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Reasons for Hope

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By Marc Massery (Dec 2, 2018)
The following was first published in the Winter 2018-19 issue of Marian Helper magazine. View the digital edition or order a free copy:

Every morning before class, if only for a few minutes, Anja Renkes, an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, steals away to an empty, dimly lit chapel to kneel before a tabernacle, which rests beneath a stained-glass window that depicts the Crucified Christ. In prayer, she tells Jesus what's on her mind, everything she knows she can't bear on her own. She trusts that He's listening, that He can — and will — help.

She's seen the news: about the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; about the Pennsylvania grand jury report; about the scandals in Chile; about former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano calling for Pope Francis' resignation for allegedly being complicit in the cover-up; about ... the list goes on. Grieved and confused, she says she doesn't really know what to think about the mounting crises plaguing the Church hierarchy. But she does know what to think about her faith and the Church she loves, founded by Christ 2,000 years ago.

"I'm absolutely not going to leave the Church or even thinking about it," says Anja, 20.

Why they persevere
To be sure, even before the scandals surfaced last spring and summer, many were already leaving the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

A Pew Research Center study released in October says Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss due to people switching religions than any other religious tradition in the U.S. A separate Pew study concluded that while roughly 51 million people in the U.S. self-identify as Catholic, the share of the population who is Catholic declined from 24 percent in 2007 to 21 percent in 2014. The number of those received into full communion in the Church in the U.S. declined from 95,003 in 1999 to 63,951 in 2015. Moreover, approximately 12.8 percent of young adults in the U.S. between 18 and 25 are former Catholics.

While the oldest generation of Catholics remembers the days when dioceses were building churches, not closing them, and when the public respected the Roman collar instead of holding it in contempt, many wonder: What will the Church look like in the next 20, 40, or 60 years?

As the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment gathered this October in Rome, words of the Holy Father succinctly framed the task at hand for the Church.

In his preparatory document for the synod, Pope Francis wrote, "By listening to young people, the Church will once again hear the Lord speaking in today's world."

Indeed, if we judge the future of the Church based not on the sins of its leaders, but on the faith of those who will lead it in time, we have reason to hope.

Most young adults like Anja persevere, not because it's convenient or socially acceptable, but rather because they see the merit of striving for virtue; desire the peace that prayer promises; and want the victory that Christ has won over sin and death. They endure because of the liturgical life of the Church. They endure because of the "actions of the Holy Spirit" experienced through the Sacraments (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 116).

Grieving the present
Marian Helper Bridget Beck, a freshman at Northeast Catholic College (NCC) in Warner, New Hampshire, has felt the horror of scandal more deeply than most Catholics.

In January 2018, her associate pastor at Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church in Mascoutah, Illinois, was arrested and charged with 16 counts of child pornography and one count of possession of methamphetamine.

"It was horrific, and it felt like real life was 'SVU Law and Order,'" Bridget said. "We're the Body of Christ, we're supposed to be looking out for one another. ... It's hard to put into words, you just feel betrayed."

Though some in her parish couldn't stomach the revelations and left, she and her family have remained faithful. She stays because she knows that the Church is more than the sins of its leaders. "[It's also] the parishioners, the people, and, of course, the Eucharist," she said.

Still, she's healing from the wounds of having had a confessor who lived such a double life. "It's hard to see that Christ was working through [him] when you have that experience," she said.

Though she's one of six from a devout Catholic family, she's not afraid to admit that she has questioned her faith. "But ultimately, I think the greater good is there in the Church," she said.

Understandably, she'd like to see institutional reform, and especially for the Church hierarchy to hold abusers accountable — to confront evil rather than cower in its wake. Though Bridget wonders about the future, no matter what, she'll never lose her Catholic identity. "I'll always be Catholic," she said. "I feel like that's a part of my identity that I can't escape, [because] it forms my values, all my relationships, and my family."

Even as her associate pastor was arraigned, even while Archbishop Vigano accused Pope Francis of being complicit in the cover-up of McCarrick's sins, Bridget chose to start her freshman year at NCC, a profoundly Catholic institution where most students attend daily Mass. They also receive spiritual formation from Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, the Marian Fathers' director of evangelization.

