Facing the Future with Hope and Joy
I’m glad to be here tonight for two reasons. First, I admire – greatly admire — the Josephinum and the men it produces. The Church needs you because we urgently need more good priests, men of prudence and charity, but also of spine and courage, who understand the changing terrain of our times. In my life, the priesthood has been a deep source of joy and purpose, the gift of knowing with certainty why God made me. But it’s not a life for the weak or the lukewarm. Especially now.
My second reason is this. Cardinal Pio Laghi was a mentor and friend who showed great kindness to me as a young bishop. When you’re a baby bishop, everything is new and a bit intimidating. Cardinal Laghi’s encouragement made a great difference in my life and ministry. He gave me my first zucchetto, pectoral cross, and mitre. I’ve never forgotten the debt I owe him. Delivering these remarks in his name is not just a pleasure, the pleasure of being with you, but also an honor. So let’s begin.
I chose tonight’s theme because it sounds better than “facing the future with confusion and anxiety,” and anger for that matter, because I’m tempted to feel all three of those things a couple of times a week. There are days when everyone in the Church seems angry. Laypeople and priests are angry with their bishops for the abuse scandal, which never seems to end. Bishops are angry with priests for their bad example. And many bishops are also frustrated – to put it gently — with Rome for its unwillingness to acknowledge the real nature and scope of the abuse problem. Clerical privilege is not the problem. Clericalism may be a factor in the sexual abuse of minors, but no parent I know – and I hear from a lot of them – sees that as the main issue. Not naming the real problem for what it is, a pattern of predatory homosexuality and a failure to weed that out from Church life, is an act of self-delusion.
My own frustration over the past few weeks has been fed by German bishops who seem willing to break what remains of Church peace and unity with bad ideas about sexual morality and impressive array of other issues. But that’s a topic for another day.
I have two points I want to make here. First, much of the anger in the Church today is righteous and healthy. As Pope Francis said just last month, “[I]n people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted” by deceitful clergy and religious. I don’t want to diminish that anger because we need it. What we do with that anger, though, determines whether it becomes a medicine or a poison. The Church has seen corruption, incompetence and cowardice in her leaders, including in her bishops and popes, many times in the past; many more times than most Catholics realize. The fact that Americans are notoriously bad at history and ignorant of its lessons only compounds the problem.
And yet here we are. Twenty centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, the Church continues her mission. She survives and continues through the grace of God. But that grace works through people like you and me.
All of the great Catholic reformers in history had three essential qualities: personal humility; a passion for purifying the Church starting with themselves, and a fidelity to her teaching, all motivated by unselfish, self-sacrificing love. God calls all of us, but especially his priests, not just to renew the face of the earth with his Spirit, but to renew the heart of the Church with our lives; to make her young and beautiful, again and again, so that she shines with his love for the world. That’s our task. That’s our calling. That’s what a vocation is – a calling from God with our name on it. To borrow from St. Augustine, God made us to make the times, not the times to make us. We’re the subjects of history, not its objects. And unless we make the times better with the light of Jesus Christ, then the times will make us worse with their darkness.
And that leads me to my second point, which is simply this: Scripture tells us again and again to fear not. The first words of St. John Paul as pope – this, from a man who lived through a catastrophic world war and two brutally anti-human regimes — were “Be not afraid.” The temptations to fear, anxiety, depression, and fatigue are experiences we all share, especially in hard moments for the Church like today. Fear, like anger, is a good and healthy thing when it’s in its proper place – and toxic when it’s not.
So do we really believe in Jesus Christ or not? That’s the central question in our lives. Everything turns on the answer. Because if our Christian faith really grounds and organizes our lives, then we have no reason to fear, and we have every reason to hope. Hope depends on faith. It can’t survive without a foundation of passionate belief in something or Someone higher and greater than ourselves. Without faith, “hope” is just another word for the cheap and cheesy optimism the modern world uses to paper over its own – and our own – brokenness.
The great French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos described the real nature of hope as “despair, overcome.” That’s always struck me as the truest kind of realism and clarity. We can hope because we’re loved as sons and daughters by a good God who’s really present with us and deeply engaged in our lives. Without him, the world is just a sandbox for the wicked and the powerful, and there’s never any shortage of either.
But God is here with us, and because he is, this time of ours, like every other difficult time in history, is a good time to be a Catholic and especially to be a priest — because every priest has the privilege of holding the Source of love, the God who made all creation, in his hands. Jesus tells his followers: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It doesn’t matter what problems are happening inside or outside the Church: When the Word is proclaimed and the Mass celebrated, his way, his truth, and his life become available to us. Whatever the flaws of her leaders and her people, the Church is God’s instrument of our salvation. She’s an embassy of holiness in our lives. So it’s always a good to enter into her precincts.
Today’s movement of Christianity out of a central, comfortable role in our social system isn’t new. It’s been going on for a long time. Nor is it unexpected. In a 1969 interview, as some of you probably know, Joseph Ratzinger offered some extraordinary reflections on the future of the Church. The issues were different in Germany in those years, but like our own time and place, the Church found herself under great pressure. After Vatican II, many men left the priesthood. The cultural revolutions of 1968 had a heavy and confusing impact throughout the Church. The future Pope Benedict XVI predicted a future Church that “will become small and will have to start afresh more or less at the beginning. She will no longer inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of adherents diminishes, so she will lose many of her social privileges.”
