The Fourth Great Crisis of the Church
By Venerable Fulton Sheen
Minor [corrections] were made, and asterisk* is used to indicate uncertainty of transcription.
I must tell you of an embarrassing experience I had in the subway of New York not very long ago. A drunk came in and threw himself along side of me and picked up a newspaper and began to read it. Then he turned to me and said, “how does a man get diabetes?” “Oh,” I said, “by getting drunk and paying no attention to his wife and children.” And a minute later I felt sorry for that quick diagnosis, so I turned to him and I said, “I’m sorry, but why did you want to know how a man got diabetes?” “Oh,” he said, “I was just reading the Pope had diabetes.”
Well if you like that one about the Holy Father, I shall have to tell you another one. This particular barber in New York, an Italian barber, was critical of everything. A client sat down in his chair and said to the barber, “I just won a trip to Rome.” “How are you going?” “Well,” he said, “TWA.” “Oh,” said the barber, “don’t take it. Engines conk out, it never arrives on time. Where’re you staying?” “Excelsior Hotel.” “It’s a flea-bag, don’t go near the place. Where are you eating?” “[So-and-so*] restaurant.” “They put […*] cyanide in the food! What else are you doing?” “I’m going to have an audience with the Holy Father.” “You’ll be with 20,000 screaming Italians, you’ll never get near the man.” Six weeks later he came back, and the barber said, “how was the trip?” “Marvelous. TWA left on time. Excelsior, first class hotel. Sumptuous food at the […] restaurant. And I had a little audience with the Holy Father.” “You did!? What did he say?” “Well, as I leaned over to kiss his ring, he said, ‘where did you get that lousy haircut?’”
Well I can’t stop now, can I? There was an old Irish couple that lived on a farm outside of Dublin. And […*] they entered a lottery and won it. And the husband said, “I’m going to go to Dublin, that was the prize. So I said, ‘I’ve lived on this farm for 50 years. Why should I go to Dublin? I’m going to stay here.’” But he went. And when he went into the hotel, he found a hand mirror. And he picked it up, and he says, “oh? a picture of me old father, and what a wonderful man he was.” Well, he was so enamored at the picture of his father, that he left the mirror in his pocket and took it home. Now it never happens of course among Jewish people, among Mexican people, among English people, Bohemian people, and very rarely among the Irish, that his folks didn’t like her folks. And her folks didn’t like his. So he had to hide the picture of his father. And every now and then he would go and take the mirror out from under the mattress where he kept it to take a look at it. His wife saw him. So she came in, pulled it out, takes a look at it, and she said, “ah, glory be to God, if he wants to have the old hag, he can have her.”
In this conference, I’m going to tell you about the way the world is going, and what we may expect, and what we should do.
First of all, we are at the end of Christendom. Not Christianity, not the Church. Remember what I am saying: we are at the end of Christendom.
What is Christendom? Christendom is economic, political, social life as inspired by Christian principles. That is finished. We’ve seen it die. Look at the symptoms: break up of the family, divorce, abortion, immorality, general dishonesty.
About 50 years ago, in one of the big Protestant churches of New York, a Mrs. Vanderbilt came into this church after her divorce, and all of the Protestant people turned their backs on her. That would not happen today.
The greatest historian of our times (and he has written 10 volumes on the study of history) has said that, of 22 civilizations which have decayed from the beginning of the world up until the present time, 19 decayed from within, only 3 from without. Lincoln said, “I have no fear that America will ever be destroyed from without, but I fear that it may be destroyed from within.”
There are two kinds of barbarians: the active barbarians from without, and the passive barbarians from within. We are not in as much danger from the active barbarians, as we are from the passive ones.
Anyone who’s been in this country and left it for 5 years and then comes back, is shocked at what he sees. We live in it from day to day. And we do not see the decline. We take it for granted, we get used to things. And almost accept them as the rule.
I could go on to belabor this point, but I think that you have sufficient experience to realize that the air that we breathe, the press that we read, the television that we see, is in no instance inspired by Christian principles.
As a matter of fact, there is on the part of many of us a tendancy to go down to meet the world, not to lift the world up. We are afraid of being unpopular. So, we go with the mob.
So this is my first point: we are at the end of Christendom. Not of Christianity, not of the Church.
Now let us speak of the Church.
Within this body of culture—and I’m speaking of the western world—the strongest part of the world, even from the natural point of view, is in Russia and China. There’s hardly any morality in China. There’re no conductors on London buses, you just drop your coin in; can you imagine who would [pay for] a bus here if there was no one to collect fare? The natural virtue is a thousand times higher in the Communist countries than here—we’re not speaking of supernatural virtues, but that could well be, too, on account of the sufferings of the Christians there.
So as regards the Church, we are living in the fourth 500-year period of Church history.
