FR. Gabriel was a few minutes late for his Saturday morning brunch with Bill and Kevin. Marg Tomey had just returned from a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Fatima with a fist full of rosaries and holy medals that she wanted blessed after Mass. She came prepared with a pre-Vatican II book of blessings that included exorcism rites. “For good measure,” she said, winking at Fr. Gabriel, who was half the age of the weathered prayer-book.
As Fr. drove up to the diner, the words he prayed over the holy water used in the blessing were still lingering in his mind:
I exorcise you so that you may put to flight all the power of the enemy, and be able to root out and supplant that enemy with his apostate angels, through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.
When he entered the front door, Kevin, who had been thumbing his smartphone, looked up and waved. Just then, Bill emerged from the washroom and sat down with Fr. Gabriel in perfect sync.
“I ordered for you,” Kevin said in his usual, eager to please voice. Unlike most men turning thirty, he had a deep respect for the priesthood. In fact, he was considering it himself. Still single, Kevin had been discerning his vocation for the past year, becoming increasingly discontent as an accountant. He’d only had one serious relationship a few years ago, but it abruptly ended when his girlfriend thought he was taking religion too seriously. That crisis awakened something in his soul, and now he was ready to take a leap of faith.
As the waitress poured the men their coffees, Kevin wasted no time. “So,” he said, quickly scanning the eyes and mood of his companions, “I’ve made a decision.” Bill didn’t bother to look up as he tore open one of the packages of cane sugar that he always supplied himself. “You’re going to be a nun?” Bill muttered.
“I’ve been accepted to the seminary. I’m gonna do it.” Kevin shot another glance around the table, seeking the approval that he knew his own father would never give.
With a twinkle in his eye, Fr. Gabriel smiled and nodded in a way that said so much without words… that this was a good thing, but a process of discernment; that it might end up in the priesthood, and it might not; but that it didn’t matter, because following God’s will was the most important thing….
“Ah, well you’ll want to hurry before Bergoglio destroys the priesthood too,” Bill grumbled as he vigorously stirred his coffee longer than usual. Fr. Gabriel knew what that meant. Whenever Bill was upset with Pope Francis, he always called the pontiff by his former name with a tinge of sarcasm. In the past, Fr. Gabriel would usually exchange a knowing smile with Kevin and then say the perfunctory “What now, Bill?” to launch the weekly brunch debate. But this time, Fr. Gabriel fidgeted with his coffee cup without looking up. While able to defend Pope Francis’ controversial statements in the past, the priest found himself listening and praying more often than arguing. The truth was that a growing number of his most faithful flock were confused at what now seemed a weekly controversy coming out of the Vatican.
But these folks were still relatively few in number. Most of his parishioners never peruse religious publications, watch EWTN, or read Catholic websites, much less study papal Apostolic Exhortations. The “conservative” Catholic media and bloggers, and those “guardians of orthodoxy” intent on highlighting the Pope’s every seeming gaff, believed a schism was fomenting that, frankly, Fr. Gabriel did not see stirring on the parish level. For most of them, Pope Francis is simply a friendly and refreshing face to the Church. Their exposure to his pontificate is mostly images of him embracing the handicapped, hugging the crowds, and meeting with leaders. The subtleties of controversial footnotes and theological mind-bending statements that have fallen under the microscopes of conservative commentators are simply not on the radar of the average Catholic. So to Fr. Gabriel, the “hermeneutic of suspicion” that continually casts the Pope’s words and actions in the worst possible light seemed to be generating a crisis on its own like a self-fulfilling prophecy: those predicting a schism were, in fact, fueling it themselves.
