The New Evangelization: Responsibilities and Challenges for the American Continent
Sixteen years ago today, November 16, I began my work as a delegate to the Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops. Those weeks in Rome so many years ago, serving with brothers from around the hemisphere, were an extraordinary education and blessing. They’ve shaped the course of my life as a bishop ever since. Thanks to that meeting, I have on my desk at home a picture of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, a gift from the then-coadjutor archbishop of Buenos Aires. As some of you may know, he has since gone on to other duties.
A lot has changed since 1997. The world is a very different place. For the Church in America, much of the change has been good. Dialogue between bishops North and South has grown. So has cooperation across borders. We differ in language and culture. But these differences are a gift, not an obstacle. As bishops, I think we understand as never before that our common Catholic faith is a bridge that abolishes the distance between us. The only thing that can separate us is our own unwillingness to live what we claim to believe about Jesus Christ and to strengthen the unity we find in him.
We need each other as brothers. And we need to remember that God is always with his Church. The millions of people, especially the young, who greeted Pope Francis so joyfully in Brazil this year were not a mirage. They were not an accident. They were the voice and soul of a continent. The human heart in every age, in every corner of the world, hungers for something more than itself — for something or Someone beyond the horizon of this life. Man needs God. So it has always been. So it will always be. And so too, the message of Jesus Christ will always be life-giving, and the mission of his Church will always remain urgent. As St. Augustine once said, the human heart is restless until it rests in God.
That’s the good news. The more sobering news is this. Much of human history has resembled the drift of tectonic plates, with our learning and culture pushed forward on long, slow currents of time. That season is now over. We live today in a moment of colliding plates; a time unlike anything since the confusion and anxieties of the Reformation; a civilizational change that throws down the old and elevates the new with indifference. As a result, we need to see and respond to the world as it really is. We harm our people and deceive ourselves if we let ourselves become complacent; if we misread the shape of the world now emerging around us.
As Pope Francis told La Repubblica last month, the beginning and the end of life today can be times of equal desperation. The elderly are too often trapped in loneliness, while the young are “crushed under the weight of the present [without] a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something; a future, a family.” Crushed under the weight of the present: These are hard words, but they’re true. And material, programmatic solutions to problems like these, no matter how good they might be, will never work unless they begin with direct human contact and the tenderness of Christian love.
My task today is to talk about the challenges and responsibilities of the American continent in the work of the new evangelization. Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America, did this in a comprehensive way in 1999. I don’t need to repeat its content here.
But we do need to recall that, in his text, John Paul paid special attention to the words “From those who have received much, much will be required” in the Gospel of Luke (12:48). That passage applies not just to the wealthy and powerful persons in our care. It also applies to all of us — we bishops who have the privilege of serving and leading the Church. Ecclesia in America reminds us that “the greatest gift which America has received from the Lord is the faith which has forged its Christian identity” (14). Part of the stewardship of that faith is in our hands. And God will hold us accountable for it.
The challenges we face as a Church in America – pastoral, social, economic and political — are as many as they are serious. I want to focus briefly today on three of those problems. The first two are poverty and drugs. I’ll turn to the third problem in due course. But when we speak of “poverty and drugs,” we probably need to understand those words in a much broader sense than we normally use them.
Ecclesia in America speaks of “social sins which cry to heaven” because they demean human dignity and create hatred and division (56). Poverty is an acid that destroys human kinship. It burns away the bonds of mutual love and obligation that make individuals into a community. The United States is the richest, most powerful nation in history. But one in every six persons in my country now lives below the poverty line. And poverty always, inevitably comes with a family of other ugly issues: hunger, homelessness, street crime, domestic violence, unemployment, human trafficking.
All of these evils now belong to the shadow side of both urban and rural life in my country. They eat away at our sense of justice. They undermine the integrity of our public discourse. The trouble is that the economy of the United States still succeeds so well for so many of its people that the poor become invisible. And being invisible, they can be ignored.
Of course, poverty in the United States is one thing. Poverty in the favelas of Brazil is another. Many people in my country – even when they understand the economic inequalities of Latin America – have no real experience of the human suffering involved. Many of us who live in the North have no experience of poor health care, poor education, poor housing, poor sanitation, no electricity, serious corruption or mass unemployment – at least, not on the scale common to some other countries of America. We have no experience of crippling foreign debt that prevents basic development. And we have no experience of the gulf between rich and poor that exists in other regions of the hemisphere.
None of this subtracts from the economic and political progress made across the continent in recent years. But it does reveal to us another kind of poverty. I mean the moral poverty that comes from an advanced culture relentlessly focused on consuming more of everything; a culture built on satisfying the self; a culture that runs on ignoring the needs of other people. That kind of poverty, as Mother Teresa saw so well, is very much alive in my country. It’s like a parasite of the soul. It leaves us constantly eating but constantly hungry for something more – all the while starving the spirit that makes us truly human.