And the Church is not a continuing thing. It dies and lives again. It proceeds on the principle of Christ Himself, as Priest and Victim. We go along for a while, we die. Like the serpent, we shed our skin. Like nature itself, we shed our leaves. And there comes a defeat, seeming decay. We’re put in the grave, and then we rise again.
We have had 4 deaths in our Christian history.
The first was the fall of Rome, in the first 500-year period. (Although Rome actually fell at the beginning of the 5th century.) Rome had become Christian. There’d been martyrs. Since two centuries or more. And then suddenly, after Rome becomes Christian, lo and behold! the active barbarians from without come in and destroy Rome. And Rome fell as nothing has fallen since Satan fell from heaven. Poor St. Jerome was in the cave of Bethlehem, doing the Scriptures, he said, “the whole world has turned upside down!” And St. Augustine, this great Bishop of northern Africa, would go about preaching on the fall of Rome, and he talked about it so much that his people used to say, “[se catcha da Rome — Latin?*] Oh, if he’d only shut up about Rome!” He had spent 18 years writing The City of God—you can find that in English translation, and it’s St. Augustine’s commentary on the fall of Rome, and the blaming it onto Christians—but the Church died then. And then what happened? Then came new Birth. Then it became Missionary. Then Augustine went to England, Patrick to Ireland, and Cyril and Methodius to Eastern Europe. And then began the Rebirth of the Church.
Then around the year 1,000, we had another decay. There was the Muslim invasions. And the Muslims swept within 120 miles of Paris. The great battle of Poitiers*. And then they came around, formed a crescent, came up at the gates of Vienna. And then we had the Schism. The Schism in Constantinople, of Potius* and Michael Cerularius, in which the Church was split! It seemed to be the end of everything! And then we came to life again.
And then came the third period, when the Church became rotten. When nuns began defecting as they are today, priests began defecting as they are today. The Pontiffs were not good. Pope Leo X was away from Rome for 2 months on a hunting trip. The Church was at an end!
Then the Reformers came—and the reformers almost always reform the wrong thing. They began reforming the faith. There was nothing wrong with faith! It was the morals that needed to be reformed! If not, renewed! Really, a moral reformation that is needed today, too.
So that was the third Death. And then we came to Life again. Now we’re at the fourth period. And we’re rotting. We’re spoiling. No great zeal, no great learning, no great fire. We’re just against things so often. So the Church is being declared dead, and it’s a favorite pastime of the press to write articles as “Christianity’s dead.” But anyone who knows history is not particularly disturbed.
But the enemy in each of the 500-year periods has been separate and distinct.
We had—and here I am speaking of enemies only within the Church—in the first 500 years, the rotting process came from false doctrines centering around the historical person of Christ: “Who was he? How many intellects did he have? How many wills did he have? How many natures. How many persons?” They were what were called the Christological heresies. So the Church was just split open, and that was one of the reasons that made it possible for the Muslims to develop, because we became so technical in our theology in those days, that people were looking for simplicity. And just as in New England we got Unitarians out of Calvinistic extremes in this country, so too we got Muslimism out of all of the theological refinements and distinctions of the first 5 centuries. Those were the attacks.
Then for the next 100 years, the attack was really on the Head of the Church. On the Head of the Church because the Eastern Church broke with the authority of the successor of Peter. And these were the errors we had to combat.
In the 16th century, it was not the Head that was attacked, it was the Body. The Body of Christ, the Mystical Body, the Church.
What is the attack today? It is not schisms about the historical Christ. It is not an attack on the Head, it is not an attack on the Body of the Church.
Our enemy today is the world. The spirit of the world. Today we have to conform to the world, or we’re branded.
Our Lord said, “I have taken you out of the world.” We say, “no, we have to win the world!” And to win it, you have to be one with it. Our Lord said, “I pray not for the world.” He was praying for the spirit of the world.*
And this is the easiest, easiest kind of way to fall off a log, is worldliness, it’s so simple, and if we justify it by a thousand reasons, namely the Vatican Council said we had to go into the world—Indeed! But not to be worldly! Which is quite a different matter!
So this is our attack today.
There are three classes of people in the world: wise men, knaves, and fools. Wise men mean to do good and they do it. Knaves mean to do evil and do it. The fools will do right or wrong, depending upon which is the more popular. And they are divided into White Fools and Black Fools; the White Fools would rather do what is right, but will do wrong if it’s popular. And the Black Fools would rather do wrong, but they will do right if that happens to be popular.
Now this is the situation we’re in today, and this is one of the basic causes of our degeneration, of our Death. We’re dying.
What about it? What’s the answer?
The answer is, these are great and wonderful days in which to be alive!
I thank God that I’m young (don’t laugh now)—I thank God that I’m young in order that I can live in these days! Because these are days of testing!