Bill was the quintessential disciple of papal conspiracies, eating their every word, quickly posting his own comments (anonymously so that he could be more sarcastic than usual) and fueling his intense fear that Pope Francis is the long prophesied “false prophet” who is craftily sinking the Barque of Peter. But for all of Bill’s logic and reasoning, Fr. Gabriel couldn’t help but see his friend among those panicking apostles in the Gospel of Mark:
A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:37-38)
Still, Fr. Gabriel was acutely aware of the Jane Fonda’s of the world who tweeted such things as, ‘Gotta love new Pope. He cares about poor, hates dogma.’  This too was far from the truth, as Fr. Gabriel had often quoted the Pope’s teachings in his homilies on topics ranging from abortion and gender ideology, to the corruption of the economic system and abuse of creation. But the purveyors of distortion with their ideological agendas have never been lacking since Christ stood before the Sanhedrin. That is to say that, if they hated Christ, they would hate the Church—truth would always be twisted to suit their sensibilities (or lack thereof).
Conscious of the insensitivity of Bill’s remark in the face of Kevin’s announcement, Fr. Gabriel looked back at Kevin to formally congratulate and encourage him. But the soon-to-be-seminarian had already turned with a stoic gaze toward Bill. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know bloody well what that means. My God, that Pope Francis!” Bill shook his head, continuing to avoid eye contact with either man. “I worked through that Commie crucifix thing. I forgave the pagan slide-show on the facade
of St. Peter’s. I gave Bergoglio the benefit of the doubt regarding “compassion” toward migrants, even though I think he’s playing into terrorist’s hands. Hell, the other day I even defended his embrace of that Imam when I said that such a gesture might make at least one of those Islamic beheaders think twice. But I simply can’t excuse the ambiguous statements in Amoris Latitita nor those damned interviews on the plane that practically excuse mortal sin!”
Bill’s tone dripped with sarcasm as he began to play-mock the pontiff. “Aw, shucks, you can’t live the “ideal” of marriage? That’s okay honey, no one is condemned forever. Just come to Mass, receive the Eucharist, and forget about those heretical Catholics who uphold moral absolutes. They’re just a bunch of scary ‘legalistic’, ‘narcissistic’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘neo-pelagian’, ‘self-absorbed’, ‘restorationist’, ‘rigid’, ‘ideological’ ‘fundamentalists.’  Besides dear,” Bill said with a sweeping motion of his hand, knocking over the napkin holder, “your marriage is probably null and invalid anyway.”
“Would you gentleman like your coffees warmed up?” The cheerful inquiry of the young waitress was a startling contrast to the bitterness of the moment. Bill looked down at his full mug and then back at the waitress like she was crazy. “Sure!” Kevin said quickly, saving her from his companion’s wrath. Bill pursed his lips and stared annoyingly at the edge of the table.
Fr. Gabriel quietly reached over, uprighted the napkin dispenser, and took an audible deep breath. Kevin thanked the waitress, took a sip, and looked at Fr. Gabriel to read his expression. He was taken aback at the lines on his pastor’s face. For the first time, Fr. Gabriel seemed uncertain, if not shaken by Bill’s words. He remembered their discussion a year ago, when Fr. Gabriel spoke about the coming Passion and persecution of the Church—words that stirred profoundly in his soul. It was two weeks after that discussion that Kevin met with the bishop to begin discerning the priesthood.
Taking a deep breath himself, Kevin reached for his phone and began scrolling. “I found this quote the other day. I’m sure you’ve heard it. It’s from Pope Benedict”:
We may see that attacks against the Pope and the Church do not only come from outside; rather, the sufferings of the Church come from inside the Church, from the sin that exists in the Church…
Bill interrupted. “Why are you turning this on me? I’m not attacking, I’m—”
“—let me finish Bill, let me finish.”
This was always common knowledge, but today we see it in truly terrifying form: the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from external enemies, but is born of sin within the Church. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, interview on flight to Lisbon, Portugal; LifeSiteNews, May 12th, 2010
“The way I see it,” Kevin continued,” is that the Church, in every period, is always her worst enemy. It is the scandal of her disunity, her sin—my sin—that defaces her witness, and impedes the conversion of others. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, Fr. Gabriel, but the Pope hasn’t changed any doctrine. But could we not say that, once again, it is the sin of the Church…” Kevin leaned forward, and almost whispered, “…the sins, too, of the Pope, that we are seeing among us? That his own weakness and woundedness is manifesting in his lack of precision, ambiguity, etc.? In fact, wasn’t it Benedict who said that the pope is both a “rock” and a “stumbling stone”?”