And like material poverty, moral poverty has consequences. It brings fear of new life, a turning away from children, confused sexuality and broken marriages. It results in greed, depression, ugliness and aggression in our popular culture, and laws without grounding in truth. Real human development takes more – much more – than better science, better management and better consumer goods, though all these things are wonderful in their place. Human happiness can’t be separated from the human thirst for meaning. Material things can’t provide that meaning. Abundance can murder the soul as easily as scarcity can. It’s just a different kind of poverty. This is why Ecclesia in America rightly wondered “whether a pastoral strategy directed almost exclusively to meeting people’s material needs has not in the end left their hunger for God unsatisfied, making them vulnerable to anything which claims to be of spiritual benefit” (73).
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the devil is happy to cure our fevers if he can give us cancer in the process. To heal a suffering man is a noble and beautiful thing. But there’s a difference between dulling his pain, and making him whole and well.
Likewise, solving poverty of the body by replacing it with a starving soul is not a solution. Marx called religion the opiate of the people. But the real opiate of the people – the coca leaves of modern culture that we’re all expected to chew – is the river of consumer comforts and distractions that we use to damp down our deeper hunger for God and our gnawing sense of obligation to so many other people.
Modern life in developed countries is becoming a cocoon of narcotics, from pornography and abortion to crack cocaine. And that brings us to the issue of drugs, the second of the three problems I mentioned at the start. In a way, drugs are just the symptom, not the root cause, of a deeper social dysfunction. Poverty is the more fundamental problem in understanding a troubled society. But the two issues are closely linked. Poverty drives despair, which seeks relief in drugs. Drugs destroy lives, which end up in poverty and crime. The two problems feed on and compound each other.
All of us here know the impact of the drug trade on the life of our continent. Ecclesia in America lists it among the sins that cry out to heaven for justice. Drug-related violence has killed tens of thousands of people. Drug money deforms entire economies. It cripples development. It corrupts law enforcement agencies. It poisons the courts and the political process. It spreads poverty and despair. It traps women and children in prostitution. And it robs young people of the future.
Something genuinely hellish resides in every transaction that profits from the suffering of an innocent young person. That same hellishness infects every man and woman complicit in sustaining the criminal drug industry, from wealthy consumers in New York, to cartel bosses in Mexico, to chemists in the jungles of Colombia. The United States bears special responsibility for the problem because of its enormous demand for the illegal substances. And as Pope Francis stressed in his visit to Brazil earlier this year, decriminalizing the drug trade will not control or solve the drug scourge. Only deeper social and personal reform can do that.
Of course, none of these words about poverty and drugs is new. They’ve all been said before, and said better, by others. The point I want to make in saying them again is that poverty, drugs and so many of the other painful issues facing our people both derive from and make worse a larger crisis of the spirit. It’s a crisis of identity and purpose. It touches every corner of the American continent. It crosses every border and language group. And it brings us to the third of the three problems I hope we can discuss with each other during this pilgrimage.
The third problem is we ourselves; each of us as a believer and bishop; our limitations; our weaknesses. God called us to lead. The Church ordained us to lead. Therefore we’re responsible. Yes, we bishops didn’t create the world in which we now live. Yes, we don’t control most of the factors that will shape the world tomorrow. I also don’t pretend to understand the unique and serious pressures my Latin American brothers face that I don’t. I ask your indulgence for that, and I hope you will add to and correct what I say here according to your experiences.
But I do know that when I spoke at the Special Assembly for America 16 years ago, I spoke from a moral consensus in the United States that was still largely Christian. Today that is no longer the case. I do know that the mass media of the United States shape the appetites, beliefs and prejudices of much of the rest of the world – including Catholic young people – and with few exceptions, these media are no friend to the Catholic faith.
I do know that Mass attendance and sacramental practice have been declining for decades in many North American dioceses, well before the clergy abuse crisis of recent years. And I do know that millions of Catholics in my country and Canada are baptized and even catechized, but they don’t know Jesus Christ — and therefore, for many of them, the language of Catholic Scripture, Catholic worship and Catholic moral reasoning is incomprehensible.
Again, we bishops are responsible – not for every failure; not for every mistake; and not for things over which we have no influence or control. But we do have the duty to examine ourselves and our work honestly; to correct each other frankly; to reform our hearts; and to give our lives zealously, completely, without counting the cost, to serving God and our people. A friend once sent me a line from the English poet, T.S. Eliot, and it has stayed in my memory ever since: For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. Success in the work of evangelization belongs to God, in his own time, in his own way. But the work belongs to us, now. And it needs to involve more than passing along good doctrine. It needs to lead our people – including the well-catechized – to embrace Jesus Christ and his teaching in a new, more personal way.