20 years ago, 30, 40 years ago it was easy to be Christian. The atmosphere was Christian. Morals were Christian. There was no great problem in adapting ourselves to a Christian society. But now, when everything is turned around, these are days in which the masks have got to come off! And we reveal ourselves just as we really are! Then, we could float, float with the current. Today, the current’s against us! And today the mood of the world is, “go with the world, go with the spirit.” Listen, dead bodies float downstream! Only live bodies resist the current!
And so the Good Lord is testing us! That’s why these are great days. He tested the Russians, the Russian Christians, with Communism. He tested the German Christians with Nazism. And how many fell? And he’s testing the western Christians with worldliness, and how many of us are falling! Read the story of the Israelites in the desert: God said, “I tested you for 40 years.” That’s what he’s doing to us!
We’re showing what we really are, now. St. John said in his Epistle, he said, “they did not love us, really, from the beginning; that is why they left us.” And so, the souls that are falling away have just failed to meet the test!
That’s very much like the test that the Jews had, when they—the one time they were within 12 miles of the Holy Land. It only took 3 weeks to come from Egypt! And they were 40 years wandering in the desert! And why? Because of their disobedience! And the Lord sent them [running] in circles, going crazy in that desert. And then when finally they came to the very point where they were to enter, Moses sent spies in. Crossed over the River Jordan, went into Jericho, 12 spies. They came back, and they said to Moses, “the people are as numerous as grasshoppers, and the walls reach to the heavens.” The Hebrew language has no superlative to Greek*. So they talked like they’re children. Children would say, “oh it reached up to the stars,” well it was the Hebrew way of saying, “and the walls were very high.” And for a multitude of men, “well they were like grasshoppers,” because they were […?]. So when the 12 came back, 10 of them said, “we cannot go in, they are too strong!” The majority report! The majority is not always right! A bad majority can vote us out of a democracy! So, “we cannot go in.” Because they were the majority, they began to affect all of the Israelites. They said, “no, we can’t go in now.” Two of them, the minority report, Caleb and Joshua, said, “Sure they’re big! Sure they’re strong! Sure they’re numerous! But God said it’s our land! And we can take it!” And they were the only two that went in to the Promised Land. There was one whole generation of Jews that perished in that desert. And of the 12, only these 2, Caleb and Joshua, entered the Promised Land. The minority report!
And that’s what we’re going to have in the Church is a minority report! A minority report of Sisters! A minority report of priests! A minority report of laity!
Not the minority that’s aggressive and trouble-making, but the minority that, like Cabel and Joshua, that trust in God.
So we’re tested just as the Jews were tested. And God is doing with us perhaps today what He did with Gideon. Remember Gideon had to go out and meet the army of the Mid`ianites? They had an army of 65,000. And God said to Gideon, “your army’s too great!” Gideon had 30,000 soldiers, to meet an army of 65,000, and God said, “your army is too great!” And God said to Gideon, “tell your cowards to leave!” How many cowards? 20,000. Gideon had 10,000 left. God said, “your army’s too great. Send them to the river and watch them drink.” Some of them threw themselves prone on their stomachs and drank leisurely and comfortably and sufficiently, and others ran around the riverbank, lapped up the water with their hands in the fashion of dogs and drank. And God said, “that’s your army! 300! But I’ll be with you.” And, of course, Gideon won.
So these days, therefore, our ranks are being thinned. God does not expressly say to the Church, “tell your cowards to leave.” … They just leave!
God doesn’t make some kind of a Papal decision to say that, well, the majority opinion is wrong, those that get the ear of the press. No, but he allows things to work out this particular way.
And then will come—not in our time, but not far after our time, and perhaps in the time of some—then will come the battles and the testing. Our Lord said, “Satan would sift you as wheat.” And we’re being sifted as wheat.
So we can all thank God that we live in these days. And really, it’s beautiful. Now we can say Aye or Nay. And we can bear up under assault, criticism, and ridicule. Because this is the lot of the Christians in the days of the spirit of the world.
The great poet T. S. Eliot wrote a poem about anti-heroes, that’s, “why should men love the Church?” In which he very subtly suggests, maybe hard times are coming for the creative minority, and why we should love the Church in these days:
“It is hard for those who have never known persecution, And who have never known a Christian, To believe these tales of Christian persecution.”
And that is true. I have talked to audiences and told them about for example the sufferings of missionaries, and the sufferings of some Russian people that I know that suffered for their faith, and they would not believe! And Eliot goes on to say,
“It’s hard for those who live near a bank, to doubt the security of money.
It is hard for those who live near a police station to believe in the triumph of violence.
Do you think that faith has conquered the world? And that the lions no longer need keepers?
