Thanks for the Fleas

Originally published in The Catholic Faith magazine, July-August 1996
Originally published in The Catholic Faith magazine, July-August 1999

The story is told of a World War II prison camp in which Catholic priests were kept in a particularly dirty and flea-ridden stalag. Constantly struggling against their tiny tormentors, they thanked God for the fleas, as we all are called to thank God for our afflictions. One day, they realized that the guards never interfered with their daily Mass or their Liturgy of the Hours, although religious activity in the other stalags was immediately stopped. They never understood until they heard a new guard suggest an inspection of the priests’ stalag and the experienced guard’s reply, “Oh, I never go in there. That one’s full of fleas.”

From the beginning, God has allowed the great drama of evil to run its course. At Eden, God created a Tree of Knowledge in the garden, so that Adam and Eve by obedience could show their love for him. When Adam and Eve fell God banished them, and all their descendants, from earthly paradise. Adam and Eve had two children who survived to father descendants. Cain, the evil son, killed his brother Abel and fathered a line whose evil ways passed down to Lamech, who also killed a man. Seth, the good son, fathered a line that revered God. But then the daughters of men, Cain’s line, seduced the sons of God, Seth’s line, and became corrupt. Then God brought the rains that killed every living thing on earth except those on Noah’s ark.

Fast-forward several thousand years. Rabbi Yeshua chose Judas Iscariot as an apostle. Two thousand years ago we would have told him, “Master, You and Your apostles have scarcely enough to eat, and this man is stealing from You. His love of money may tempt him even to betray You.” But Rabbi Yeshua would only have answered, “Be still, and know that I am God” Ps 46:10.

Holy Mother Church, like so many of us, works hardest in response to challenge. The tree of early Christianity was watered by the blood of martyrs. Every martyr who walked confidently toward the lions in the arena singing Christian hymns convinced many more that Rabbi Yeshua, God’s Mashiakh, had conquered death.

The Church has always been driven by challenge. A priest named Arius taught that Rabbi Yeshua was not God but merely the highest of God’s creatures. In response, the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD produced the Nicene Creed, a beautiful miniature catechism that defined Catholic teaching about Rabbi Yeshua, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” The Arians stubbornly persisted, but the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD completed and confirmed the Nicene Creed. Nestorius, a bishop of Constantinople, denied that Mary could be theotokos, Mother of God, because he did not want to risk confusion between the divine and human. The Council of Ephesus in 431 AD affirmed that Mary is indeed the Mother of God.

A British monk named Pelagius denied that human nature was corrupted by original sin; if it were so, man would not need God’s grace to avoid sin and find salvation. The Second Council of Orange in 529 AD emphasized the absolute need for God’s grace to do good, as well as for human cooperation to accept God’s grace.

Fast-forward another thousand years. Again the Barque of Peter did its best work when challenged. The sixteenth century Reformation led Holy Mother Church to convene the Council of Trent, which produced the Catechism of the Council of Trent, codified the magnificent Tridentine Mass, formally declared the St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate as the Catholic Bible, and clarified Catholic teaching on original sin, justification, and the sacraments.

During recent decades we have seen heretical bishops, priests and deacons. Each at his ordination had solemnly promised lifelong obedience to the Magisterium. We see heretical nuns who had made solemn vows of obedience. Repudiation of a solemn promise or vow is prima facie evidence that a person is unreliable.

Most of the heretics are aging, at the peak of their power now but with no inspired followers. They have infiltrated many of the few remaining seminaries, so that young priests coming in today are exposed to heresy. But these young priests want to be holy. When they learn the truth they joyfully embrace it.

Rabbi Yeshua warned us, “False Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” Mt 24:24. He will allow the great drama to play out. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 677, tells us, “The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection.”

The tree of Christianity is once again being watered by the blood of martyrs. During the twentieth century more people have died for the Faith than in all of the preceding nineteen centuries. We faithful too may soon follow our Lord in his death and Resurrection.

As the Church follows her Lord into his death, the apostates and the lukewarm fall away as leaves in winter. Many Catholics may continue to depart from the Church. But the faithful Remnant of Israel, like Noah and his family, will be enough for Holy Mother Church to follow her Lord into his glorious Resurrection. As our Lord rose from the dead in his glorified body 1 Cor 15:42-44, so the Church, his bride, will rise in glory through the deeply faithful few who held fast.

The fleas’ efforts to sink the Barque of Peter will have the opposite effect. As Rabbi Yeshua used Judas Iscariot’s betrayal to redeem the world, He is now using the fleas to purify his Church. The heretics pushed St. John Paul II to write a collection of magnificent encyclicals and other writings that teach the Faith brilliantly and beautifully. The pope’s great Trinitarian trilogy, Redemptor Hominis (1979), Dives in Misericordia (1980), and Dominum et Vivicantem (1986), begins with Christ the Redeemer, continues with the Father who is rich in mercy, and ends with the Holy Spirit who gives us life. Mary is always near Rabbi Yeshua, so Redemptoris Mater (1987) is with the Trinitarian trilogy. His trilogy of social encyclicals, Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Centesimus Annus (1991) clarify the Church’s teaching on public life. St. John Paul II’s two great moral encyclicals, Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Evangelium Vitae (1995) clarify the Church’s overall understanding of morality and focus on the greatest moral issue of our age. His great philosophic encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) makes clear the nature of human contemplation of truth so that, by knowing and loving God, we may come to the fullness of truth about ourselves.

Betrayers cannot break the Church; they can only break themselves against it. Rabbi Yeshua told us, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” Mk 14:21. Rabbi Yeshua is using the heretics’ betrayal to purify his faithful, but the heretics who led so many astray, beyond our seeing, will answer to Rabbi Yeshua. He will ask them whether they had seen his words, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” Mt 18:6.

Let us engage the fleas, reminding them constantly that they are prodigal sons, squandering their inheritance from the Church in an effort to destroy it, and that they have only two alternatives. They can return to the Faith in true contrition and seek God’s mercy, or they can persist and face his justice. Let us pray for their conversion.

But let us also thank God for the fleas.