Friday, April 9, 2010

The Story of the Church

By Alfred McBride, 310 pages, $16.95.

McBride does not mince his words at some of the faults of the Church in history, such as in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, "when it became clear that monarchy was a dying institution. Altar clung to throne and both tumbled in the chaos of various revolutions."

Yet he goes through the trouble of showing that the roots of even the Church's mistakes in every historical era were well-intentioned. At the end of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes had devastated Western Europe, and no government infrastructure existed. The Church led by the pope endeavored to meet the people's physical needs, providing cheap food, managing abandoned farms, and collecting taxes. This papal government was so successful that the Church came to rule a large part of Italy, known as the papal states. This material success led to later corruption of the papacy, but many pope's reformed the office and thereby created new opportunities for evangelization.

The Story of the Church shows how the Church would often become the victim of its own success and sense of service. The Benedictine monastery at Cluny was established in 910 and emphasized the beauty of the liturgy over manual work. It became the greatest religious movement, and was so materially successful and its liturgy so beautiful and intricate that about 200 years later people began to look for something more austere.

Thus the simple, hardworking Cistercians grew at a great pace in the twelfth century, especially after St. Bernard of Clairvaux joined. This order moved into the forests and swamps of Europe, and became successful at farming new lands. They too became materially successful and lost their original zeal. By this time, the rural orders were being eclipsed by the Franciscans and Dominicans, who evangelized in the fast-developing medieval cities such as London, Cologne, and Paris.

McBride follows the natural renewing energy of the Holy Spirit in the Church through the major personalities involved and through some fiction. He invents dialogues or short stories to bring the reader closer to the saints and sinners, surrounding each of these with historical and theological analysis, often reflecting on the meaning for today.

McBride also constantly reminds us that because the Holy Spirit has always been with the Church, the Church has never lost its mission of service, even though this service has often hurt the position of the Church in the world. For example, the Black Death of 1347-51 and later episodes, hurt the clergy disproportionately because many priests and friars stayed behind in the towns and cities to minister to the dying, thereby catching the Plague themselves. The Church lost thousands of priests and friars, and many orders had to lower their entry requirements, leading to the later corruption that troubled Martin Luther and others.

The Story of the Church takes a long look at the Church in the modern world, including its collisions with American and modern, liberal culture. Despite all of this, and the controversies and divisions from Vatican II, for McBride, the Holy Spirit is doing the same work of making saints for all the world to see:

"Who would believe that a small woman working in the slums of Calcutta would become the most famous and recognizable woman in the world? Who could expect a woman wearing a blue and white sari to have powers of persuasion with cardinals, bishops, mayor and heads of state eager to be seen with her and do what she wanted?"

1 comment:

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