Is the Past Really Another Country?

Over the past few months I have had words echoing in my head from across the centuries: I have loved justice and hated iniquity – therefore I die in exile. They are the words of a dying pope and they just seem to resonate in my mind in the context of the sufferings of Pope Benedict and the recently revealed anguish of the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Dermot Martin.
Exile is of course a metaphor and there are many kinds of exile which human beings can suffer. Indeed exile is in some ways the condition of every soul in this world. Hence the word “therefore” in that haunting sentence means more than it might at first seem to mean. Exile is the condition of every Christian soul in the face of the incomprehension which envelops it in an unbelieving world. It is in fact no more than the founder of the Christian faith promised his followers – If the world hates you, you know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. But because you are not of the world, since I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15).
The pope in question was Gregory VII, more often known by the name derived from the Aldobrandi family, Hildebrand. To his friends he was “a bright flame”, which Hildebrand can be translated as, and to the Catholic Church was truly such. He was one of the great popes of the middle ages who fought the secularism of his day for the freedom of the Church to do its work for the salvation of souls. He was a great reforming pope and in his effort to reform the Church he came into direct conflict with the mightiest power of the age, the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV.
The essential reform around which his struggle with Henry revolved was the struggle for the right of the Church to choose its own bishops, the successors of the Apostles. The struggle was a roller-coaster ride in which Henry was twice excommunicated and in which at the high point of the drama fell on his knees before the Pope at Canossa to ask for forgiveness and absolution – only to later recant and eventually drive the pope into exile. Hildebrand died in Salerno in 1085 where his remains are venerated to this day. He was beatified by Gregory XIII in 1584, and canonized in 1728 by Benedict XIII.
Gregory VII began his great reforming work in 1074 and those reforms still provide the structure within which the Church today seeks to maintain the order which allows it to pursue its mission for the salvation of souls. Chief among them and focused on the priesthood were the following:
• That clerics who had obtained any grade or office of sacred orders by payment should cease to minister in the Church.
• That no one who had purchased any church should retain it, and that no one for the future should be permitted to buy or sell ecclesiastical rights.
• That all who were guilty of incontinence should cease to exercise their sacred ministry.
• That the people should reject the ministrations of clerics who failed to obey these injunctions.
It is sobering to realise that in every age the Church has had to clear itself of practices and abuses which thwart it in its divine mission and scandalise its faithful. But it is also sobering to be reminded that those who seek to do this clearing work will be misunderstood, resisted and persecuted – even by those who profess to serve the Church themselves. Henry IV’s last act of defiance was to have a cardinal of the time elected as pope in opposition to Gregory.
Parallels with today? Surely there are. Although the priestly-kingly office of the Pope in essence remains what it always was, the office of the Vicar of Christ, the forces on the opposing side are more diverse and more subtle in their manifestation than they were in Gregory’s day. The same love of justice, the same love of souls – all souls, – the same hatred of iniquity are patently evident in both the words and actions of Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in their efforts to serve Christ in the world as they were in the words and actions of Gregory VII.
In the contemporary struggle of the Church in the modern secular world the great Manipulator of all evil was already pulling the puppet strings in this battle decades ago when he seduced the weak and licentious to betray their calling and indulge their lust on the innocent. Having done that he goes on to capitalise on his success by manipulating the Job’s comforters of this world who set themselves up to advise the Church on what it must do to change itself. Many of them of course secretly, or not so secretly, see the Church as a medieval anachronism which the world would be better rid of. All you have to do is to stray into the internet comments on articles in the mainstream media to see this not so hidden agenda.
The incomprehension of Christ and his Church by the World was nowhere more evident than in the reaction of elements of the media – indeed the only elements which touched my consciousness – in the 24 hours following the heartrending address by Archbishop Martin on the future of the Church in Ireland on May 10 last. A proper reading of what he said could only show a man, a priest, suffering under the weight of the injustice and iniquity which he had witnessed but who at the same time showed the faith, hope and love which told him that Christ has redeemed mankind and that the great Manipulator will not prevail. However, reading and listening to some of the commentary on the address led one to believe that here was a man, a priest, attacking his own Church, at odds with the Vicar of Christ and adrift in a hopeless sea of misery. The direction of the address was firm and resolute – while very honest and courageous in its laying out of what must be done.
Yes, the struggles of Hildebrand in the 11th century were the struggles of that time. Later there were to be other struggles and today we have our own struggles. All, however, have a common denominator – that incomprehension of the True Church. However, the victory then, as the victory will always be, was assured. But the peace will not be peace as the world gives it. It will be a peace which will always be compatible with the reality of exile.

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