Do you need to be told that whatever has been, can still be? Do you need to be told that even such modest attainment that you boast of in the way of polite society,
will hardly survive the faith to which they hold their significance? Men! polish your teeth on rising and retiring;
Women! polish your fingernails; You polish the tooth of the dog and the talon of the cat.”
In other words, there’s going to be opposition.
“Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws? She tells them of life and death and of all that they would forget.
She is tender when they would be hard, and hard where they would like to be soft. She tells them of evil and sin and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape from the darkness, outside and within,
by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one needs to be good.
But the man that is will shadow the man that pretends to be.
And the Son of Man is crucified always. And there shall be Martyrs and Saints.
And if the blood of Martyrs is to flow on the steps, we must first build the steps.
And if the temple is to be cast down, we must first build the temple.”
It is not a gloomy picture, it is a picture of the Church in the midst of increasing opposition of the world. And therefore, live your lives in the full consciousness of this hour of testing. And rally close to the Heart of Christ.
So what we have to do, are the minority—or the—there will always be those, for example, who will not even want to hear, lest they be called upon to change.
And if there is anything that has to be restored in our day, I would say it would be violence.
“The kingdom of Heaven is won by violence. And only the violent shall conquer it.” (Matthew 11:12)
Just as we begin to drop something in the church, the world begins to pick it up. As we drop celibacy, some of the Protestant religions are today asking for celibate men to go on the missions. As we drop our beads, hippies pick them up and hang them around their necks. As the nuns drop the long habits, the girls put on maxi coats. As we drop mysticism, the young people go in for pharmaceuticals and drugs. Everything that we’re dropping, they are picking up.
And we dropped violence! Discipline! Commitment to the cross! And the world picked it up! And that’s why it’s unsafe in the streets! That’s why there’s no stopping the violence of this country! “We just have to buy more locks. Hire more police cars. Build more hospitals for the addicts.” Why? Because there’s no moral reason on the inside why they should stop!
Dostoevsky said there are two ages to man: the ascent of man through the death of God, and the death of God to the annihilation of man. When God is denied, everything is allowable.
So when we drop discipline, mortification in our own lives, the world begins to pick it up. And this is the price we’re paying for dropping it!
Our Blessed Lord said, “I have come to bring the sword, not peace!” (Matthew 10:34)
We’re always talking about peace, peace, peace! Yes because they’re at war, but we’re not making war on ourselves! And there’s not going to be any peace in the world until we make war! Our Lord said “I came not to bring peace, but the sword!” He never used the word “peace” until after Easter!
That’s one of the reasons I always find it hard to join in a prayer for peace, it’s just simply a kind of a prayer in which we forget—we think that’s all we have to do is say “dear Lord, listen to us, we don’t want to be troubled, we got some boys being killed—but we’ll just go on the way we are.” That’s not peace!
The Lord brought a sword! Not the sword that’s thrust outward against the enemy. The sword that’s thrust against ourselves! Cutting out the seven pall-bearers of the soul! Pride, and covetousness, and lust, and anger, envy, gluttony, and sloth!
When we’ve given up the sword, someone else has taken it up! And we have to restore it! Then we’ll get peace!
And peace is never corporate, it’s never social, until it’s first individual! Social peace, world peace, is the extension of individual peace in our hearts! When we’re right with God, then we’ll be right with our fellow man! When we’re not right with God, then we’ll be wrong with everyone else! That’s the reason, the explanation that St. James gives of wars. (James 4:1)
And that is why this Holy Hour, this reason this retreat has been based around the Holy Hour; a little violence to ourselves. So I hope that all of you will take it seriously. Every single day! One continuous hour before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Not only for our own souls, but for the world. And to strengthen our minority! As others were leaving, we’ll be stronger! The Lord is keeping reserves, he’s training us! And we’ll make the entry! We’ll prepare for a new Church! And He’s with us! We just simply cannot lose! Only—we’ve already won, as a matter of fact, only the news has not yet leaked out!
And so it’s violence that has to be restored.
And the great enemy that we hear, is the enemy that said to our Lord on the Cross, “come down and we’ll believe.”
“We’ll believe! We’ll believe anything you say if you don’t mention the cross!”
Will they believe what Our Lord said about the Trinity? “Yes!”
About the Eucharist? “Yes!”
About naming Peter? “Yes!”
“We’ll believe anything”, they said, “Anything!”
“But just come down from that Cross! That’s all we ask!”
That’s what we hear today. On retreats, “Tell us about liturgy! Tell us about the social order! Tell us about injustices! Talk politics! Anything, we’ll believe anything you say! Only don’t talk the cross! Stop it! Come down and we’ll believe!”
But He did not come down! Why? Because it’s human to come down! Because if He came down, He never would have saved us! It’s Divine to hang there!