Living the Year of Faith: Some thoughts on the Christian vocation
+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Los Angeles Prayer Breakfast, 9.18.12
Writing in about the year 116, the pagan historian Tacitus described a fringe group of religious blasphemers who lived in Rome under the emperor Nero. They refused to honor the gods. They engaged in “superstitious abominations” and worshipped a crucified criminal. They were blamed for Rome’s great fire in A.D. 64, and as a result, they were hunted down and put to death.
Three hundred years later, they were the official religion of the Roman state.
Numbers can be misleading. They’re never the best way to measure the health of the Christian faith. The Church in Rome’s catacombs was small. But she was stronger than any of her critics or persecutors. And that’s as true today as it was in the time of Tacitus. A century ago, sub-Saharan Africa had fewer than 2 million Christians. Today it has more than 130 million. That’s a growth rate of nearly 7,000 percent. (i)
We live in a supposedly “post-Christian” age, a time when 70 percent of the people across the globe live in countries with restrictions on religious freedom. But Christianity is alive, vigorous and growing rapidly across the entire Southern Hemisphere – arguably faster than any other religion in the world, including Islam.
That’s the good news. Of course, there’s another side to history.
In A.D. 600, the Mediterranean world had hundreds of thriving Christian communities. Around that time, two Greek monks, John Moschos and Sophronius, began a pilgrimage. They went to Egypt, Jerusalem and around the great Middle East heartland of Christianity. They wrote a journal called The Spiritual Meadow. A best seller in its day, and still a Christian classic, it was a kind of spiritual travelogue — a record of the wisdom, visions and stories from the historic center of the Christian faith. (ii)
John Moschos died in the year 619, unaware of an obscure Arab holy man named Mohammed. Within a hundred years, Muslim armies had overrun and conquered all of the Middle East, North Africa and most of Spain. Today, the ancient Christian communities in Afghanistan are dead and forgotten. St. Augustine’s diocese of Hippo is now a Muslim town in Algeria. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit was once a center of Christian scholarship. (iii) In the birthplace of Christianity, after centuries under Islam, Christian minorities face discrimination and often violence, and they barely manage to survive.
Here’s my point. Jesus said the gates of hell would never prevail against his Church, and his word is good. But he didn’t promise anything about our local real estate and institutions. The Canadian scholar Douglas Farrow once wrote that “St. Peter will have his successors until the Lord comes, but his successors may not always have St. Peter’s.” (iv) In other words, God is faithful — but he makes no guarantees about infrastructure or the status quo or even our next breath. The task of preaching, teaching, growing and living the Catholic faith in our time, in this country, belongs to you and me. No one else can do it.
I’ve thought a lot about these things over the past year. The Church in Philadelphia is one of the great icons of the American Catholic experience. We have two saints, a huge array of charitable outreach efforts and a very rich legacy of shaping leaders not just for the Church but also for the nation.
On the surface, many of our vital signs seem impressive. As bishop, I serve about 1.5 million Pennsylvania Catholics. We have 267 parishes; more than 600 diocesan priests and deacons; and some 3,000 religious sisters, priests and brothers. We have a beautiful cathedral and seminary. We have 17 high schools, more than 120 elementary schools, 13 colleges or universities, six shrines, and a variety of hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. Like the Church here in Los Angeles, the Church in Philadelphia is big, complex and historic — and also troubled.
Some of our problems are obvious: a clergy abuse crisis; demographic changes; years of deficit spending and unrealistic financial management; a decline in priestly vocations; and schools and parishes that are struggling.
Fewer than 20 percent of Philadelphia Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday. Even fewer seek out confession. Infant baptisms have dropped 13 percent over the last five years. Marriages in Church are down 20 percent over that same period.
These data will vary from diocese to diocese. The Church in America is much healthier in some areas than in others. I could give a different and much happier talk about new apostolic movements that are happening all over the country. Catholics in Philadelphia feel especially wounded because of the long and very bitter nature of our local abuse issues. But the fact remains that roughly 10 percent of Americans describe themselves as ex-Catholics. (v) If they all joined together in a new “Church of the Formerly Catholic,” they’d be the second largest denomination in the country. (vi)
That’s our reality as disciples. That’s the debris of failure we need to deal with if we want to repair God’s house. Again and again in Scripture, Israel’s revival inevitably begins with repentance, grief over sins, and praise for God’s faithfulness. This repentance is “an act of hope,” (vii) because it insists that a return to flourishing life is possible. But there are no shortcuts – the road to renewal, from Egypt through the Red Sea, from Babylon back to Jerusalem, whether then or now, passes through humility and confession for ancient Israel, and for us.
