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Reform in the Church and in Society


The Church, made up as she is of people, is constantly in need of renewal and reform. Any living thing be it a plant, a human body or a social organism needs constantly to be renewed, or it will become moribund. Spiritual renewal, when it occurs in human life and is done under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, often is also a reform, that is, a return to basic principles, a refocusing on basic goals.

This process of renewal in the Church is more or less constant over the centuries, although there are times when the need for reform is more obvious and intense. At times the Church needs a deep and comprehensive reform, when a soul-searching process of examination and change must take place. Such a process may require several decades and is often the occasion of great conflicts and even schisms. The process of major reform is most frequently begun when things in the Church are in a very bad decline. Usually such a time of major reform is also a period of activity by outstanding saints, and we are reminded of Saint Paul's observation that where sin abounded, grace did more abound. The most startling example of such a reform in the history of the Catholic Church was the conflict at the beginning of the sixteenth century that led to the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation. This was also the occasion of the Protestant Reformation and the end of the unity of Western Christianity.

A Time of Major Reform?

The times we live in do not yet appear to me to demand a major reform like that of Trent. The Church is not in such a bad state as she was then. The last several Popes have been, without exception, men of genuine spiritual qualities and of great ability and compassion. No scandals have rocked the whole Church as they did in the age of the Borgias. No great outcry demanding reform echoes through the Church today. Despite much theological and political confusion, the basic structures of the Church, though challenged, do not appear to be crumbling as they were in the sixteenth century, when whole nations could leave the Church in a decade, thus reversing the loyalty of a thousand years. We do not yet seem to need a reform in the sense that saints from Catherine of Siena to Ignatius Loyola had to call for.

What we have lived through, in Arbuckle's words, is a revolution of expressive disorder followed by a period of cultural chaos.(1) This cultural chaos did not originate in the Church but, as it were, hit every structure in the civilized world, setting off reactions as diverse as the Red Guards in China and the hippies in the United States. At this writing in 1990, it appears again to be influencing the Communist countries profoundly. We have also lived through a time when the Church was attempting to adjust to immense changes in social life, especially the end of the aristocracy and generally of the peasantry and the emergence of a predominantly middle-class society. Changes in politics, economics, international relations, science, technology and human thought occurred in the last one hundred years with tidal-wave speed. Only eight pontificates ago most European countries were governed by royalty. There have been only nine pontificates since the French ambassador to Italy sent word back that the last of the Popes, Plus IX, had just died.

The Second Vatican Council was a momentous and historical event pushing the ship of the Church away from the dock of western European civilization and preparing it, like no other large civil government has been prepared, for the coming of the age of supertechnology and a single economic world community. As disturbed as the Church is, she is probably better prepared for the twenty-first century than is any other world organization. Neither the capitalist nations nor the socialist countries in their varying degrees of communal economy appear even to be thinking of what to do in the new single world economy that comes upon us all for good or ill.

This statement of the Church's readiness may sound contradictory to what we have said with respect to the need for reform. The fact is that the Church as a whole may still need to continue the process of renewal, but she does not yet need an overall reform like that of Trent. What is needed very badly is reform in the Church, not of the Church. I will explain what I mean by this distinction.

Reform in the Church

This phrase is meant to convey that those who live in the Church need to reform their own lives so as to preclude the necessity for a large-scale reform of the Church in the future. The structures of the Church are not in a state of decay as they were immediately before the Reformation. The appalling examples of religious ignorance and superstition, the moral scandal and conflict that characterized the last decades before the Reformation do not exist today.

It is a sobering thought, however, that powerful voices for reform in the Church had been raised in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries before things became so bad. There were Catherine of Siena, whom we have already mentioned, and her fellow citizen Saint Bernardine. The fiery Savanarola had tried to call the Church in Italy to reform. In England and Germany spiritual writers of great prowess and lasting value were the mystics of the time. The authors of the Imitation of Christ and The Cloud of Unknowing, writers such as Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, Blessed John Ruysbroeck, Blessed Henry Suso and many others formed what Evelyn Underhill refers to as a network of spiritual believers in unbelieving times.(2) But they were not able to call forth a reform in the Church, so the reform of the Church became imperative. Sadly and for many reasons that had little to do with the teachings of the Gospel, the reform came too late.

How Long Do We Have?

