The documents of Vatican II frequently refer to the Church on earth as the “pilgrim Church.” This image emphasizes the truth that we are a people who are on a journey to our true home. We need the supernatural virtue of hope–the virtue of the pilgrim–to remain faithful to the Lord, trusting in His infinite goodness and promises.
In choosing to emphasize the “pilgrim” nature of the Church, the Council did not use the more familiar term “Church militant” to distinguish the faithful on earth from those already in heaven (Church triumphant) or in purgatory (Church suffering). Yet the Church has not scrapped military imagery in referring to the spiritual life. As the Catechism teaches: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle” (no. 2015).
I can fill up this entire blog with quotes from Scripture as well as writings of Church Fathers and doctors that use terms such as “soldiers,” “battle,” and “weapons” to describe the Christian life. Like athletics, warfare provides us with terms and concepts that help us understand our vocation to holiness.
Part of the reticence in using military imagery today is surely the result of our own painful experience of armed conflict, having just lived through the bloodiest century in human history. We understand that war must truly be a last resort, undertaken justly and only when there is no other way to defend ourselves.
However, in the case of our perennial conflict with the forces of evil, there should be no doubt as to the justice and necessity of waging full-scale spiritual war. The Enemy has invaded our souls, our families, and our country, and we need the courage and steadfast resolve to give no ground to his advances. When it comes to salvation, pacifism is a losing proposition. Unless we proactively fight against sin, we’ll be swept aside. Just look at the Church in much of what used to be Catholic Europe.
The battle for our eternal souls is not a fair fight. Even though we have been washed through the waters of Baptism, we still have to contend with concupiscence, which is the inclination to sin that remains after Baptism (cf. Catechism, no. 1426). So, when it comes to the spiritual life, mere détente–or “casual Catholicism”–just doesn’t work. Just as we don’t negotiate with terrorists, in no way can we accommodate sin in our lives. Conversion to Christ necessarily implies the goal of total victory against sin, and our choices and actions must be ordered to this goal.
We have all experienced the hassles and inconveniences brought about by terrorist threats. Nowhere is this more evident than at airports, where even the simplest domestic flight now entails intense scrutiny and exacting protocols. We accept these post-9/11 changes as the price of our safety. Even though the chance that any particular air traveler is a terrorist is miniscule, we recognize that the significant risk of massive casualties more than justifies such precautions.
While protecting ourselves and our country from physical harm is very important, Our Lord tells us to take even further precautions against those forces that can harm the soul (see Mt. 10:28).
In that light, what is our approach to the spiritual terrorism of our culture–especially as represented by the entertainment, fashion, and advertising industries? What sort of “homeland security” do we have in place to protect ourselves? Is it too much of a hassle or inconvenience to swim upstream? Do we have the resolve to wage spiritual war against the intrusive, intolerant secularism that surrounds us?
Those are the sorts of questions I ask myself each morning. I know this is an enemy that far exceeds my feeble powers of resistance. And I must humbly admit that I’m a wimp, that “in [my] struggle against sin, [I] have not yet resisted to the point of shedding [my] blood” (Heb. 12:4).
That’s why I think devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, is so important. Her appearance to St. Juan Diego in the 16th century brought about the conversion of millions and the remarkable transformation of a pagan, infanticidal culture. Through her intercession, similar results can be expected today.
We are not alone. Christ gave the Church His Holy Spirit to strengthen us in holiness and equip us for the labors set before us. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses–the saints–who in every age have thirsted for holiness and purity of heart.
And now it’s our turn to answer the challenge. May we lift our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees (Heb. 12:12) for the battle that lies ahead. We have not yet begun to fight!