I want to turn now, in this last part of my comments, to the duties we have as a body of Catholic brothers in the task of the new evangelization. And we might begin with a few words from Augustine, who served the Church as a bishop in a world not unlike our own. In his Sermons, Augustine once wrote:
Whoever does not want to fear, let him probe his inmost self. Do not just touch the surface; go down into yourself; reach into the farthest corner of your heart.
Here’s what that means.
In an immediate sense, we need to be honest – and at times, that will mean self-critical – in the workgroup sessions that lie before us tomorrow. For example, Ecclesia in America rightly notes that “one of the reasons for the Church’s influence on the Christian formation of Americans is her vast presence in the field of education, and especially in the university world … Another important area in which the Church is present in every part of America is social and charitable work” (18). The achievements of Catholic higher education in America are beyond question. But it’s also true that today, some Catholic universities and colleges, and some Catholic charitable ministries, seem to be “Catholic” in name only. Are we willing to admit this? And are we willing to do something about it?
The title of the session I chair tomorrow – Workgroup 8 – is “The missionary activity of the Church in colleges, universities and institutes of higher education.” It may very well be that the Church’s missionary outreach at secular institutions is now more fruitful and a better use of resources than her presence on the campuses of many self-described “Catholic” universities. And I find that curious and sad.
In the longer term, we need to grasp that the “new” evangelization is finally very much like the “old” evangelization. We need to understand the hopes and fears of today’s world, and especially its young adults. And we need to master the new technologies and methods to reach people as they are today. But programs and techniques don’t convert the human heart. Only the witness of other people can do that. We can’t give what we don’t have. If we as bishops don’t have a passion for Jesus Christ, a zeal for his Church and humility about our own weaknesses, then we’ll never be able to set others on fire with the Gospel. Our own tepid hearts and pride will block the way.
We also need to see that the longer our history is as a local Church, and the greater our Catholic legacy and institutions might be as a diocese, then the more encumbered we are by nostalgia, and the harder it is to think creatively about the future. The past is important. We need to remember and revere it. It anchors us in the on-going story of the Church and gives us our identity. But the past cannot be allowed to capture us. The past too easily becomes a kind of aerodynamic drag; an enemy of the nimbleness and radicalism we need in touching the lives of other people with our Christian witness.
If this temptation to inertia is true about the Church in Philadelphia after 250 years — and too often it is — then we need to be equally frank about the Church elsewhere in America, where her structures and history are much older.
We need, finally and urgently, to work together more closely to protect the dignity of families who find themselves caught between the poverty of their lives in the South and immigration laws in the North that often seem incoherent, unreasonable and even vindictive. To borrow again the words of Pope Francis, too many immigrants find themselves “crushed by the weight of the present” – a present marked by gridlock in Washington, ambivalence and fear among many people in the North, and a pressing need to build a better life among so many people in the South.
The right to life begins with the unborn child. Nothing can excuse the violence or mitigate the evil of abortion. In my country, the cult of abortion has poisoned our laws, our public discourse and even the faith and integrity of many people who consider themselves Christians.
But the right to life continues beyond the womb. To thrive, children need families with a mother and father; and the integrity of the family depends on the freedom of parents to seek work, earn an honest wage, and support each other and the children that God sends to them.
Laws that cripple a family’s right to survive and find work, even across borders when necessary, attack the family itself. And in harming the family, bad laws attack the basic cell of human society. The rights of the family connect intimately to the issue of justice in today’s immigration debates. And in that spirit, I ask you and your people to please, please join us in Philadelphia in 2015 for the next World Meeting of Families. The world urgently needs to see a witness of Christian family solidarity from across our continent – hundreds of thousands strong — that transcends language, color, culture and borders.
I want to conclude with this last thought.
More than 500 years ago, men came from the Old World of Europe to the New World of America. They brought with them their pride and avarice, their illnesses and sins. But they also brought a treasure beyond price — the Word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And this continent we now share is different and better because of it. My own Native American ancestors, people of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, heard the Gospel preached by Holy Cross and Jesuit missionaries and chose to be baptized. They passed down to me the greatest gift of my life, my Catholic faith.
The New World of the conquistadors became, in too many ways, a world of power and greed and the abuse of human dignity. In our day, God calls us to build a new “New World” – a world of mercy, justice, patience and love. A new “New World” founded on the words of his Son: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:6-10).
The biggest obstacle to that new “New World” is not the enemies who hate us, and not the unbelievers who revile the Church and the Gospel. The biggest obstacle is the Old World that lives in our own hearts, even in those of us who are bishops, and maybe especially in some of us who are bishops: our pride, our cowardice, our lack of trust in the promises of God.
Jesus said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). We need to make those words come alive in the flesh and blood of our own lives; and in the passion of our own Christian witness. In these final days of the Year of Faith, as we pray together here at Mary’s great shrine, may Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Star of the New Evangelization, lead each of us to be made new in her Son – Jesus Christ the Word of God; Jesus Christ the Lord, Jesus Christ the King of this world, and all worlds.
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