Back in 1870, the Italian states decided they wanted to form a single country, and that included the Papal States, which took up a big chunk of the middle of present Italy. The Papal States were governed politically by the Pope since the 8th century, meaning for 1100 years the Pope was the political leader of a sizeable state. So when the Italian states wanted to unify, and take away temporal authority of the Pope, the Pope said, “No way”. So, the Italian states started to take the Papal states by force.
The Pope said, “No way,” all the way until finally there was nothing left for the church except the Vatican. So, by 1871, the new Italian government offered to give popes honorific status, if they gave up their political position as head of state. But the Pope said, “No”, to the extent that he even refused to leave the Vatican and enter Italian territory, because that would admit that he would not be sovereign in those places where he thought he should be. So, the Pope stayed completely inside the Vatican, never leaving it, and a stalemate was reached.
Do you know that subsequent Popes continued the same approach for 59 years? The phrase that caught on was, Prisoner of the Vatican. That means that for 59 years, no Pope ever left the Vatican, for any reason. Not only that, they did not appear in St. Peter’s square or at the balcony. Popes remained squirrelled away in defensive mode through the First World War, until in 1929 the Lateran Treaty established Vatican City, where the Pope could be head of state and sovereign. The great Papal States had become the smallest country in the world.
Now what’s the significance of all this? Well, in 1870, when the Pope had all his property and political roles to worry about, did he have the time to actually be a pastor and visit and minister to the Catholics around the world? Certainly not. But now you’ve got all the Popes since the second half of the 20th century free to go and actually meet Catholics and Christians and everyone where they are. They are able to be pastors and spiritual fathers to the believers and members of the church. Politically they are now insignificant. But spiritually, they are powerhouses.
That’s what happens when God prunes. When someone or some institution or community grows in God’s grace, eventually the institutional and political structures begin to dry out the spiritual. The branches and leaves of the tree draw the tree’s energy from being able to produce fruit. That’s when God comes with the pruning. He cuts away all the political, financial, reputation, and property power and makes us small again. He lops the whole thing down to a nub. And He sends the “secular” state or culture to do the job.
The key is, not to fight it. Don’t go kicking and screaming like the Popes did.
In fact, do the opposite: advance it along.
When Jesus comes in the Gospel, his first invitation is to give up everything and follow him. Leave your possessions. Give up your work. Sell all that you have. Become small with me. He is saying, prune yourself, so that God doesn’t have to do it by force. Do you know that about 35 years after Jesus said all of that, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and the Temple, which was destroyed, was never built again. God was pruning His people. That’s what John the Baptist meant when he said, “Who warned you to flee from God’s coming wrath? … Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” (Lk 3:7,9) The pruning is coming: either you prune yourself and experience God’s mercy and become a renewed spiritual powerhouse, or defend yourself and experience the Justice and be burned out. Jesus went about saying, “Prune yourselves and follow me and it will awesome – but the alternative is to be pruned by force.”
Everywhere you go in the church and western culture, the pruning that started with the Popes and Vatican continues. One way or the other, the church and western culture is being pruned. But look to the Gospel as a guide. Look to what happened to the Popes. Don’t become defensive and possessive. Losing wealth, status, political clout, or comfort might seem to be humiliating and make you seem insignificant. It might look like you’re losing the “culture war” or the “true faith” or that the doctrine is being lost. It might seem like it’s time to double down on defending the church, or resurrecting the glory days, hugging the traditions, or making the culture great again. Don’t fall for the temptation to refuse the invitation to become small, because to be pruned by force is very painful.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 16:25)
No, don’t be afraid of the pruning.
It will make you a spiritual powerhouse.
“Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (Jn 15:2)