdraw your love from them? Of course not: you make it clear that that behavior isn’t what you expect from them, and you help them learn and grow from the experience.
The members of the Church are in one sense, you could say, like that child. We don’t take the Gospel message seriously enough. We don’t always think of others before ourselves. We’ve become a ponderous institution that in many ways, as Bernard Lonergan said, “arrives on the scene a little breathless and about a century too late.”
But you know what? We’ve survived it. For two centuries we’ve stumbled, fallen, got back up again, tried a little harder. We’ve never given up. We want to get it right. And that’s why I find Church history so comforting: it’s the story of people who, like us, face challenges and difficulties inherent in the times in which they live. Sometimes they’ve messed up their opportunities. Other times they’ve taken them and made them an offering of pure beauty to God.
What will the Church look like when your children are in their fifties? When your grandchildren are? I don’t know; I don’t know much about the world they’ll be living in. But I take comfort in two thoughts:
- The story isn't over
- Only God can see the whole story
Church history teaches us that we're not alone, that we're part of a continuum, and that God's grace is guiding the Church where it needs to go. We may not see that from where we stand, from our spot on that continuum; but Church history teaches that every one of us can contribute to the Church's future by engaging prayerfully with the world and by trusting that God is in control.
Want to see some of the Church’s best—and worst—moments? They’re all in our new book, The Church Rocks: A History of the Catholic Church for Kids and their Parent and Teachers, a vivid and compelling time-travelogue through the Church’s past. (Shh! It’s supposed to be for young people, but trust me: it’s a great book for anyone!)