By Fr. Matthew Rolling
Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Lincoln in 2010, Father Matthew Rolling has been in Rome since 2014, working on a doctorate in philosophy. He will conclude his studies and return to the diocese in June 2019.
During the course of my years in Rome, I’ve periodically been asked what it is like to live in Rome, so close to the Vatican and the Holy Father. In the past, I’ve responded that if the Church is the Barque of Peter (Luke 5:3), then Rome is the engine room of this great vessel. It’s greasy, smelly, dirty, and noisy, but the boat runs, so do not look too closely and do not spend too much time there.
Upon my return to Rome this fall, I spent my first morning back praying in the Blessed Sacrament chapel at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. While there in prayer, it was made clear to me that I wasn’t just coming back to the engine room. Rather, I was returning and entering into the heart of the Church. There in the shrine where St. Paul the Apostle’s mortal remains are entombed, the Lord was gently redirecting my perspective.
I was entering deep into the Sacred Heart of Christ, going into a sort of seclusion for the next several months, going away to a quiet place – the Eternal City! I was brought back once more to draw near to the Lord and to His Apostles Peter and Paul to draw upon their strength during this dark period in the history of the Church. St. Peter and St. Paul knew about dark periods. Even though they were intimate friends of our Savior, they were no strangers to trial and tribulation both within the Church and all around it.
As I said, it was a gentle redirection of my focus. I had been inclined to pay attention to the material, tangible, physical reality of the Church. This physical reality, while very beautiful, also comes with weaknesses, limitations, and sins of Her human members... the engine room. Jesus was redirecting my focus to the beauty of the immaterial, spiritual, and invisible realities such as sanctifying grace, the communion of saints, the Blessed Virgin, and the Most Holy Trinity, which far outstrip those physical elements in importance, power, and goodness. This is the heart of the Church. It is the Heart of Jesus. It is the Heart that St. Peter and St. Paul clung to in the midst of the storms of human failings they endured from within and without.
In the past century-and-a-half, we have a long string of good popes, many of them canonized saints. Even in our own Diocese of Lincoln, we have had and continue to have many good bishops and priests. I suspect I’m not the only one who can easily focus on these physical, material realities, which are very good in themselves, but lose sight of the greater, spiritual realities. We were continually warned in seminary to avoid the “cult of personality,” that is, that people would love us more than they love Jesus Christ. Because of a variety of causes, maybe you, like me, have unknowingly and unintentionally generated that cult of personality precisely because of many good and virtuous men and women in our Diocese and in the Church. Have we focused on how great our bishops or priests or sisters are, but quietly and unwittingly taken our eyes off of Jesus Christ? Jesus was convicting me that, to the degree that I do, I will form a disproportionate reliance and dependence upon the visible structure of the Church. He was convicting me to refocus on His Heart.
Tied to this attention paid to the physical and material elements of the Church seems to be a strain of thought which directly contradicts the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness. Have we fallen into a subtle trap of thinking laypeople are sinners, but the clergy and religious are the holy ones? Consequently, when the priests and bishops fail by committing sin, we find ourselves in a tailspin with our faith being shaken to its core. That is not the teaching of the Church because it is not the teaching of our Lord. On the contrary, everyone is a sinner, everyone is on the road of conversion, and everyone is called to be a saint. Sinful humanity creates the messiness of the engine room, but we are all being called into the Heart of Jesus to be purified and made a new creation.
Now, if we are going to achieve the holiness to which we are all called, then we need help in maintaining focus on Jesus’ heart at a time when we’re constantly reminded of the dirt in “the engine room.” Of course this starts with fostering a relationship with Jesus Christ through daily prayer. When I mention prayer, I ask the question: what kind of prayer will lead us into a real friendship… our hearts being truly united to the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Real friendship isn’t simply repeating a morning offering, a few Hail Mary’s and MAYBE an act of Contrition at the end of the day. These are good things and can lead one into that relationship, but a serious friendship with Christ will require something more. To weather the temptation to remain in “the engine room” in these dark times, we need strength to remain and abide in the Heart of Jesus. We are strengthened to live in the Heart of Jesus through a real relationship with Him. This comes through the Sacraments, meditating with Sacred Scripture, and contemplation. Again, following the “clergy-and-consecrated-are-holy-and-laypeople-are-sinners” ideology, some think the average Catholic is not called to that deep friendship with Christ. While it will certainly look different for laity, priests, and religious, to weather the darkness and remain in the light, we all need an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. He has invited every one of us into a deep and abiding friendship.
Looking back to the difference between the “engine room” and the “Heart”, we might need a gentle reminder – at least I did – that it’s not just about the visible structures of the Church which are important in their own right, but ultimately about the invisible and spiritual reality that founds and drives the Church’s life and mission: union with God the Father in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit. It’s so easy to get distracted by the glitter…or rather the grease, and dirt, and noise.
What do we do in this time when the Lord is purifying and purging His Bride, the Church, of sin? I pray that we are able to do what St. Peter, St. Paul, and all the Saints throughout history were graced to do. That we would place all our focus on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, accepting His invitation to deeper prayer on a daily basis, and refocus the eyes of our minds and hearts on the Sacred Heart of our Lord, entering deeply and hiding in His love daily, so that we all might reject the sin and evil in and around us and become the saints He is calling us to be.