We live at a moment when reform in the Church is still possible and what is needed. How much time do we have before reform of the Church will be the only answer? How long will it take before moral confusion rises to the level of worldwide scandal, and the only way out will be through a powerful reformist spirit that will be vulnerable to becoming severe and repressive a neo Jansenism, which like the original would be a reaction to a time of moral decadence? How long will it be before unbridled theological speculation combined with widespread religious ignorance will spark a counterreaction capable of suppressing not only the erroneous but also the legitimately creative? Unfortunately, the fact that in the past it took the Church a century or two to arrive at a degree of decline requiring a full-scale reform does not at all imply that it will take as long now. Communications have accelerated the changes of history to an inconceivable speed. The rise and fall of the Nazis, the spread of the totalitarian systems and the significant reverses of apparently ironclad policies in Russia almost overnight suggest that powerful changes in direction can also take place in the Church in very short periods of time. Therefore, we do not have decades to decide whether or not we should pursue reform.

For all Christians in the Western capitalist nations the need for reform of personal life is imperative. To ignore this call is dangerous and might leave one at the end of life to face a charge of negligence and omission before the Lord Himself. This negligence might lead to inestimable spiritual damage and immense suffering for the generation that is being born right now. The frightening fact that large numbers of young people find the Church irrelevant and totally unchallenging suggests that the last chance of reform in the Church rather than reform of the Church is passing before our eyes.

Personal Reform: The Place to Start

In his History of the Popes, Ludwig Pastor credits a Genovese laywoman, Catherine Adorno (Saint Catherine of Genoa), with beginning the effective reform of the Church on the eve of the Reformation.(3) She lived in the worst of spiritual times. The attempted reform of the Church at the Fourth Lateran Council failed because bishops did not take seriously the call for reform and were embroiled in their own corruption and confusion. Although there were good Christians everywhere in the hierarchy, clergy and laity, there were so much ignorance, scandal and materialism that few seriously heeded the call to reform.

Catherine began a movement of personal individual reform called the Oratory of Divine Love. It was basically no more than a series of prayer groups, in which individuals strove to lead a good Christian life guided by the Scriptures and the lives of the saints and motivated to do works of charity. Catherine herself was director of a huge hospital for the poor. She died in 1511. Martin Luther was actually one of the many people who felt her influence and was struggling to work for the reform of the Church at that time. Catherine's work was not in vain, even though the split in Christianity came, because she began the Catholic Reformation and even influenced the piety of Protestantism.(4)

Catherine's deep conviction was that reform had to begin with the individual. She lived in a time when the reform of the Church itself was needed. Not only were her prayer groups, or oratories, as they were called, very popular, but also her movement affected in one way or another almost every major Catholic reformer after her death. The great reformers of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century all assumed that her basic principle was correct, namely, that reform had to begin with the individual. They all agreed that reform must be founded on prayer and expressed by charity to one's neighbor, especially the poor, and by love of God. All the Catholic reformers insisted on a deep personal piety, which psychologically galvanized all the potentials of the individual into action: intelligence, memory, will, emotion and even the intuitive powers.

Where Does the Individual Begin?

Clare of Assisi and Catherine of Genoa scarcely ever left their hometowns, and when they did, they stayed in the immediate neighborhood. They began where they were. Clare was led by Christ through Francis, and Catherine claimed to be led only by the Holy Spirit. They began their reforms right where they were, and they began with repentance and continued on with constant self-examination and reliance on God. Like the modern members of Alcoholics Anonymous, they acknowledged their powerlessness to do anything without help from above. They confessed that they were poor sinners, worked for others and made amends for what they believed were their faults. As we mentioned in Chapter Two, the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (see Appendix One) are classic descriptions of any truly Christian conversion, including the conversion of these two great women saints.

Clare's poverty and Catherine's total dedication to the divine will are both reflections of the absolutism of repentance. Each speaks of the total desire to do God's will as it is known and to accept the vicissitudes of life as His permissive will. Both of these attitudes are reflected in the famous Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Prayer for Serenity

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

The absolutism of conversion something that in itself goes against the grain of contemporary selfism is perhaps best expressed in the total acceptance of God's will, which is the very heart of the poverty of Francis and Clare and the motivating force of the divine love of Catherine of Genoa.

Along with seeking personal reform in the various departments of life that we have outlined in the previous chapters, the individual must be willing to work to accept the divine will in all its mysteries. This is the key to true reform.

There are several powerful and brief classics of the spiritual life that describe this total acceptance. The writings of Julian of Norwichs(5) and Brother Lawrence(6) are fine examples of what Father Larranaga describes as the high-speed method to personal spiritual growth.(7)

Perhaps the most moving and intellectually powerful statement of the principle of acceptance of the divine will is Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. This entire book can be read with great personal profit. The following quotation from this major classic can give the reader some idea of the force of personal reform that is at hand and that can be found in anyone brave enough to wish to follow Christ's call to repentance and reform.