This is now happening, and all of us — bishops, priests, and laypeople – are disoriented by the Church’s absence from the center of today’s Western culture, especially from elite culture. We’re living in a moment of sifting. Many of our people in the lukewarm middle are leaving the pews. In the past, a shared consensus in favor of Christianity protected the Church and encouraged people’s loyalty. That day is gone, and as painful as it feels, it’s not entirely a loss. However well intentioned, it fed our complacency, which in turn bred irresponsibility and negligence. The sensationalism of the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury report is one ugly record of the result.
This ongoing cultural realignment will shake many of our Church institutions, from urban parishes, to schools, universities, hospitals, and other agencies – even seminaries. They were founded in a different era in accord with social and political conditions that no longer exist. But for committed believers it’s an exhilarating time, too, because we’re being pushed back onto the foundations of our faith, the enduring sources of truth and life. We still need budgets, and we can’t escape meetings. The Church was instituted by Christ, which means she’s an institution, a living body of the faithful ordered toward worship of God and service in the world. But in this time of sifting, a great deal of dead weight is being stripped away. We’re being driven closer to the one, simple truth from which the Church draws her purpose and strength: God incarnate in Christ, the author of our salvation and life eternal.
The mystery of Jesus Christ is not “simple” in the sense of being plain, obvious, or easily understood. Those are the colloquial meanings of “simple.” In a strict sense, simple means indivisible, something without parts. In ancient Greek philosophy, all fundamental truths are simple, because “fundamental” means that you’ve gotten to that reality or thing which can’t be broken down into still more basic elements. God is simple in that sense: There is no greater or more fundamental source, cause, or purpose to reality.
Today, we’re forced back onto the fundamental teaching that God creates out of nothing, that he acts in history, making an unbreakable covenant, and that he becomes human in order to fulfill his promises of life abundant for his creatures. These are powerful truths that rouse the soul. They make our work enormously exciting because they’re a direct challenge to the Spirit of the Age. To put it another way: The task of proclaiming the Gospel — not as a collection of useful stories and ethical guidance, but as demanding, and liberating, and true — is a holy provocation. One of the treasures of the Easter Vigil is the Exultet. It’s a rousing bugle blast, a call to arms, and a triumphant announcement of victory. It’s the Church’s version of the verses sung by the Israelites after Pharaoh’s army is destroyed in the Red Sea. “I will sing to the Lord,” these words from the Book of Exodus begin, “for he has triumphed gloriously.” In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, still mightier deeds have been done. “This is the night,” says the Exultet, “when Christ broke the prison-bars of death, and rose victoriously from the underworld.”
We should never underestimate the power of truth. The human mind and heart hunger for it. For all of the modern world’s vanity and preening, the intellectual poverty of our time is stunning. Among the Church’s great treasures is a long tradition of rich philosophical reflection. I urge you to study deeply in that tradition.
The Bible too retains all of its historic power today. In a culture of competition, consumption, and the mad scramble for success, the Beatitudes sound like a revolutionary manifesto.
The Bible’s power is especially clear in the accounts of Jesus’s Passion. During Holy Week we hear the story of the passion a number of times. The words from Scripture lack Shakespearean beauty. They don’t rival Homer or any other epic poet. On the contrary, the language is plain and almost austere. In a real sense, the passion narratives realize in Scripture the truth of the Incarnation, drawing us down into the gritty realities of life: blind hatred and bitter mobs; bureaucratic indifference and petty betrayals; dust-filled streets, tears, sweat, and blood. The words ring out loudly today, as they always have. They awaken in those who listen an unmistakable disquiet. The face of God approaches us here, now, in this world. This inspires hope – and also fear. Most people don’t want to be challenged spiritually, which is why the world will often hate those of you who become priests.
Yet, at the same time and paradoxically, many people do want to be shaken awake, which is why many others will accord you respect, even when they resist the call of Jesus Christ. Sometimes this respect will be manifest in angry opposition. But this too, even when it’s hard to bear, is a sign that the Lord has given us words of power.
The cross transfixes the eyes of the world. When people with little knowledge of Christianity come into our churches and see large crucifixes with vivid details of Christ’s agony on the cross, they’re often disturbed. They sense that they’re being addressed in every aspect of their humanity, even in their vulnerability, suffering, and fear of death. Again, many don’t want to be disturbed — and yet they do want to be alive. All of us live in this agony, this struggle, of ongoing conversion; that’s what the original Greek word agonia means – a struggle. Even the most faithful sons and daughters of the Church have more of their souls to purify, which means to bring alive in Jesus Christ that which is dead in sin. Even those who seem to be locked in some form of worldly bondage are looking, often blindly, toward the light. The Word of God is a blow to the head. It awakens us. That’s why the Book of Revelation contains such vivid images.