For the first time that morning, Bill looked at Kevin, and arching his back with registered astonishment exclaimed, “What the—are you agreeing with me?”
Kevin liked his role as devil’s advocate, if only to be entertained by Bill’s short temper. But that didn’t mean Kevin wasn’t a thinker. In fact, unbeknownst to both men, Kevin often went home and researched and studied more deeply their discussions. In the process, his liberal tendencies were dissolving in the sea of truth that he could no more drive back than the shores can keep away the tide.
“Well…,” Kevin paused, carefully forming his words as he scanned Fr. Gabriel’s face. “I don’t agree with your tone. But I do agree that some of the Pope’s remarks are kind of… yes, they’re ambiguous.”
“Kind of?” Bill snorted, rolling his eyes.
“But Christ’s mercy was also misunderstood, even by his Apostles,” Kevin replied. “And today, theologians are still explaining Jesus’ difficult sayings.”
Bills eyes widened as he spoke slowly and deliberately. “What is vague about Christ’s words: ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery?'” He held his arms up waiting for an answer as he shifted his eyes between the two men. Fr. looked up and then leaned back as the waitress placed their meals before them.
“Look,” said Bill. “I’m sick and tired of these papal apologists making excuses every time Bergoglio opens his mouth. Sheez, even the Vatican Press Office is editing his comments to control the damage. They’re like men with shovels and pails who follow the circus elephant, cleaning up its mess. This is ridiculous! He’s the Pope for God’s sake, not a blow-dryed news commentator.”
Bill knew he was pushing the line. His whole life, he had nothing but the deepest reverence for the papacy. Now, something in him was torn apart, as though he was watching his wife flirt with another man. He felt hurt and betrayed, yet desperately wanting to “make it work.” He watched as Fr. Gabriel unfolded a napkin, placed it on his lap, and quietly picked up his fork as though he were eating alone. But this only angered Bill even more who, surprising himself, began to concentrate his anger against the whole Catholic edifice of which Fr. Gabriel was a part.
“I’m telling you now, Fr., if it weren’t for the Eucharist, I would leave the Church.” Rapping his forefinger on the table, he added, “I’d leave it right now!”
“Martin Luther would be proud of you,” Kevin shot back.
“Ah, the Protest-ants. Well, we know the Pope wants unity,” Bill retorted with raised voice. At that, Fr. Gabriel looked up with clear dissatisfaction, raising his hand as if to tell Bill to tone it down. But the senior would not be deterred. With a quieter, but just as intense voice, he continued.
“Have you heard what the Evangelicals are saying? Tom Horn says this guy is an anti-pope in kahutz with the Antichrist. So too does that white-haired rapture guy, what’s his name—Jack Van Impe. And I listened to that Evangelical news show, uh, TruNews, and the host went off on the Pope telling him to “shut up”! I tell you, this Pope is not only cozying up to the anti-Catholic United Nations, but he’s turning the Evangelicals against us. What a bloody disaster!”
Kevin, who didn’t follow the “prophetic pulse” as much as Bill, looked puzzled, and then busied himself with his meal. Bill, with a strange mix of self-righteous anger and fear, stood up and headed for the bathroom, even though he didn’t really have to go. As he disappeared down the hall, Kevin whistled, “Whew.” Even then, Fr. Gabriel said nothing.
Bill returned, serious, but composed. Taking a big gulp from his lukewarm mug, he raised his cup to the waitress, “I’ll have some more coffee please.”
At that, Fr. Gabriel picked up his napkin, wiped his mouth, and looked sternly at both men. “Is Francis the Pope?” Kevin nodded, while Bill tilted his head and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Get to the point.”
