The Deep Aspect of the Crisis of the Church
From time to time, Monique and I meet. She comes to my office and we talk about Carmelite Life, about Blessed Father Marie Eugene OCD. She is, in fact, a member of the Institute he founded: « Notre Dame de Vie », which has a totally Carmelite spirituality.
Apart from asking me from time to time to give a talk on Fr. Marie Eugene, we talk about many things. Of course, the Church and Spiritual Life are very much at the heart of our discussions. We might start by talking about Amnesty International (where she has worked for many years) and might move on to talking about Brexit; Monique is very much down to earth, compassionate and a fervent advocate of many causes. But we always come back to Fr. Marie Eugene. She knows that I am preparing my PhD Thesis on Fr. Louis Guillet OCD (1902-1992), a companion of Blessed Fr. Marie Eugene, so we have plenty of stories to share.
She often asks me the question: “how did you come to know Fr. Marie Eugene?”, and I start to talk about the French Carmelites of the South of France, and how much I owe them, and how much they gained from Fr. Marie Eugene. We could talk for hours.
Then suddenly, today, Monique asked me this direct question: “What do you think about the crisis the Church is undergoing?” I was convinced that she meant the child abuse horror. And I started to say that it was more widespread than was apparent and that this crisis affected only a very small number of priests or religious. She stopped me and said: “no, I am talking about the abuse of the nuns!”
In fact, two months before, on the French-German TV channel Arte, she had watched a programme where different sex scandals between priests and nuns had been exposed. Something horrific and extremely shattering. Monique is convinced it is very widespread in the Church.
I vaguely remembered it; after the Pope alluded to it when he was on his flight back from the Emirates, I had looked it up. I have to confess that I hadn’t watched the French TV Programme Monique mentioned! Also, knowing the milieu, I considered this type of scandal to be limited, in numbers and in areas (communities). Monique, however, was adamant that it wasn’t. Bottom line: Monique was very shocked since having watched the programme, and stated: the Church now has reached the bottom of the abyss.
While talking to her, the analysis I responded with was very clear-cut: at the heart of this issue is what I consider to be the core of the problem (at least for this type of scandal): chastity. What is chastity? Is it something we decide of our own will power? Is it something we learn from our youth? Admittedly, society doesn’t help that much nowadays in this area. Is it something that depends on the Grace of God? If so, to which extent? Is it an acquired grace that once received keeps us safe and at peace? Is it a constant battle? What are the means we offer to the seminarian, to the young nun, to any human being (because we are all called to chastity…) to reach chastity? Are we able to generate chaste persons? Do we have the “know-how” for this? Based on what?
For many years now, I have been personally involved in Formation (Religious, Nuns, Seminarians,…) and since I have listened and searched to see how this issue is being addressed in many places in the Church, read many books (at least in my early years), I take the opportunity here to briefly give my point of view.
In my humble opinion, chastity is the normal result of spiritual growth (I am talking here about a rather balanced person and not a deeply wounded person). When the love of God, the love of Jesus takes deep root in our heart, starts to transform it, starts to really fill the void in our heart and emotions, then chastity starts to take root in us. It is not necessarily the first issue we need to sort out in our life, but it is there, a part of it. Let us see what is at stake.
Falling in Love with Jesus
“Falling in love with Jesus” is something that only the Saints talk about. You will rarely see or hear a person today talking about “falling in love with Jesus”! The Church’s daily life doesn’t seem to point to this reality.
Paradoxically, if we delve a little into the life of any saint, this aspect strikes us immediately.
Look at St. Therese of the Child Jesus, Claire of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, Gemma Galgani… and the list is very long; observe them in their daily life. These women fell in love with Jesus deeply, to the point that they considered Him as being their Spouse! A real Spouse my dear friends, not just a symbolic expression, a consolation price! Not a “photocopy” of human love, but the original love! It is real love, and Jesus is positively REAL! Here lies the difference between the teaching of the saints and the daily life of the Church.
For the average Christian this language (“falling in love with Jesus”) is simply alien! You would be regarded with derision by people in general, as if in fact you were insane.
