When the Pope Himself Calls it a Church of Pagans, to Where Does a Catholic Go?

 The outward shape of the modern Church is determined essentially by the fact that, in a totally new way, she has become the Church of pagans, and is constantly becoming even more so.....And so, either sooner or later, with or contrary to the will of the Church, according to the inner structural change, she will become externally a little flock.  

~Excerpt from “The New Pagans and the Church,” A 1958 Lecture by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). 

I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look—wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too. 

~The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck


At a parish about ten miles from me, the priest doesn't offer the Sacrament of Confession.  The parish website says nothing about it, there's nothing about Confession in the bulletin.  I've emailed and spoken to parish staff, to no avail.  It's just not an option. 

It doesn't take a lot of digging to see that this situation is egregious.

"The sacraments make the Church," since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of Communion with the God who is love, One in three persons.  ~The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 1118

Priests must encourage the faithful to come to the sacrament of Penance and must make themselves available to celebrate this sacrament each time Christians reasonably ask for it."  ~The Catechism, 1464 (emphasis added) 

The sacraments are part and parcel to the Church. Not dispensing them is like a restaurant saying it's open for business but isn't serving food. 

Yet the priest, nor anyone on staff, sees this state of affairs as much of a problem: not enough of one, anyhoo, that they're in a rush to do about it. Nor do the parishioners, apparently, as they're keeping the lights on, and paying the staff with weekly contributions.  

The Catechism further states:

Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution.  (1457)

And this priest distributes Communion at three Masses every weekend. That is, he gives the Eucharist to a group of parishioners without giving them the capacity to be worthy of doing so.

The Struggle is Real

I don't recount this anecdote to call out an isolated situation, or single individuals, but rather to illustrate a phenomenon. The Church, on balance, has all the telltale signs of a toxic culture. Any lay Catholic familiar with a dozen or so parishes knows that this sort of flagrant, in-your-face dysfunction is the name of the game. 

And yet, within the walls of this same parish, I obtained all of St. Teresa of Avila's writings on prayer and spirituality, and can adore the Eucharist at all hours of the day or night in its Chapel of Perpetual Adoration.

That is to say, as absurd as these parishes have become, they offer resources, knowledge and graces that simply cannot be found elsewhere: the foremost of which are the sacraments! 

Of these, The Catechism says: 

Sacraments are “powers that come forth” from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving.  They're actions of the Holy Spirt at work in his Body the Church.  They are “the masterworks of God” in the new and everlasting covenant. (1116) 

This paradigm presents any Catholic with a bizarre tension: we're stuck within the walls of this sacrilege and idiocy, in order to receive these "masterworks of God." 

Yet, we need to remain outside of these walls, to look elsewhere, in order embody and participate in the essence of the Church. 

Sooner or Later

My friend is a member of a Church that deliberately doesn't have its own land or building: they meet weekly in the high school gymnasium. 

It's a church without walls,” she says. 

This is symbolic as well as practical: they don't have limits or boundaries on who their church encompasses or includes. Plus, they're more enabled to minister to the larger community. 

It's been over sixty years since Ratzinger predicted the inevitable formation of an external “little flock.” 

This whole conceit seems a bit of a mystery and conundrum.  And I wonder: Does he believe, at this point, he's witnessed this formation?  And what, if anything, did he predict about the organization of this external Church? 

The sentiment behind its destined formation seems to be reflected in the passage from Luke 19:4, when Jesus enters Jerusalem and the crowds shout to welcome him.  Andrew Lloyd Weber modifies this passage in his song “Hosanna” in Jesus Christ Superstar:

Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.

If every tongue was still the noise would still continue.

The rocks and stones themselves, would start to sing. 

I imagine that an external church would sprout organically.  And have very little structure, initially. 

But, like stones shouting praises to the Messiah, this Church will indeed form.  As certainly as buds shoot up in the springtime. 

With or Contrary to the Will

Ratzinger makes it clear this external flock won't necessarily be validated by the modern Church. 

Given its chronically muddled and confused state, I would think it extremely unlikely the modern Church is even capable of recognizing any manifestation of the true essence of the Church. 

My grandma apparently spoke of having a blind trust in all the teachings of the Church.  And in its council.  Maybe this was a thing back in the 30s or so.  But those days are long gone. 

Looking to the Bishops for guidance, sans any serious personal discernment and examination, is like asking someone who's blind to drive you around a city.  

The practical concern to myself or any Catholic, is how to go about finding this external flock.  A central tension has to do with retaining and remaining within a structure that continues to dispense the sacraments. 

Schismatics have formed: The Society of Saint Pius X, for example, formed in 1970 in reaction to what it saw as a modernist spirit forming within the Church.  They haven't exactly been lauded by the Vatican, but according to Benedict in his '58 lecture, this criticism means nothing. 

Nor does that mean that Pius X is on the money. 

That is to say, how might a Catholic discern the essence of Church in her midst, given that it cannot look to the modern Church for guidance? 

Mystical Body of Christ 

Fortunately, in the Gospels Jesus provides guidance aplenty as to where to meet him and find his Kingdom:

The Kingdom of the God is in your midst.  ~Luke 17:21

Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.  ~Matthew 18:20

And in Matthew 25, he says we meet him every time we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit those who are ill and in prison.

These criteria range from the fairly specific to the somewhat mystical. That is to say, identifying Church and the Kingdom isn't totally cut and dry.   

The onus for the Catholic is to intuitively understand Christ and his teachings. 

Once we are able to do this (not exactly the task of a single afternoon), then it's possible to recognize Christian movements within the culture. 

In the same way that one wouldn't expect a stone to start shouting, I am inclined to think the Church has and will spout in unexpected places.  That is, we definitely need to know and listen to the Spirit, and not ourselves, in order to recognize Him.  

It's on us, as disciples, to augment those people and movements that reflect the Kingdom.  And to inititate such movements ourselves. 

What do you think is the true essence of the Church?  Where, specifically, do you recognize the Church in the world today?