Pope Benedict gave us a roadmap for the kind of renewal we need in his 2011 apostolic letter, Porta Dei. And now — in just a few weeks, on October 11 — Benedict will help us embark on what he’s called “the year of faith.”
Porta Dei translates in English as “Door of Faith,” and Benedict’s year of faith is tied very closely to the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The year of faith will mark these anniversaries with a worldwide program of worship, catechesis and evangelization lasting until November 24, 2013, the Solemnity of Christ the King.
In his letter, Benedict notes that in the past, Western Christians lived in a more or less unified culture, a culture that broadly accepted the values of Christian belief. But today, due to a “profound crisis of faith” impacting millions of people (viii) the unity of the past has collapsed. Morally, we live in chaotic times. In such a climate, it’s very easy for people to develop habits that undermine virtue, character and moral judgment. It’s hard to reach a moral consensus when a culture can’t agree on even the most basic standards of right and wrong. As a result, for individuals, today’s conditions of daily life are often isolating and even frightening.
The Pope’s answer to this crisis doesn’t scold the culture. Instead he turns to us, to the Church. The Church in the modern era may seem “like a stranger in a foreign land,” (ix) alienated from and often scorned by contemporary society. But for Benedict, the burden of action falls on each of us as believers to “rediscover [God’s] joy,” to “radiate [God’s] word,” and to make our Christian witness “frank and contagious.” (x)
Now those are wonderful words, but how do we actually live them? We need to begin by realizing that we’re not being asked to do the impossible – only the uncomfortable and inconvenient.
Benedict is asking us to prepare ourselves to receive a blessing — the simplest and the hardest thing in the world. He’s asking us to examine our hearts and our habits of life without excuses or alibis. He’s asking us to tear down the cathedral we build to ourselves, the whole interior architecture of our vanities, our resentments and our endless appetites, and to channel all the restless fears and longings of modern life into a hunger for the Holy Spirit. If you think that sounds easy or pious, try it for a week.
In every generation, so many Christians wish we could get back to the “purity of the early Church,” and of course that seems like an admirable goal. But the Church has never been pristine. She’s never been without scandals and sinners, apostates and critics and persecutors. St. Paul was run out of town more than once; he was rejected by his brothers more than once; and when he writes his Epistle to the Ephesians, he’s writing from a jail cell. (xi)
We need to discipline ourselves to be ready for God’s grace. If our hearts are cold, if our minds are closed, if our spirits are fat and acquisitive, curled up on a pile of our possessions, then the Church in this country will die. It’s happened before in other times and places, and it can happen here. We can’t change the world by ourselves. And we can’t reinvent the Church. But we can help God change us. We can live our faith with zeal and conviction – and then God will take care of the rest.
Benedict’s letter has some concrete suggestions for the year of faith that deserve our close attention. Three of them stand out: (xii)
First, the Holy Father urges parishes and other church groups to study the Creed and the Catechism. The Creed is the definition of who we are. It’s a fundamental declaration of Catholic faith, identity and belonging. Sound doctrine matters. It’s vitally important because what Christians believe is the glue to our unity. Right doctrine reorients our lives away from the idolatries of individualism and greed, and points us toward Jesus Christ.
Second, the Pope asks us “to intensify [our] witness of charity.” (xiii) Using the same passage in James that we heard at Sunday Mass just two days ago, (xiv) the Pope stresses that faith and charity depend on one another, and that faith without charity “bears no fruit.” (xv) Faith gives us new eyes. In faith, we not only see Jesus in the least of those among us – the poor and so many others who need our help and our love — but we also understand ourselves in a new light.
Modern life catechizes us in selfishness. Real faith subverts that lie. It makes us fully human by helping us see others through God’s eyes. It makes a communion of unique and unrepeatable persons possible. Charity seals that living communion in love and service to others. Acts of charity and hospitality not only help our neighbor in a material way; they’re also a type of self-catechesis, imprinting on our souls the things we claim to believe with our words.
Third and finally, Benedict urges us to do something that should resonate very deeply with the Church in the United States. During the year of faith, he says, it’s of “decisive importance,” that we study the history of our faith and see the way in which “holiness and sin” are so often woven together. (xvi)
The clergy scandal of the past decade has wounded victims and their families, damaged the faith of our laypeople, hurt many good priests and found too many American bishops guilty of failures in leadership that resulted in bitter suffering for innocent persons. As a bishop I repent and apologize for that failure – and I commit myself as zealously as I can to do the work a good bishop must do, which is shepherding and protecting his people.