Fr. Gabriel rephrased, over-pronouncing each word. “Is his election valid?” At that, Fr. Gabriel could see that Bill was going to launch into a conspiracy theory of sorts. But Fr. cut him off. “Bill, it doesn’t matter if a “cabal” of liberal cardinals allegedly sought his election. Not a single cardinal has come forward to suggest that the papal election was invalid. So let me ask you again, is Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio the validly elected pope?”
Bill, not wanting to appear as an unhinged conspirator, sighed. “Yes, insofar as we can tell. So what?”
“Then Francis holds the keys of the Kingdom.” The priest’s face softened as he stared unflinchingly into Bill’s eyes. “Then he is the rock on whom Christ will continue to build His Church. Then he is the Vicar of Christ who is the visible and perpetual sign of the Church’s unity. Then he is the guarantor of obedience to the truth.”
“How can you say that?” Bill said, his expression turning to desperation. “You’ve read Amoris. You’ve heard the interviews. You yourself said that you don’t agree with some of the things you’ve read there, that they’re too ambiguous, that they could be misconstrued by some.”
“Yes, I did say that, Bill. But I also said that the Pope clearly believes we are living in a “time of mercy,” and that he is doing everything he can in the short time that is left to bring others to the Church, which is the “sacrament of salvation.” And in his desperate efforts—perhaps like Peter of old—he is making pastoral concessions that are careless, that are… not right. Recall when St. Paul took not only Peter, but the good Apostle Barnabas to task for concessions they were making in their conduct toward the Gentiles. ‘They were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel,’ Paul said, and so he corrected them.  Yes, he corrected the very first pope,” Fr. continued, pointing his finger at Bill, “but he did not break brotherhood!” Bill’s face hardened as Kevin’s mouth hung open mid-bite.
“What I’m saying,” Fr. continued,” is that perhaps we have come to another “Peter and Paul moment” in the Church. But Bill…” he said, lowering his eyes, “…you are headed straight for a Martin Luther moment.”
Kevin restrained a chuckle, while Bill, clearly disgusted, held his tongue. Fr. Gabriel moved his coffee cup aside as he leaned forward.
“When Cardinal Sarah came to Washington this past Spring, he spared no words in defending the family and the Church, calling these attacks on marriage and sexuality an assault on humanity. He called them “demonic” attacks, in fact. You see, there are good men in the Church — “St. Paul’s” who are speaking the truth with clarity and authority. But you do not see them jumping Ship. In fact, Cardinal Sarah, in a private conversation with a Vatican journalist, later said,
We must help the Pope. We must stand with him just as we would stand with our own father. —Cardinal Sarah, May 16th, 2016, Letters from the Journal of Robert Moynihan
“That’s what you do in families, Bill. The injunction from Christ to honor your father and mother includes those spiritual fathers and mothers in the religious orders and the priesthood, and above all, the Holy Father. You don’t have to agree with Pope Francis’ clear “opinions.” Neither do you have to agree with his scientific or political commentaries that fall outside the Church’s teaching. And neither do you have to agree with his speculative, off-the-cuff interviews that are fuzzy and incomplete. Is it confusing and unfortunate? Yes, it is. Believe me, it’s made my job tougher some days. But Bill, you and I have everything we need to not only be faithful Catholics, but to help others be faithful Catholics—that is, the Catechism and the Bible.”
“But not when the Pope is teaching something else, Fr. Gabe!” Bill’s words were punctuated by his own finger wagging in the priest’s face. Kevin braced himself.
“Is he?” Fr. Gabriel replied. “You said he’s vague and ambiguous. So, if someone comes to you with these questions, your obligation is to give the only possible interpretation: the clear and unambiguous teachings of the Catholic Church, which Francis has not changed, nor can he. As Cardinal Raymond Burke said,
The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. —Cardinal Raymond Burke, National Catholic Register, April 12th, 2016; ncregister.com
Bill shook his head. “But the Pope’s abstruseness is creating a scandal!”