That formation will come in handy for Bridget. She realizes that during crisis, prayer is paramount. "[We have to] pray a lot. I don't think there's an easy solution," she said.

A smaller but stronger Church?
Marian Helper Greg Perenich, a recent graduate of Notre Dame and one of Anja's best friends, hasn't been as personally impacted as Bridget. He's grieved the news of recent months, but he hasn't worried about his own faith.

"It worries me for the Catholics who are on the fringe of their faith, who are going to Mass and find themselves one foot in, one foot out," he said. In response, he started praying the Litany of Reparation, interceding for the sins of those who have caused the Church the most heartache.

Indeed, Greg has not let the media's prognostications of doom for the Church discourage him. As the news peaked in August, he traveled to Durham, North Carolina, to dedicate a year of service to the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry where he serves the youth, the elderly — the marginalized.

Living the Beatitudes — that's the life to which many young Catholics feel called.

Greg, for one, doesn't fear the possibility of a smaller Church to come.

"I have so much hope because it's Pope Benedict [XVI] who talks about this: Though [Christ] is going to lose so much blood, so many members, so many souls, for the time being, those that are so rooted in His Heart and in His Body are going to become stronger to carry the rest of us through. That's the hope," he said.

So he sees the crisis as an opportunity to rely even more upon Christ. "It's a call to greater action and greater love — to be the face of the newer Church of renewal," he said.

And Greg has already seen some of the signs. "I think the renewal is starting within, and I think it's going to be a Church of so much love and mercy," he said. "It's going to be a more orthodox Church, holding truer to the ancient traditions ... especially the Mass [and] the Eucharist."

Despite the current climate, Greg has continued to start every morning steeped in prayer, consecrating himself to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and to the Holy Spirit.

Witnessing to love
It was Greg's witness that helped renew his friend Anja's faith — the faith she made her own in high school when she encountered Divine Mercy.

"[The message of Divine Mercy] is so powerful and beautiful and so necessary for the world right now," she said.

When Anja was in 10th grade, a nun from St. Faustina's congregation, the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Poland, brought a relic of St. Faustina to a local parish. "The sister loved me with every fiber of her being. With her eyes, her words, and the way she carried herself. It was truly something unforgettable — and now I realize why: Christ was loving me through her. There is nothing more lovable than that," she said.

At Notre Dame together, Anja and Greg started a Divine Mercy prayer group to spread devotion to the Chaplet and make the Divine Mercy Image more visible on campus. Amid the churchwide crisis, Anja continues to lead that prayer group every Thursday evening. She also continues studying Catholic theology, her major of choice, which has helped fortify her faith.

"The Church's deepest identity is to be in communion with Christ," Anja said. "If that is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ in the Church, regardless of what any other members of the Body of Christ — even our leaders — choose with their free will, it cannot impact our identity."
So, like Greg, Anja doesn't fear the future.

"Jesus tells us, 'Do not be afraid,'" Anja said. "There is no need to fear that our identity is rooted in something tainted, something unstable. Our identity is rooted in being in communion with Christ. This is still possible, and will always be possible."

News of scandal hasn't stolen her peace because she understands sin. "I feel like a lot of darkness is causing people to turn inward and to each other, and not to Christ," she said.

Young as she is, she said she doesn't "have it all figured out."

She said, "I just believe it is of paramount importance to love Christ in ourselves and in other people.

"Instead of turning inward, we can turn to Christ," she said. "We can choose to say, 'I love you' to every soul we meet, with every small interaction. I believe this is the point of everything."

In striving for this radical commitment to love, Anja makes it her goal, beginning as soon as she awakes, to communicate with Christ in her heart throughout the day. "Even though I'm so incredibly far from perfect at it, the fact that I'm trying, it just makes my life completely different and increases joy exponentially," she said.

The future
So what does the future of the Church look like? It looks like Anja, Bridget, Greg, and countless young Catholics who refuse to compromise when it comes to their faith. Pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, struck down, but not destroyed — always carrying about in their body the dying of Jesus, so that they may manifest the life of Christ (see 2 Cor 4:8-10).

Though the Body of Christ may become smaller in numbers in the years to come, expect a stronger Church, far holier, and as long as persecution persists, ever more an image of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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