Weathering the Storms

Twelfth Sunday of the Year. Job 38:1,8-11; Ps 107:23-24;25-26;28-29;30-31; 2 Cor 5:14-17; Mk 4:35-41

In today's Gospel, Jesus shows his miraculous authority over the natural world. In the midst of a storm, when waves are breaking over the boat and the disciples are afraid that they are about to sink, Jesus, who is sleeping, is awakened by his disciples, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” But Jesus simply rebukes the wind, and says to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” In obedience, the wind ceases and there is great calm, and Jesus says to his disciples, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

Now I have briefly summarized this account for you again because the details of this miracle are providential. Through this event, Jesus not only shows us his authority, but also establishes or foretells a common experience for Christians throughout history. More specifically, the boat in this event was probably Peter's boat, and Peter's boat has a special significance in the New Testament. Peter's boat foreshadows the ark of the New Covenant, the ark which is the Catholic Church. Just as Peter steers the boat, he and his successors, the Popes or bishops of Rome, steer the Church through history. Isn't the experience recounted in the Gospel now familiar? Does not the Church seem to be in the middle of many storms across the world? Is there even a sense that the ship might be sinking?

Well, perhaps the Church is in trouble today, like a boat taking on water in a storm. But in brief I would like to tell you a strange story. It is, perhaps, the strangest story in history, apart from that of Christ himself. It is the story of  the Catholic Church from the time of St Peter until our own time. And I outline this story because, although people are aware that the Church has faced troubles in the past, most people do not realize just how tenuous the Church's survival has been. Even in the first Christian century, when Peter and Paul preached in Rome, a terrible storm blew up around the Church. This storm was so terrible that even the hardened Roman historian Tacitus was shocked at its brutality. Christians were nailed to crosses or burnt in the arena, Peter was crucified, Paul was beheaded. The Church seemed to be perishing. Similarly, in the second century, when many people corrupted the faith by Gnosticism (what we might, perhaps, call New Age beliefs) there was confusion and chaos among Christians. In the third century, for the first time, the Empire as whole directed its energies against the Church, especially under the emperor Diocletian, who called himself 'Lord and God'. In the fourth century, after a short interval of peace when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the civil authority turned to a heretical movement, Arianism, and persecuted the Catholics: indeed, at one time a whole army was sent against a single bishop, St. Athanasius. In the fifth century, the collapse of Roman Civilization threatened to bring Christianity down as well: as St Augustine lay dying in North Africa, the barbarians were at the very gates of his city. In the sixth century, the Christian faith and Western Civilization clung on behind the walls of Constantinople or in remote monasteries in Ireland, newly converted by St Patrick. In the seventh century, Islamic armies burst out of Arabia, conquering Christian North Africa and Spain before finally being halted in France by the army of Charles Martel. From the eighth to the eleventh centuries, battered Europe faced yet another threat: Viking pillage and invasion from the north.

Time precludes me from going through all the many challenges of the last thousand years. One could cite, for example, the murder of St. Thomas Becket in his own cathedral of Canterbury in the twelfth century, bubonic plague in the fourteenth century, moral corruption within the Church, the tearing apart of Christendom following the rise of Protestantism and even the burning of Rome itself in the sixteenth century. The seventeenth century saw the rise of anti-Christian rationalism and the eighteenth century saw the French Revolution followed by the Reign of Terror, sending many faithful Catholics to the guillotine. In the early nineteenth century, Napoleon kidnapped the Pope, Pius VII, and threatened to bring down the whole Church. In the late nineteenth century, the First Vatican Council was suspended in the events following the Franco-Prussian war. As for more recent times, the first genocide of the twentieth century was directed against the most ancient Christian nation, Armenia. Subsequently, the Church faced persecution by anti-Catholic movements in, for example, Spain and Mexico, by Communism and National Socialism or 'Nazism'. In 1935, Stalin sneered at the mention of the Catholic Church,  “The Pope!”, he said, “How many divisions has he got?” Wars in recent decades have especially afflicted the most Catholic countries of Asia, especially Vietnam and East Timor. Even in Western countries today, there is the threat of a new kind of persecution, as political movements seek to intimidate Christians or criminalize the public defense of the natural law. Yet, astonishingly, the Church survives. When, for example, Pope John Paul II died in 2005, some four million people gathered in Rome to mourn him, the largest Christian pilgrimage in history.

Now I do not mention these events to boast, especially since God has so often procured the survival of his Church through the weak rather than the strong. Yet this story is truly astonishing and should be encouraging for us. We are all members of a miraculous institution, the only institution to have survived for two thousand years while being perpetually on the point of defeat. By all rational calculation, none of us should be here; we are all 'dead men walking'. But just at the darkest hour, when defeat seems certain, Jesus awakes and rebukes us, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

 Father Andrew Pinsent, Saint Ambrose Church, Saint Louis, 21st June 2009

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