Indeed, it is alien! But for the saints, this is normality… their daily life. In exactly the same way as you would fall in love with a man or a woman, they fell in love with Jesus! All of us are called to have this experience. This heart that God gave us is made in the image and likeness of Jesus! Only Jesus can fill it. I can still hear Father Guy Merlin OCD, Provincial of the Carmelites of the south of France, saying in the late 1980s: “it is normal to allow the young religious or monks to be a bit “romantic” in their initial steps of the religious life. Otherwise it is not possible to commit to religious life. Later this love will grow stronger and deeper.”
When we fall in love with Jesus, our emotions, our hearts, are involved in this love. We commit ourselves to Him, serve Him, search for His will. To fall in love, however, is not just about emotions, it is about commitment, daily faithfulness to the will of Jesus! Look at St. Therese of the Child Jesus in her early years, in her daily life, how she loved Jesus!
Even married persons are called to experience this love! This is why the Church distinguishes between “Civil Marriage” and the “Sacrament of Marriage”! The latter involves this love of Jesus! Hence it is called “sacrament” … sacrament of Jesus…. If loving Jesus is not the initial core in the life of the bride and the groom, why bind themselves to something that can’t be broken? It is pure folly, especially today. I do not negate Marriage as seen by the Natural Law (Civil Marriages for instance), which also should be exempt from divorce, but please give me the means to reach this holiness, give me the help of the grace of God, in order to make it work. Natural Law alone cannot guarantee the absence of divorce, even if it states it.
Let us return to our point! Let’s examine Teresa of Avila: she spends almost twenty years as a nun without giving her heart totally to Jesus! She is wearing the habit, there are no formal grave sins in whatever she does, for example, in appreciating “spiritual” friendship and talking to friends about God and prayer, but her heart is not totally given to Jesus! This lesson alone is fundamental in order to help us understand both St. Teresa of Avila, all the Saints and Spiritual Life.
Total commitment to Jesus entails giving Him not only our mind and our will, but also our emotions, our thirst to be loved by other humans, and to love them! Our entire heart is made in the image of Jesus, not half of it! We, however, tend to split our heart into two halves: the upper half we destine for God. And the lower half is for a human being, human affections and emotions. We fail to realise that all our heart should go to the One who is God and man in the same Divine Person.
Jesus waited twenty years for Teresa! He sent her many signs, invitations, all sorts of graces, warnings! She remained deaf! She searched for the love of human beings instead of believing that Jesus, the incarnate God, was and is capable of filling her human heart, her emotions, of making her fall in love with Him! That He was her Treasure, the real Prince Charming!
It took her twenty years to realise that her enormous capacity to love and be loved could only be filled by Jesus!
It took her twenty years to give Him her heart, without conditions, no strings attached, no search for human affection or consolation.
It took her twenty years to believe that it is not only possible to fall in love with Jesus but that that was the only way to proceed.
It took her twenty years to understand that her vow of Chastity meant that her heart was called to be totally, radically and unconditionally given to Jesus!
Try and see… you will never regret it!
As much as Jesus can be “ferocious” in asking for everything, absolutely and positively everything, so much will He treat you as a real Queen and give you the experience that no “prince” can give you on earth! Try and you will see!
How Can This Happen if I am a Man?
The only difficulty - and it is quite a sizeable one - is that for a woman it is easier to love Jesus, but for a heterosexual man, loving Jesus who has the human nature of a man, is something quite difficult at first sight. How then can a man, a seminarian, a young religious fall in love with Jesus?
Keep in mind though that both men and women have a feminine side and a masculine side!
In certain cultures, men don’t allow this feminine side to express itself. Not physically of course but just spiritually, inside of themselves. They would find it very difficult. Our Lady comes here to our rescue. Isn’t She the best and most perfect disciple of Jesus? Yes! If we contemplate her in the Annunciation, isn’t She the best incarnation of the feminine? She is receptive, docile, silent, surrendering totally herself to God. Can’t we, males and females, take her as our role model for the feminine side and allow Her to grow in us, and in us and through us fall in love with Jesus? Try it and you will see!
In fact, Christianity starts with Mary, because it is with Her and through Her feminine side that we can fall in love with Jesus! Let Her teach you and show you the way. Let us contemplate and imitate Mary in the Annunciation.
