Countercultural Catholic, chapter 3: With Apologies to the Martyrs

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 02, 2013

In the mid-17th century, the leading cause of death among the Jesuits working in North America was martyrdom.

This is an abbreviated version of a chapter in a new book I am developing on building a Catholic counter-culture in a post-Christian world. Comments are welcome!


What was it that compelled bright young men from comfortable French families to travel to an unknown and uncivilized country, to live in squalor, to suffer hunger and deprivation and disease? Why did they keep coming, and keep preaching, even when they realized that they faced not merely a risk, but a certainty of violent death?

The answer is simple: Those intrepid missionaries wanted to preach the Gospel. They wanted to save souls. They believed—and acted boldly on the belief—that the opportunity to bring people to Christ was more valuable than their own lives.

Today we honor the Jesuit missionaries as saints. But do we honor them sincerely, by imitation? For Isaac Jogues and others like him, it was a matter of the utmost urgency to tell the American Indians about Jesus Christ. That urgency is sadly missing from the Catholic Church today in the land where the Jesuits’ blood was shed. Even Church organizations dedicated to the missions hesitate to say that bringing people into the Catholic faith is their top priority. In 1995 the executive director of the US Catholic Mission Association, Lou McNeil, told the New York Times: “There’s a greater sense that all religions have value, and there’s no compelling reason why we need to change people’s religion.”

Most American Catholics will never serve as missionaries in impoverished countries. But there is still poverty around us, as well as other human needs—emotional and spiritual needs. Evangelization can begin at home: in our families, among our neighbors and colleagues and friends. Ordinarily, it will not involve catechism lessons; more likely it will begin by listening, suggesting, encouraging, proposing.

We Americans do not face dire consequences for a bold proclamation of our faith. Yet how often have Catholic individuals and institutions chosen meekly to accept an evil or tolerate a compromise rather than risk some political or economic or social setback? As I write, the Catholic bishops of the United States are holding firm in their opposition to the Obama administration’s insistence that employers provide their workers with health-care insurance that covers contraception and sterilization. In the past, however, scores of Catholic hospitals have agreed to supply contraceptives—including some potentially abortifacient contraceptives—and some have acknowledged that they allow sterilizations. Time and again, Catholic institutions have acceded to compromises, when a flat refusal to go along with a popular trend or a government edict might have made for a powerful testimony of faith. An opportunity is lost when a Church leader agrees to compromise even when he is not forced to do so.

Promoting and defending the faith does not mean simply circling the wagons and discouraging overt attacks. In 2007, when the bishops of Latin America met at Aparecida, Brazil, to plan their “continental mission,” many Catholic prelates worried aloud about the growing influence of Evangelical Protestant sects, and suggested some form of government intervention to curtail the work of missionaries. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires agreed that the sects posed a worrisome challenge for the Church. But Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio reasoned that if the sects were making inroads among the Catholic faithful, they must be answering some need that the Catholic Church had not met. The proper response to this challenge, the future Pope Francis argued, was to redouble the evangelical efforts of the Catholic Church, to instruct the faithful more effectively, to preach the Gospel more powerfully.

The temptation to compromise when compromise is not necessary, to avoid clear statements of faith when they might cause friction, to disparage the missionary work by others, or to discourage entry into the Catholic Church—this is a temptation that runs directly counter to the goal of missionary work. This is anti-evangelization.

Anti-evangelization comes in a softer, more subtle form as well. While missionaries travel the world, risking their lives and sometimes asking others to risk theirs as well, comfortable Catholics can settle into a routine of weekly worship, satisfying their own spiritual needs without reaching out to others. The parish can collapse in upon itself, becoming a sort of club, catering to members.

The decay of a healthy Catholic parish may not be evident for years, especially to the parishioners themselves. Loyal Catholics can fall into the trap of believing that because they faithfully preserve the old habits, they are fulfilling all their religious duties. Proud of their faith, they can turn away from the outside world, content with the knowledge that they have the truth and others are wrong. Conservative Catholics can be all too quick to denounce the secular world, forgetting their own obligation to change that world.

In a healthy Catholic community, on the other hand, parish activity should always be oriented toward the goal of evangelization. When they come together for Sunday Mass, faithful Catholics should be encouraged and energized to set about their business of bringing the Gospel to their neighbors. In his very perceptive book Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day remarked that the Catholic liturgy, especially in its pre-conciliar form, could sometimes appear as a form of withdrawal from the world. In fact, he observed, the Mass “was supposed to be liberation theology in action and slightly subversive. Far from being one form of ‘opium for the people’, the old High Mass was meant to be a kind of medicine that invigorated people, reminded them of their uniqueness, and sent them refreshed but determined into a hostile world.”

The Mass is not only a community meal; it is also a sacrifice. Participating in that sacrifice, the faithful are explicitly reminded of the sacrifice of Abraham; they are reminded that they share in the faith of the prophets, the apostles, and the martyrs. (One of the most important recent changes in the life of Church has been the introduction of a new English translation of the liturgy, which revives the old language that emphasizes the continuity between Old and New Testament and underlines the sense of an eternal sacrifice.) They are reminded that they are part of a community standing outside of time. Thus they are encouraged to recognize that they should not be ruled by the here-and-now, they should not conform themselves slavishly to the secular culture.

The Mass—the cult—plants the seeds for the Catholic counterculture.

Previous: 2. The Worst of Both Worlds
Next: 4. A Heritage Stolen

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Dec. 05, 2013 10:37 PM ET USA

    The Catholic version of the "Mayflower" I presume...But tell me Phil, honestly if we believe in the potency of "those Martyrs (& I do)," what went wrong? Why isn't America "Catholic??" Why wasn't the wound of the Middle Ages which we & the protestants share, healed? And what of the mystery of the Native Americans, to whom they preached in good faith & for whom they, the Martyrs, died, who, in spite of our glorious sister & theirs St Kateri, resist the Gospel to this day?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Dec. 05, 2013 8:44 AM ET USA

    If ALL Catholics would go to Mass and pray intently for the conversion of others then this would be a powerful form of evangelization. Evangelical Protestants preach a gospel tainted with the idea of Israel exceptionalism. This is why they support every request from Israel and look away from the slaughter of Palestinians, Iraqians and others that Israel deems a threat. They support a warlike nature that is easy to sell to most people. Unfortunately, it is not a very Christian ideal.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Dec. 03, 2013 1:20 PM ET USA

    Bang on. I'd edit the reference to the pre-European America being "uncivilized," though.