But if the truth makes us free, and Jesus promises that it does, then we need to be honest with each other about a lot more than the clergy scandal. Henri de Lubac, the great Jesuit theologian, once said that when the world insinuates itself into the heart of the Church, the Church becomes worse than the world — not just a caricature of the world, but the world in greater mediocrity and even greater ugliness. (xvii)
Catholics have spent the last hundred years pushing our way into the American mainstream. And at the end of it, the world has pushed its way into the Church. We’re just like everyone else — and at a very high cost. America in some ways seems no different and no better than if the Catholic Church had a tenth of her official numbers. Roughly 80 percent of Americans claim to be Christians. More than 60 million of them claim to be Catholics. The Gospel we all claim to believe warns us that we can’t serve two masters. We can’t love both God and Mammon. And yet the entire fabric of American advertising and consumer life argues exactly the opposite — that yes, we can serve two masters, and yes, we’re already doing it.
Real faith – the kind our Holy Father calls us to — demands that we seek out who Jesus Christ really is, and what he asks from each of us as disciples. And that always involves the cross.
Father John Hugo, a friend and counselor to Dorothy Day, once wrote that the real Jesus “did not hesitate to condemn the rich, to warn the powerful, to denounce in vehement language the very leaders of the people. [Christ’s] love and goodness were chiefly for the poor, the simple, the needy. And his love for them was not a limp, indulgent love, like that of a silly, frivolous mother. To his friends he preached poverty of spirit, detachment, the carrying the cross. No more did the kindness of Jesus spare his followers, than the kindness of God the father spared his son. [And] we are to drink of the same chalice that he drank of.” (xviii)
Does that sound anything like the actual tone of Catholic life in our country today? I suspect not. Yet that’s the life of honesty, holiness, heroism and sacrifice that God asks from all of us as a Church and each of us as individual believers in the coming year of faith.
In our eagerness to escape the Christian vocation of radical love, to tame it and reshape it in the mold of our own comfort and willful ideas, we’ve failed not only to convert our culture, but also to pass along the faith to many of our own children. And that should make us very uneasy, because each of us – every bishop and every layperson at every level of the Church, including all of us here today – will need to make an accounting to God for the life we’ve been given, and how much of it we’ve used in service to the poor and suffering among us.
But we can begin again. Human beings make history, not the other way around. God is love; a God of life and deliverance and joy. His mercy endures forever. He made us to be happy with him; to be loved by him; and to bring others to know his love. That’s the glory of being alive. That’s the grandeur of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
The task of preaching and teaching, growing and living the Catholic faith in our time, in this country, belongs to you and me. No one else can do it. The future depends on God, but he builds it with the living stones we give him by the example of our lives.
So today, tomorrow, and in the coming year of faith, we need to remember the words of the Epistle of James: “Be doers of [God’s] word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Jas 1:22).
We live for the glory of God, and we prove it in the love we show to each other.
See John Allen, http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/three-myths-about-church-give-lent
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (London, HarperCollins, 1997), pp. 10-11.
Ibid., p. 23.
Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology, London and New York, T&T Clark, 2011, p. 154. Farrow appears to have been somewhat inspired by Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel Lord of the World. Note that Archbishop Chaput blurbed Farrow’s book.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, http://religions.pewforum.org/reports, “U.S. Religious Landscape
Survey,” 2008. See “Summary of Key Findings,” p. 7
This observation comes from John Allen, http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/three-myths-about-churchgive-lent
This quote is from a wider discussion of Israel, Yahweh, and repentance in the Old Testament. Page 436 in Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis , Fortress Press, 1997, pp. 436-440.
viii Porta Fidei, ¶2.
ix Porta Fidei, ¶6, quoting Lumen Gentium ¶8.
“Rediscover the joy” and rediscover love – Porta Fidei, ¶7. “Radiate the word” – Porta Fidei, ¶6. “Frank and
contagious,” Porta Fidei, ¶10.
This paragraph is indebted to Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: a conversation on growing up in Christ, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 2010, p. 16.
In addition, the CDF has a parallel document with ideas for how to observe the year of faith. See
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20120106_nota-annofede_en.html Pope Benedict mentions this CDF document or “note” in Porta Fidei, ¶12.
xiii Porta Fidei, ¶14.
The second reading for September 16, 2012 (the 24
Sunday in ordinary time) is James 2:14-18.
xv Porta Fidei, ¶14.
xvi Porta Fidei, ¶13.
Henri de Lubac, S.J., Paradoxes of Faith, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1987, p. 225
David Scott and Mike Aquila, editors, Weapons of the Spirit: Living a Holy Life in Unholy Times; Selected Writings of Father John Hugo, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, IN, 1997, p. 108