“Is it Bill? Look, those bishops, priests and laymen who may “suddenly” depart from 2000 years of Tradition were probably doing so already. And don’t worry about the mainstream media and their worshipers—they’re going to believe and publish whatever they want to believe. As for schism and scandal… take care that you aren’t the one sowing doubts in the legitimacy of the papacy.”
Fr. Gabriel sat back and grasped the sides of the table.
“I’m telling you now gentlemen, I believe Our Lord is allowing all of this for a greater good that we may not fully understand at this moment. Even the confusion that now exists from this papacy will work to the good for those who love God. In fact, I am convinced that this papacy is a test. And what is the test? Whether or not we trust in Christ that He is still building His Church. Whether we are going to panic and flail as the waves of confusion and uncertainty crash over the Barque. Whether or not we will abandon the Ship, where I assure you, Christ Himself remains sleeping in the hull. But He is there! He has not abandoned us to the Storm!”
Bill opened his mouth to speak but Fr. wasn’t done.
“This papacy is actually laying bare those whose hope is in an “institution” rather than in Jesus. It is revealing the lack of understanding in the pews of the Church’s true mission of evangelization. It is exposing those who are hiding comfortably behind the law rather than becoming vulnerable and carrying the Gospel of Mercy into the marketplace at the cost of their reputations. It is also exposing those with hidden agendas who believe that Francis “is their man” to enable their modernist/humanist programmes. And perhaps above all, it is exposing the lack of faith in the “most faithful” Catholics, a lack of absolute trust in their Good Shepherd who guides His flock through the valley of the culture of death. Bill, I can hear the Lord crying out once again:
Why are you terrified, O you of little faith? (Matt 8:26)
Suddenly, the tension in Bill’s face crumpled into that of a frightened little boy. “Because I feel the Pope is leading the flock to the slaughter!” The men locked eyes for a few moments in silence.
“That’s your problem right there, Bill.”
“You’re acting as if Jesus’ hands are tied, that He has lost control of His Church, that the mystical Body of Christ can be destroyed by a mere man. Moreover, you are suggesting, again, that the Church is really built on sand, not rock, and thus, Our Lord has failed, if not lied to the Body of Christ: the gates of Hell are indeed going to prevail against her.” Fr. threw his hands up as though in resignation.
With that, Bill dropped his head. After a moment, he looked up again, tears in his eyes, and said quietly, “Aren’t you bothered by all the confusion Francis is creating, Padre?”
Fr. Gabriel looked out the window, tears welling up in his own eyes now.
“Bill, I love the Church with all my heart. I love my flock, and I am ready to lay down my life for them. This much I promise you: I will never preach another Gospel other than that which has been handed down to us throughout the centuries. I am not afraid of the careless theological imprecisions of this Pope because it only impels me to preach the truth that much more. Look, Jesus could take Francis home tonight if He wanted. Our Lady could appear to him and set the Church on a whole new course tomorrow. I’m not afraid, Bill. It’s Jesus, not Francis, who is building the Church until the end of time. Jesus is My Lord and Master, my Creator and my God, the founder, perfecter, and leader of my faith… our Catholic faith. He will never abandon His Church. That’s His promise. He’s only got one Bride, and He gave His life for her! Will He abandon her now in her greatest hour of need? I don’t care what the critics have to say. There is only one Ark, and that’s where you’ll find me—next to the validly elected Pope, warts and all.”
Fr. Gabriel looked out the window again, his thoughts suddenly racing back to his ordination. He was one of 75 priests ordained that day in Rome by St. John Paul II. He closed his eyes and strained to see the smiling eyes of the late pontiff, a man who was like a father to him. How he missed his…
“What about the Pope’s… ambiguities, Fr. Gabe?” Kevin’s own doubts were written on his face. “Do we say nothing, or has the “Peter and Paul moment”, as you say, arrived?”
Fr. Gabriel opened his eyes, as though awakened from a dream. Staring off into the distance, he began to smile.
