Tradition has it that there is an ancient Chinese curse that threatens “may you live in interesting times.”
Although it is frequently quoted, experts report that it is not found anywhere in Chinese literature nor is it most commonly used as a curse. It is, rather, an expression that describes the human social reality of moving from one crisis to another. Regardless of its origin, this phrase certainly seems to be fulfilled in the times in which we live. It is an apt description of current experience in the world and the Catholic Church within it.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) ushered in its changes to Church life, over 50 years of “interesting times” have ensued. Most Catholics will agree that the “dust is still settling.” Our theology, our liturgy, our laws, our pastoral practices, our structures, our ecclesial landscape have all witnessed change. Truth, however, has not changed; the Gospel has not changed; faith has not changed; Jesus Christ has not changed. Sin has not changed, either, nor has the grace that God gives us to confront sin. What is different, what has changed is the way we express our Catholic beliefs and apply them to a changing world.
Contrary to what today’s Catholics might say or feel, this is not a new experience. Every generation of Catholics since the beginning of the Church at that first Pentecost have encountered change in the way our faith finds its expression, its relevance, its vibrancy. Our enduring, constant faith is the language we use to make sense of our changing world and its “interesting times.”
The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (d. 399 BC) put it well: “The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not in fighting the old, but on building the new.” The Catholic Church builds “the new” with “the old.” Our “ancient,” enduring, constant faith handed on to us by the Lord Jesus Christ, his Apostles and their Successors, and 2,000 years of believing, faithful Catholics are the foundation and “rock” upon which the Lord Jesus Christ continues to build his Church. His work has never stopped or stalled or stagnated in the process, thanks to the Holy Spirit, alive and at work among us. While the Catholic Church might look different or sound different or seem different in any given, different period of its history, it is the same Catholic Church pursuing the same mission with the same faith in the same Holy Spirit: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
In these “interesting times” in which we live, that continues to be true. Despite the often choppy waves through which the Barque of Peter must navigate today, we cannot, we must not lose heart; we cannot, we must not lose hope. Scripture reminds us that “hope is not hope if its object is seen (Romans 8:24).” That same Scripture likewise tells us that “faith is confident assurance in things hoped for and conviction about things we cannot see (Hebrews 11:1).”
The past has brought us to the present. The present points us to a future yet to be revealed. And so, as Catholics, we steady ourselves, we ready ourselves for the future as it unfolds with our enduring, constant faith in the truth, in the Gospel, in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, in the Church. As Catholics, as the Pilgrim People of God, we move forward in faith on a path in “interesting times” where debates, differences of opinion, doubts and dubia, can distract us in the Church along the way to truth, a “beauty ever ancient, ever new (St. Augustine, Confessions, X).”
In a recent lecture at Georgetown University (Sept. 12, 2017), Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, told his audience that “while bishops are the official teachers and guardians of the faith, the faith is also expressed and voiced among all the faithful” and that “the starting point and principle from which our pastoral actions flow must be the revelation of God’s love and mercy.”
That is the past, the present and the future of the Catholic Church. Referring to the vision of our Holy Father Pope Francis, the Cardinal continued, “The Church’s pastoral mission and ministry must include not only the presentation of Church teaching (her doctrine), but also take into consideration how that teaching can be and is actually received or grasped by individuals, particularly given their situation and circumstances, and also how pastors of souls can engage in the company of the faithful in the journey towards embracing more fully the Church’s life giving message.”
We are, indeed, living in “interesting times.” Contrary to what some may argue, Pope Francis has not changed what the Church teaches or believes. He is striving to find a way to present the enduring, constant Catholic faith “new in ardor, method and expression.” That is not only “interesting”; it is the way the Church has always lived with and for God’s people, “ever ancient, ever new.”
To listen to a podcast on this essay, click here.