The Mass is the great countersign to our commercial society. It’s another precious blessing, for our world is increasingly jailed within what Max Weber called the “iron cage” of market logic and bureaucratic, managerial rationality. We speak of the “sacrifice” of the Mass, and rightly so. The English word comes directly from the Latin sacraficium, which means, literally, the action of “making sacred.”
In our common usage, however, sacrifice means giving something up. This reflects the deeper meaning of “making sacred” in a fallen world, for things must be torn from the grip of worldly powers in order to be placed before the Lord. In that sense, the Mass isn’t just the celebration and re-capitulation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It’s the sacrifice of an irreplaceable period of time in our lives, not just in the sense of making it sacred through an upturned countenance that looks toward the divine, but as a determined effort to wrench ourselves free from the worldly mentality that thinks always in terms of efficiency, utility, and therapeutic self-care. As Josef Pieper recognized, worship is an act of true leisure. It’s seemingly pointless, seeking no worldly end or purpose. It’s worthless to the world, and for that reason the celebration of the Eucharist is priceless for us.
We live in a time when more and more of life is put up for sale. Young people today often use the term “frenemy,” a contraction of friend and enemy. It’s a revealing word. It reflects the fact that so much of their lives is consumed in the struggle for a foothold in our hyper-competitive system. Nearly all relations are becoming transactional, including sex. The fact that the Church isn’t finally “selling” anything is a powerful witness to the truth that life is about more than getting, and getting, and getting. Instead, in a fully human life, the deepest satisfaction comes from giving.
St. Paul tells us the Jesus has set us free from sin and death so that we might live in obedience to him, which is perfect freedom. This freedom of discipleship shines forth in the world, especially today. Efficiency, productivity, and usefulness do have their value. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these qualities. But life becomes a wasteland when they gain ultimate authority over our lives. As Christians, we’ve been set free from service to these worldly gods. Our freedom flows from a higher and more powerful love of God, and others in God. The bonds of this world are never broken by human ingenuity or any other method of disenchantment. Rather, they’re broken by a higher power — the power of love, which commands and transforms our hearts.
Our age, like every age, lives in fear of death. For all of its noisy confidence, the world whispers a relentless lie in our ears: “Death has final authority.” In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God shows his power in a full and final way, and the lie is smashed. This gives us an extraordinary freedom, for in the promise of eternal life through Christ, the claims which principalities and powers make upon our lives are shattered. When death is deprived of its sting, those who follow Jesus can risk anything, venture everything.
Only a very few persons in their earthly pilgrimage have the grace – and it’s always a grace — to live fully in Christ’s promise of life abundant. Most of us are struggling along the way. We throw one foot forward in faith, while another drags behind, stuck in the mud of worldly cares. But even a little bit of spiritual freedom is extraordinary in the eyes of the world. When a young man makes his priestly promise of chastity and obedience, or when a couple ventures to live in accord with the Church’s teachings on marriage and children, fertility and new life, the world may be cynical — but it’s also astonished. The Christian life seems impossible to many, because “selflessness” is an allergic word in a culture built on consumption. The same is true when Christians open their homes in hospitality or give generously out of their earnings. The world cannot imagine the radicalism made possible by a supernatural love, the freedom that allows ordinary women and men to live against the grain of what it sees as “normal” and “necessary.”
Many years ago, I came across some words attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I’ve never forgotten. He said that gratitude is the beginning of joy. I want you to remember those words in the years ahead. There’s been a storm of shame in recent decades that’s washed through the priesthood. Today, when a young man enters seminary, people often say he’s “courageous,” and of course courage is a very good thing. We need a lot more of it. But on another level, this mistakes the reality of the spiritual life, for it imagines that the children of God somehow draw upon sources of strength within themselves, when in fact we know ourselves to be sinners in need of God’s grace. The truth is, we’re called by God to step outside ourselves for the sake of others, and when called, like young Samuel in Eli’s household, we need to respond, “Here I am.”
This isn’t finally a gesture of courage; it’s an act of faith. And here’s the thing: In 2019, even the simplest acts of faith, such as setting time aside on Sunday morning to worship the Lord, are more and more obviously contra mundum, against the world. This means our faith is now more costly, but also more visible, and thus more powerful. As Jesus says, “Let your light shine before men.” The gift of this moment, the blessing of our disestablishment, is that we’re being exposed to the world as followers of Jesus Christ, even as we stumble and fall. And through the witness of the faithful who trust, and serve, and endure in his love — despite all our failures and weaknesses — God will make the Gospel new and more radiant. History is a record of that story again and again. God doesn’t lose.
This isn’t a dark time unless we make it so. We’re simply back again in the night before the Resurrection. The night passes. And we already know how the story ends; we just need to imprint it on our hearts. Gratitude, brothers, is the beginning of joy. This is a moment of privilege and opportunity, not defeat. Reverence for the past is a good thing, but clinging to structures and assumptions that no longer have life is not. We’ve been given the gift of being part of God’s work to rebuild — and build better — the witness of his Church in the world. So let’s pray for each other, and thank God for each other; and lift up our hearts to pursue the mission, and create the future, that God intends.
This item 12111 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org