No one can have God for a Father without having the Church for a Mother. –St. Cyprian of Carthage (who suffered martyrdom 1,761 years and two days ago.)
On the occasion of my first-ever trip to Venice, Italy, I read T. Adolphus Trollope’s book about the year-long period when Pope Paul V forbad the celebration of the sacraments in the city and territories of the Venetian Republic. Over 400 years ago.
In his book about the controversy, Trollope makes an assumption that many of our contemporaries also make. Namely, that Church authority inevitably operates in an ultimately malevolent manner. True religion must mean absolute personal freedom in relating to God.
Trollope makes Father Paul Sarpi the hero of his tale, since Sarpi stood up to the unreasonable pope. But Trollope faults Sarpi for missing the full significance of his own heroism, since Sarpi refused to join the Protestants. Instead, Sarpi lived out his days as a steady Catholic priest.
Even after the pope apparently tried to have Sarpi assassinated. The assassin ambushed Sarpi on a Venetian bridge and stabbed the priest in the ear. As he bled, Sarpi joked, “I recognize the style of the Roman Curia.” In the Latin he used, style was a play on words, since it meant both ‘style’ and ‘dagger.’ He survived the attack.
…We invoke St. Cyprian by name in the ancient canon of the Roman-rite Mass, which Father Sarpi prayed every day. It occurred to me yesterday while I was saying Mass: if we didn’t have the Church for a mother, we wouldn’t know how to pray.
I don’t mean that in a theoretical sense. I mean: I literally would not know what to say while standing at the altar, to bring about the consecration. I know what to say because I read the words that Holy Mother Church prescribes, in the Missal.
Se we rely completely on Mother Church for the very words of the Mass. And the Mass expresses and exercises our Christian faith in a way that nothing else ever could. Plus, the Mass unites us and makes us Christ’s Church. We celebrate it out of simple obedience to Him. Do this in memory of Me.
You can’t have a Mass without some kind of ‘Church authority.’ A Mass needs a priest to preside, to stand at the altar in Christ’s place. The priest is automatically in charge, for good or ill. There’s no changing that.
So, yes: Priests, bishops, even popes abuse our authority sometimes, if not frequently. But absolute personal freedom in religion doesn’t work, either. It just leaves a soul isolated and clueless.
St. Cyprian was right: To have God as a Father, we need the Church for a Mother.