Christianity also “ends” with Mary… because it is in this way that true love will grow and become virile, true virtue, built on the grace of God will grow in us and take deep root. Mary at the foot of the Cross has a “male” (virile) strength that defies Jesus’ enemies. By contrast, all false virility abandoned Christ after having said: “I will follow you wherever you go, and I am ready to die for you”.
It is by totally committing to Jesus and not allowing any loss of emotional energy, that we can allow the Love of Jesus to grow in us. It is by loving Jesus in our neighbour, but more so, in our enemy, that the love of God in us becomes strong. Love the person you love least in your community or surroundings. Love this person with the help of Jesus and his Holy Spirit. Love this person “because of Jesus”. Love Jesus in this person. Experience the power of the Holy Spirit in you, how He pours His Charity into your heart! Love your brothers and sisters heroically. Don’t choose who to love. Spend more time with the people you can’t bear. Smile at them, pay attention to them, pay attention to Jesus in them. This will boost your spiritual growth and make you reach in very little time what Teresa of Avila calls: “the union with the will of God” (please see her book: “Interior Castle”, Fifth Mansions.).
Talking about Chastity
It is in this new state of “Union with the Will of God” that our emotions are submitted to the power of the Grace of God in us, that our will is solidly established in the will of God. This state offers us the experience of a first liberation and allows us to love freely, i.e. with greater ease. At the same time, we have a unique experience of the Love of Jesus that starts to grow. And soon, it will start to grow exponentially.
In the “Union with the Will of God”, the “train” of chastity is put on the railway tracks. Does this mean chastity is acquired once and for all? No. Chastity will constantly remain a “constant dependence on the Grace of God”, till the end! Remember, where does St. Teresa of Avila talk about King Solomon and his final turpitudes? In the Seventh Mansions, in Spiritual Marriage! We are never safe, but at the same time we need to acknowledge that the “union of will” is an important threshold. This is why St. Teresa of Avila says:
“I confess to you that we shall find this much harder, but it is of the greatest value and the reward will be greater too if you gain the victory. But you must not doubt the possibility of this true union with the will of God. This is the union which I have desired all my life; it is for this that I continually beseech Our Lord; it is this which is the most genuine and the safest.” (“Interior Castle”, Fifth Mansions, III,5)
If we can’t offer to the young men and young women who consecrate their lives to Jesus the true way that leads to the “Union with the Will of God”, can we really continue to give Formation thus? Isn't it better to seek out those who have the know-how and can help? Do we want more scandals in the Church? Despite the many other reasons for them, these scandals have a common cause: emotions and sexuality that are searching for their true object to love (Jesus) and don’t find anybody showing them how to reach at least the “Union with the Will of God”.
We cannot “protect” the heart and emotions of our young priests from temptation and from falling into scandalous situations with only sets of exterior rules or solutions, or some psychological methods. Of course, prudence and a set of rules of behaviour are necessary and should constantly be implemented. But all this will never be enough, and these individuals might become frustrated because their emotional thirst is still there. They will remain vulnerable because of human weakness and a deep thirst for love. By the nature of their mission they will interact with people: they will be exposed to temptation. What they really need is to learn the art of meeting the Risen Lord, of loving Him and of falling in love with Him! The “protection” of our future Priests and future Nuns comes from within, from a transformed heart, filled with the love of Jesus, from a quenched desire, from a heart overflowing with the Love of Jesus, a heart that has been kindled and which is burning with the Love of God.
We need to take serious decisions here!
Formation in the communities and seminaries should be “mystical” and not only and first psychological. Otherwise it is doomed to fail. Unfortunately, in many places, if we look closer, we will find that the true leader of Formation is Psychology, or a spirituality that has as a main “judge” or “leader”: psychology. I am not saying that there is no spiritual life, or no liturgy in the different houses of formation. Plus, Psychology in itself has nothing wrong in it and it is needed in certain cases. What I am saying is that Psychology cannot lead: it offers us the Grace of God, but it cannot help us fall in love with Jesus, it cannot offer us real transformation from within, triggering a journey that will allow us, God willing, to reach this first great liberating point called “Union of Will”.
