Even Catholic social transformation must be rooted in prayer
In a very interesting series of “meditations for a post post-Christian era”, Jesuit Fr. Robert McTeigue shares what is essentially a journal of his thoughts during the COVID era of 2020-2021, under the arresting title of Christendom Lost and Found. In his own reflective and anecdotal way, Fr. McTeigue emphasizes the perception that if we are not seeking to shape a society that is Christian in every possible respect, we aren’t really living a fully Christian life.
Of course, the title is a challenge because the term “Christendom” was coined to describe a particular manifestation of a predominantly Catholic social order which inescapably also included enormous human flaws. But Fr. McTeigue’s essential insight is unquestionably sound: For Christians who are not merely nominally so, it may be necessary but it is never satisfactory or even sufficient to live in a social order divorced from Jesus Christ.
I would argue that the Christians of the first few centuries—who certainly did not inhabit any sort of political “Christendom”—had the advantage of seeing their numbers and influence grow decade by decade as they courageously persevered in building at least small communities that manifested an enormously infectious Christian way of being. In the West today, though not everywhere in the world, Catholics have the opposite experience: Except in a few places, intentionally Christian communities are shrinking and fading, so that the predominant cultural experience for serious Catholics is isolation. We are now blessed indeed if even our own families do not reflect the war of attrition waged by the dominant culture against the remnant of the faithful.
With how many even of our own relatives can we discuss matters at the intersection of Catholic faith and life without encountering “Do not disturb” signs that leave “us”, and sometimes even “them”, more or less courteously and more or less permanently speechless?
In a Christendomless society—a culture with the intensely secular first rule that religious belief is merely a personal sentiment, so shut up about it—the plush slipper is always on the other person’s foot. Granted that it is also dangerous when the plush slipper is on the Catholic foot, our own battered and uncomfortable boots today appear to be good only for walking away, or perhaps occasionally stomping away. We wonder in every aftermath whether our ineffective witness is worthy of anything but the Confessional.
No, things do not appear to be going well at all.
There is a solution to all this, but it requires a special kind of tenacity coupled with a special kind of self-effacement. Its present rewards are few, and as for its future rewards…well, they happily depend on Someone who understands the situation better than we do ourselves. Effective witness requires the apparent ineffectuality of turning the other cheek without fearing to bear a quiet yet serenely unruffled witness. We can maintain many of our own spiritual customs and we can quietly go about offering help in the good things while refusing help in the bad. And we can both discern the difference and gain the courage to act if we enlist the help of God and the angels and the saints by a constant interior life of prayer.
Some serious Catholics have amazingly warm and outgoing personalities, and can even enjoy the company of those who regard the deepest concerns of Jesus Christ as off limits. The warmth of a shared humanity is enough to ignite a spark. At the other end of the spectrum, those of us with more withdrawn personalities may prefer significant stretches of relative isolation (perhaps hiding behind a computer screen). But no matter the personality type or the level of social comfort, there is no substitute for a strong and constantly active interior life.
Moreover, some of us with excessively social or anti-social tendencies may have to learn to rely on the better judgment of others as to how and when to come to the assistance of those who do not share our commitment to Christ. But the one thing each of us can do is to pray constantly for those we are directly concerned about, pray constantly for our own ability to discern the time and place for hopeful intervention, and pray constantly that God Himself will act—and perhaps even open a door—when we are held back by ineptitude, uncertainty or fear.
What all this has to do with “Christendom” is not the primary issue, but there is a deep connection. Though it is enormously helpful to be able to shape the influences of such things as politics, law, education and media to inculcate the virtues of a genuine faith, hope and charity, each sort of society has its predominant influencers and it is not often today that we will benefit from world leaders with a non-democratic, unilateral power to boost into a more effective position all the institutionally evangelical elements of the Church. Our task is more likely to be one of raising and supporting sound Catholic families, combatting the lies of secularism each in our own small spheres, and doing our best to carve out small spaces for a more vibrant Christian life.
Today we are generally less successful at mounting mass movements and more successful at winning one mind and one heart at a time. Even in any sort of Christendom, of course, each mind and heart must be won singly. Mere conformity means very little spiritually. In any case, there must be a significant groundswell before our civilization as a whole will stop sinking. The key to that is the personal touch—the appropriate words and actions with those who have eyes to see and ears to hear: “I have called you friends,” says Jesus Christ, “for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15).
Many who have ears do not hear, but friends actually listen. A new Christendom will come from the top only if the bottom falls out completely; otherwise it must be built soul by soul, running through our institutions not so much in a long march as by an unwavering prayer, under the mysterious and often relatively secret sign of supernatural love.
Space and time
The great challenges of this life are rooted in space and time. To us, the world is an enormous space, and as we age, the youthful conviction that we can master it gives way to the conviction that the task is far too great for us. But the next insight is that this is because it is God’s work—God’s Plan in Jesus Christ, God’s Providence in Jesus Christ, God’s Love in Jesus Christ. When I was in my twenties, I thought I would make short work of putting the world back on course, and so, thinking to serve God, I not infrequently competed with Him—though of course unintentionally. Even today, I wake up fairly hopeless, find my stroke by mid-morning, and grow quickly tired after dinner. Moods are important, to be sure. But it is our response to grace that really matters.
Of course I fret about this only because I am still a spiritual teenager (even though I said in my last commentary on The Moral Beauty of Catholicism that I was no longer anything of the sort—a variable assertion if there ever was one). But am I not still too full of my own plans and my own powers? Effective apostles seldom know of their success; they often do not even know whether they are sowing or reaping. And even if they do know, they know also that, regardless of the task, they are unprofitable servants. It is in prayer that we learn what God asks of us. It is in prayer that we assent to it. And it is only in prayer that we can carry it out.
I know this sounds defeatist or even hopeless. What I am saying is that it is anything but. Our Lord has invited us into His Garden, not to sleep but to pray.
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