The huge, unyielding rock that shelters the soul from all storms is the divine will, which is always there, though hidden beneath the veil of trials and the most commonplace actions. Deep within those shadows is the hand of God to support and carry us to complete self-abandonment. And when a soul has arrived at this sublime state it need fear nothing which is said against it, for there is no longer anything for it to say or do in self-defense. Since it is the work of God, we must not try to justify it. Its effects and its consequences will vindicate it enough. There is nothing to be done but let them unfold. If we no longer rely on our own ideas, we must not try to defend ourselves with words, for words can only express our ideas. So, no ideas, no words. What use would they be? To give reasons for our behavior? But we do not know these reasons, for they are hidden in the source of our actions, and from that source we have received only influences we can neither describe nor understand. So we must let the consequences justify themselves. Every link in this divine chain is unbreakable, and the meaning of what has happened earlier is seen in the consequences which follow. The soul no longer lives in a world of thoughts, of imagination, of endless words. Now these no longer occupy it; neither do they nourish or sustain it. It no longer sees where it is going or where it will go. It relies no longer on its own ideas to help it to bear the weariness and difficulties of the journey. It carries on with a profound conviction of its own weakness. But with each step the road widens, and, having started, the soul advances along it without hesitation. It is innocent, simple and faithful and follows the straight path of God's commandments, relying on him, whom it meets continually along this path.(8)

Is There Another Way?

The diseases of materialism, selfism, cynicism and religious skepticism are so widespread and acute in our society and so pervasive in our culture that I do not believe there is any way other than personal conversion to work toward . The Vatican Council's renewal was, as we have said, a very productive blessing. But the spiritual sicknesses of our time are destroying its good effects and turning its fruits sour and even poisonous. Deep-seated illnesses need radical cures.

We have lived through years of external changes and so-called reforms that have produced few spiritual results at the present time. Every conceivable aspect of Christian life has been questioned, reappraised, moved around and restated. The distressing decline of active church participation, the disaffection of large numbers of young people and the general spiritual apathy continue to grow. The time has come to stop talking and start on the long, painful road of personal conversion and reform. Then and then only can true reform happen in the Church.

Reform in Society

It has been one of the most important contributions of Vatican II to emphasize that a privatized spirituality with only token contributions to human growth and well-being is inappropriate for Christians. This emphasis by the Council and postconciliar spiritual writers has corrected some imbalance in the popular piety that preceded the Council. Nowhere in the Church has this change in emphasis been more obvious than in Latin America. A Christian spirituality unrelated to human needs, both spiritual and physical, is a contradiction of the Gospel, and no matter how austere and prayerful it is in itself, it is in need of reform.

However, societal reform is not the same as revolution or even reorganization. Both revolution and its more gradual counterpart, reorganization (like the New Deal of the 1930s), can flow from spiritual reform, but they seldom do. There are exceptional cases in Church history, such as the civilizing effects of Benedictine monasticism in the Dark Ages or the more limited reform of medieval society effected by Saint Francis and the whole peace movement of the friars and tertiaries. In contrast, the political upheaval of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was scarcely the work of deeply spiritual reformers. As a result, the humanitarian goals often proposed by the organizers of the various revolutions were usually overshadowed by cruelty and the merciless severity that accompanied these reforms. One must recall that Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler all saw themselves as reformers of society. None of them had any values that were in the remotest sense spiritual; their revolutions were drenched with blood, and their reforms were contradictions of their stated goals. None of them had the slightest interest in any personal spiritual reform as described by the Gospel.

Occasionally political revolutionaries and reformers give evidence of values related to spirituality or the Gospel. However, I know of no case where any of these have spoken seriously of their own need for repentance and reform. However sincere their efforts, the results are often short lived and usually accompanied by bloodshed and arbitrary uses of power. Even in the stabilized governments of what is presumptuously called the "Free World", one almost never hears any suggestion that a leader ought to examine his conscience or admit his powerlessness to do anything good without the help of God.

Personal Reform and Societal Change

Modern society tolerates immense discrepancies between rich and poor, an atrocious lack of mercy to the unborn, a disregard for the physically ill who are indigent, a callous lack of protection of its youth against drugs and violence. This society desperately needs reform. There is a widespread fear in the intellectual world that we are heading toward global disaster, if not extinction. The individual feels powerless to do anything in the face of such overwhelming pressure. However, if even a relatively small number of people were to try to influence their own environment by following a Christian life of personal reform, change might indeed occur. It has long been alleged that Lenin complained on his deathbed that if he had had ten men like Francis of Assisi he could have changed the world. What would the modern world be like if Lenin himself had tried to be one of the ten and had approached his career with the values of Saint Francis?

If there had been someone in Lenin's youth who had seriously embodied Gospel values as Saint Francis did, the world might be incomparably better today.