“We should follow Our Lady. Imagine 2000 years ago those souls who eagerly awaited the Messiah and who truly believed that Jesus, finally, was the One to deliver them from the Romans. Perhaps their hopes were shattered when they learned that the Apostles of Jesus fled the garden rather than defend Him. That their leader, “the rock”, had denied Christ and yet another betrayed Him. And that Jesus did not defend Himself with miracles and signs to silence His foes but, like a defeated mouse, handed himself over to Pilate. All now seemed utterly lost, a fraud, yet another fake movement.
“In the midst of this stood a Mother beneath the Sign of Failure… the Cross. She stood as a solitary lamp-post as one who believed when no one else would. When the mockery reached a feverish pitch, when the soldiers had their way, when the nails seemed stronger than the arms of the God-Man… she stood there, in silent faith, beside the body of her battered Son.
“And now she stands once again beside the bruised mystical Body of her Son, the Church. Once again she weeps as disciples flee, lies swirl, and God seems utterly powerless. But she knows… she knows the Resurrection that is coming, and thus, begs us to stand in faith with her once again, this time beneath the crucified mystical Body of her Son.
“Bill, I weep with you over the sins of the Church… my sins too. But to abandon the Church is to abandon Jesus. For the Church is His Body. And even though she is now covered with the lashes and wounds of her own sins and that of others, I still see within her the beating Heart of Jesus, the Eucharist. I see within her the Blood and Water that still flows, gushing forth for the Redemption of men. I still hear—between the deep sighs and gasps for life-breath—the words of truth and love and absolution that she has spoken for 2000 years.
“There once were thousands who followed Jesus on earth. But in the end, there were only a few beneath the Cross. So it will be again, and I intend to be one of them, there, beside the Mother.”
A solitary tear rolled down the priest’s face.
“We should do what Our Lady has asked us to do, Kevin. Even now, in her most famous apparitions, she is telling us nothing different: Pray in a special way for your shepherds.” Fr. Gabriel’s face turned serious again as he reached into his pocket. “The reason is that we are not in a battle with flesh and blood, but principalities and powers.” He pulled out one of the rosaries Marg gave him that he had just blessed. He held it up and continued, “The Holy Father needs us, as sons and daughters, to pray for his protection, for light, wisdom, and God’s guidance. And he needs our filial love. Jesus did not say that the world would know we are Christians by our orthodoxy, but by our love for one another.”
Quickly turning to Bill, Fr. Gabriel continued, “And no Bill, love cannot be divorced from truth, as much as the flesh cannot be separated from its skeleton. Truth is what gives authentic love its power as much as bones enable arms of flesh to become instruments of tenderness. The Pope knows this, knows it by his experience in the streets. But he also knows that bones without flesh are ugly and hard—yes, arms still capable of holding, but with which few wish to be held. He is not a theologian but a lover, perhaps a blind lover. So let’s pray for him in the incredibly difficult task he has, which is to draw as many souls as possible into the Ark before this “time of mercy” draws to a close.” Fr. Gabriel looked out the window again. “I have a feeling that this Pope is going to surprise us in very powerful way…”
Kevin, whose face registered an epiphany, added, “Even after three years of ministry, of miracles and raising the dead, the people still didn’t understand who Jesus was—not until He died and rose for them. Likewise, many who are following Pope Francis today really don’t understand what the Church’s mission is—look, I was one of them to a certain degree. I just wanted to hear nice things. In fact, Bill, I would often get angry when you would share all that prophetic stuff. I used to scream in my head, “Don’t interrupt my life with your doom and gloom!” It was Pope Francis who made me feel like I could be part of the Church in some meaningful way. But yes, you too Bill helped me to realize that following Christ is not about being liked or even received by others. That compromise is another way of abandoning the Lord. So perhaps many who misread the Pope will understand in time after he, and us, follow in the bloody footsteps of Jesus...”
Bill wiped his nose, and glanced over at Kevin with a wry smile. “Practicing your homilies already, eh?”
With that, Fr. pulled his clerical collar from his breast pocket and put it back in place. Rising from the table, he put a hand on Bill’s shoulder and kept walking.
“See you at Mass, brothers.”
First published July 2nd, 2016
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