Don’t just do something – be.

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I just returned from the Catholic Leadership Conference — or, as I like to call it, “the best three days of the year.”

In the midst of the current crisis in the Church, it was truly inspiring to spend several days with holy, committed lay leaders who are ready to do whatever we can to heal the broken body of Christ.

And boy, did it inspire me.  We talked about what we’re going to do, together and separately.  We talked about “swinging for the fences,” about winning souls for Christ.  I left all fired up and raring to go do something.

I suspect that I am not alone in this.  Those of us who love God, or at least profess to, are always thinking about the great things we’re going to do for him.  We’ll bring a scorecard to show him on Judgment Day.  We preached.  We served.  We converted.  By golly, we did a whole lot of stuff!!

But then, a little voice inside asks me, “But what are you going to be?”

It has become increasingly apparent to me that this crisis was brought on in no small part by men on many levels who may have, at some point, had good intentions.  Maybe there was a time when some of them actually wanted to do good for the Church or for the world.  Maybe not.  But either way, it’s clear that they were, in the end, not holy men.  Some of them did unspeakably horrible things.  Others made very poor decisions in the wake of those unspeakable things.  Many, in myriad ways, placed power and prestige over the good of the faithful.

Not the actions of a truly holy man.

So, if the lack of holiness led to the problem, what do you suppose the solution would be?

I think that, above and before all, the solution is for all of us to become holier.

Remember why Christ came.  It wasn’t to tell us to do stuff.  Of course, He did tell us to do stuff.  And to avoid doing other stuff.  But all of that was to flow out of what were to become. In him, we become new creations.  New men.  New wine that won’t fit in old wineskins.  We are to be changed, converted.  We are to decrease while he increases in us.

It’s those “New Creations” he wants out there doing things.  Holy, converted men and women who hear his voice, answer his call, and bring his love into the world.

I don’t know about you, but on my own, I am capable of achieving very little.  And even less am I capable of discerning what I should be doing.  What will be most effective.  Where my talents can do the most good.

When it comes to this realm, he knows what is best, far better than I do.

He can’t operate in us if our agendas and our egos keep getting in the way.  He needs us to be committed to him, profoundly changed, ready to be led by the One who is the source of all true healing.

Fortunately, for me and for the world, the Catholic leaders I was with last week are those people.  They are humble.  They are holy.  They are completely “sold out” for Christ.  These are the men and women we want swinging for the fences, acting on his prompting, doing their part to restore his Church.

As for me, I’m doing my best to keep up.  Trying to grow in holiness, trying to listen to his voice.

How do we do that?  How do we grow closer to Christ?  How to we let him convert us?  Through prayer.  Through the sacraments — especially confession and the Eucharist.  Through the Mass.  Through reading about the lives of other men and women who were on fire for him — namely, the saints.  Through studying the Word and getting to know the One who loves us most, whose Spirit brings us to new life. And through surrendering to him.

So, if you’ve been sitting around wondering what you can do for the Church in the midst of this crisis — or even if you haven’t — how about starting there?  Work on growing in holiness, on really submitting your life to him and letting him convert you on a deeper level.

And then hold on tight, because he will undoubtedly take you on the ride of your life.

COMING UP: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.