By Canon Gerry Conroy
There is a lot of frustration around in the world just now and with that frustration there is a lot of violence both verbal and physical. Perhaps the isolation and restrictions of the pandemic have acted as a catalyst for much of the pent up resentments and emotions within us. If many of the usual escapes for our emotions have been denied us, those bubbling just under the surface are going to need a way to get out. The indignation, the bitterness of not being able to change anything or being prevented from achieving what we want, all that is going to erupt, as indeed it has in these past few weeks. This is not a rational issue that can be solved by reasonable words; it is an emotional matter that is being expressed, an issue that, only after the emotion has been vented, can be resolved by some manner of change alone.
But there is another question that needs to be asked, another reality that needs to be confronted and which many, it seems to me, are avoiding or are simply dismissive of. The question is: ‘Can we ever bring about such a change permanently?’ Can we ever sit back and say, we have changed our world, we have finally wiped this moral illness from the face of the earth?
Through vaccination, we have managed to wipe naturally occurring smallpox from the face of the earth; scientists are searching for a vaccine in the hope that we can do something similar for Covid-19. But what about the moral illnesses that afflict our souls?
Turning to the Gospel in search of inspiration, at first thought, I find it strange that Christ, who spoke of such perfection, should choose St Peter to be the rock on which to build his church. Here is a man who knew Christ, who knew what was right, but struggled all of his life to do it, a man who until his dying day had to begin again because he kept on falling short. St Paul, in a different way wasn’t much better. A fanatic in his youth, approving the murder of someone else – what can we say, not someone suitable by present day standards, even if he did turn his life around and change. It is easy to condemn them, to judge them, to want to have little to do with them because they are so flawed. Nonbelievers reject the Church either because she is not properly human or because she claims to be divine. They say, if she is properly human, then she shouldn’t be critical of others’ actions as she is, she shouldn’t make claims to absolute truth, as she does. If she is divine she shouldn’t have any sin in her which she does, she should be perfect and its members should be perfect, which we aren’t. It’s not only non-believers who take this approach; we can take it ourselves, directing great anger against people because we cannot find a perfection we were once seeking, unwilling to forgive others their sins because they aren’t perfect, unwilling to forgive ourselves our continuing sins, unwilling to forgive because we are so angry, so frustrated.
Perhaps Christ chose these two apostles Peter and Paul to be an example to us. He chose them to help us realise the importance of forgiveness and of beginning again and again and again. While we are on earth, there is no lasting perfection, we will always be in the heat of battle, involved in a permanent struggle. The sins of our fathers will surface again, we will never change human nature that way, we will never change our own nature; it will always be marked by Original Sin and the weakness it leaves in us. We will constantly face a choice between Jesus Christ and that which in the world remains hostile to God and his call to perfection in the command to love one another as he loved us. To be part of that struggle means to be part of the Church’s very vocation. It is to be both human with all its faults and failings and yet to be divine which is to be perfect with the perfection of God’s love. As the Church, we are caught between the two, constantly struggling – one with the divine, yet pulled back by our broken humanity. The human in the Church will always know sin, but the divine in the Church, which is Christ and the Holy Spirit will always know the grace of God. We who through our Baptism share in Christ’s divinity, as he shares in our humanity through the incarnation, are called to that constant struggle as a witness to the hope and mercy that comes from God alone.
- Canon Gerry Conroy is parish priest of St Patrick’s, Dumbarton.