There is and will always be a great need for Formators who are experts in spiritual life, who know what the grace of God is waiting for, what it can achieve in us and who know what it means to grow to reach “Union with the Will of God”. In fact, we need Formators who know about real chastity, who can send in mission men and women who have their heart and emotions protected, because it is overflowing with the love of Jesus.
Offering a regular time for prayer to the seminarians or the young religious should be complemented by a renewed effort, namely, a proper Spiritual Formation that shows the way, helps trigger spiritual commitment and the reception of abundant of graces, which is a necessity not something to be left at random or managed in an amateur way. In the houses of formation, one needs to greatly strengthen Spiritual Theology in general and Spiritual Formation in particular. In order to ensure proper Spiritual Formation it is important to have not only a fervent spiritual life, but also to ensure professionalism, it should be based on the proper science of a renewed and practical Spiritual Theology, experience of real spiritual life, knowing how it works and its means, so as to be fruitful. Otherwise one can have future problems. It is important to know how to ensure steady growth using practical means in order to attain the “Union of Will”. This aspect is of utmost importance in order to promote a healthy and holy life for the consecrated. We need to stop and ponder on our responsibility in the Church when we are about to receive a young man or a young woman who wants to be consecrated to the Lord. We need to ask ourselves: do we really know how to form? Do we have the know-how and expertise for real Spiritual Formation? Otherwise, our careless decision to receive them, “counting on God” to do our job instead of we ourselves, is a very grave act of irresponsibility. One should call a spade a spade!
Many superiors send some of their candidates to be formed in Spiritual Theology, or “Spirituality”, in order to prepare them to become Formators. This is true and it is a necessity. But if Spiritual Theology, as it is taught today, fails to explain how to “Ensure a Steady Growth”, how to reach “Union with the Will of God”, fails to explain what constitutes the powerful means of prayer and how to discern and choose them, how to really prepare ourselves to receive the Grace of God, how to discern, we cannot really consider that the future Formator is really formed! We are back to square one and the real problem persists!
Many people speak about spiritual life, many people give talks, many many do pray. But is this bearing fruit? And if not, why aren’t we questioning ourselves? If we don’t see the relationship between spiritual growth and chastity, where are we going? If we don’t know how to ensure this growth, why do we receive candidates?!
When the child abuse scandal became public, we were forced to acknowledge our failures, apologise, and change the behaviour and the laws. It took various big scandals to bring about change. Even worse: we were forced to change because of public opinion and because of Civil Law! Shame on us would say St. Paul (see 1 Cor 6). The Formation process has also been positively improved because of what the scandal revealed! We are trying to avoid having future priests who could be paedophiles. We are trying to have superiors aware of the gravity of such acts.
Now, is this the only problem? There is a wider and, in a way, deeper problem that affects all consecrated persons, and the whole people of God, because it is a human issue: what do we do with our heart, emotions, and sexuality? Can the Grace of God help here? How? What are the means we need to use in order to change things? Do we know them? Are we experts in them? Or, are we still hiding from the real problem as we did with the child abuse issue in the past?
I do not think we should stop at some (or many) cases of sexual and emotional abuse of Nuns. This is only the tip of the iceberg of our emotions and sexuality. The question of Chastity should be addressed. It is not at all an easy problem, but it has to be addressed. Not superficially, but in-depth, with a great knowledge of what the grace of God can and cannot do.
Many leaders in the Church would feel very uncomfortable with what I am saying here. We had the same discomfort in the 1970s and 1980s when priests’ paedophilia was just hinted at. We didn’t want to hear about it! (we couldn’t face it!) Now the scandal of the abuse of the nuns is in the public domain! Do we still want to hide behind another uncomfortable or unpalatable fact? Until when? Until what? It is ourselves who are main the cause of great scandal to the people of God and to the world!
29 April 2019, St. Catherine of Sienna
PS A few years ago, in French and in Italian, I offered a commentary on the Encyclical letter of Pope Benedict “God is Love”, explaining the above. It constitutes the third part of my book on the Prayer of the Heart. “La prière du Coeur à l’école de Marie” or “La preghiera del cuore alla scuola di Maria”. I hope to be able to translate it into English. But the above is a good summary of it.
See the following video on loving Jesus with all our heart:
Please have a look at “Ensuring Steady Growth” Formation Course here (leaflet of the course here):