This writer has been personally convinced by a lifetime of work with the poor in what is called the richest city in the world that Western capitalist society desperately needs reform. Nothing I have ever heard has suggested to me that the Eastern bloc, despite its expressed goals, has any effective means of producing a societal reform to make life more decent and human for all. Is it too utopian to think that people seeking personal reform according to the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospel can effect some reform of society? Several important changes for the better in global human relations have been accomplished in this century by people who claimed to be motivated by a spiritual personal reform. Names such as Dag Hammarskjold, Pope John XXIII and Mother Teresa come to mind. In non-Christian societies persons of spiritual values who confronted their own shortcomings and sought personal reform have brought about a number of positive social changes. Gandhi and U Thant provide outstanding examples. It is not unrealistic at all to suggest that a person seeking to express his own conversion in acts of justice and peace toward others can effect real change. In contrast, those who undertake to reform the world without first reforming themselves are likely to be at best sounding brass and tinkling cymbals and at worst blood-drenched tyrants and despots.

Challenge to Everyone

When we consider the serious problems in the Church and the magnitude of the dangerous conflicts and injustices in society, we can be simply appalled and completely intimidated. It is so easy just to walk away or hide in prayer and religious devotions and let the world go on its way to the apocalypse. This is not a legitimate way to follow the humble Carpenter Who, from the shore of a little lake in Galilee, started out to change the world. You respond, of course, that He had God on His side. So do we. But He was the only begotten Son of God. But, I reply, we are God's adopted children, and He Himself has promised to be with us to the end of the ages. Any great journey begins with one step and continues on with a momentum gathered with each succeeding step.

Mother Teresa once confided to me that if she had not picked up the first homeless man in Calcutta four decades ago, she would never have been able to help hundreds of thousands who are dependent on her and her sisters and brothers today. We have to start and keep going. We cannot all be Mother Teresa, but we can be who we are supposed to be. What we lack is the willingness to try and the trust to go on. I will not change the world or the Church at least I hope not, because if I were to change them I would probably change them for the worse. Only God changes things for the better. But He does this through us if we give Him the opportunity to use us. There is no limit to how much God gives us except the limits that we put on Him by our self-centeredness and lack of trust. We must constantly be aware of the limits we place and must relentlessly push these limits back.

I once sat in a totally unpredictable place talking to a person who has accomplished completely unexpected things for the kingdom of God. Mother Angelica, a cloistered Poor Clare, has developed a satellite television network, EWTN, adjacent to her convent in Birmingham, Alabama. With no regular source of income she provides religious television every day to millions of homes. Mother Angelica frightened me out of my wits by confiding, "Often, in the gray light of dawn, a chill comes over me. I ask what more I could have done if I had really trusted God." At first I thought that this was a touching humility, but as I thought about it I realized that she was right. We can always do more if we try to push back the limitations set by our own fears and shame.

Clare of Assisi no doubt heard from the friars the account of the last words of Saint Francis, "Let us begin now, because so far we have done nothing." She did begin again. So can I. So can you.


  1. Gerald Arbuckle, Strategies for Growth in Religious Life (New York: Alba House, 1986).

  2. Evelyn Underhill, The Mystics of the Church (New York: Schockren, 1964), I53.

  3. Ludwig Pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, trans. F.I. Antrobus, R. F. Kerr et al., as quoted in John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: From Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 16.

  4. See S. Hughes, and B. Groeschel, eds., Catherine of Genoa (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).

  5. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, eds., Julian of Norwich (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

  6. Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Old Tappan, NJ.: Spire Books, Fleming H. Revell, 1978).

  7. Ignacio Larranaga, O.F.M.Cap., Sensing Your Hidden Presence: Toward Intimacy with God (New York: Doubleday, 198'7), 87f.

  8. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, trans. John Beevers (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 109, 110.


Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R. "Reform in the Church and in Society." In The Reform of Renewal (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 185-199.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. The Reform of Revewal ISBN 0-89870-286-0.


Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR is the Director of the Office for Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York and the founder of the Trinity Retreat Center, for prayer and study for the clergy. He holds a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University and is currently a Professor of Pastoral Studies at St. Joseph's Seminary of the Archdiocese of New York. He is one of the founding members of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal which is dedicated to preaching, reform and providing care for the homeless in the South Bronx, Harlem, London and Honduras. He is the author of a large number of books and tapes, including The King Crucified and Risen: Meditations on the Passion and Glory of Christ; Arise from Darkness; From Scandal to Hope (2002); The Cross at Ground Zero (2001); Praying in the Presence of the Lord with the Saints (2001); The Journey Toward God (2000); In the Presence of Our Lord: The History, Thought and Psychology of Eucharistic Devotion (1996); A Still Small Voice: A Practical Guide on Reported Revelations (1993); and The Reform of Revewal which may be ordered here.

Copyright 1990 Ignatius Press



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved