Carl Trueman has a very keen mind. A scholar of Church history in the Reformed tradition, based here in the Philadelphia area, he looks at Catholics through friendly eyes, but from the outside peering in. Writing last year about the Christian place in a quickly changing country, he said:
“[In] America, in recent history, [the Catholic Church] has no real experience of the ignominy of marginalization from which to draw strength. The Know-Nothing era was long ago. It seems to me most Catholics today are very comfortable in, even jealous of, their place in mainstream America. They may not buy patriot Bibles, but Catholicism’s institutional footprint is so large — and Catholic theological (and emotional) investment in it so significant — that the temptation to preserve the Church’s place in society will be very great. This preservation will require compromise, even complicity, and it will very likely blur the clarity and undermine the integrity of Christian witness.”
Trueman was a better prophet than he knew. After the June 26 Supreme Court Obergefell decision, we live in a different country. Many of us who are Catholic may not want to see that, or think too deeply about the implications. Even some of our own most committed Catholics have been weak in responding. But stepping back for moment: Why are we surprised? And more importantly: Why would we be dismayed?
More than 45 years ago, a young priest by the name of Joseph Ratzinger saw clearly that the Church of our future would be poorer and simpler, but also more pure; a Church that, after the sifting, “will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”
St. John Paul II, the “Pope of the family” and one of the two great patrons of this year’s World Meeting of Families, urged us again and again to “be not afraid.” And Pope Francis has radiated the joy of the Gospel – not fear or resentment – from the day he was elected. He sees clearly what the frenzy and conflicts of modern life too easily obscure: For those who really love God and commit their lives to his truth, nothing can steal their happiness.
The lesson for us this summer is simple: Our vocation as disciples stays the same. And the theme of the World Meeting of Families 2015 – “Love is our mission: The family fully alive” – has more importance than ever. So how do we live that theme? We can find the answer by first remembering that life in Jesus Christ is meant to be shared with others.
In these last weeks before the world meeting convenes, a good way to ready ourselves is to spend some evenings with family and friends studying the meeting’s “preparatory catechesis.” It’s a beautiful, simple, easy to read text, perfect for discussions. It’s a great tool for exploring the practical ways we can apply God’s plan for the family to our daily routines.
In a sense, all of Christian belief can be summed up in the title of the catechesis’ last chapter: Choosing Life. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (Jn 14:6). He also said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). The irony, of course, is that not everyone wants what an abundant life requires. Real life is not tame. An abundant life demands a heart willing to choose courage, a heart big enough to love someone or something more than itself, and a spirit that refuses to be sedentary.
The problem with comfortable Christianity is that it flows along like a lazy river. Little by little it silts up with distractions. It becomes a habit that, by gradual lapses and constant compromises — a little cheating here and there, or maybe a lot — isn’t finally Christian at all.
Family life, by its nature, is not comfortable — beautiful, rich, fulfilling, yes; but not “comfortable.” We can only make it comfortable with the analgesics of noise and things. Family life has a flesh and blood intensity that asks us to give it all we’ve got; that grounds us in the real world and forces us to think about things that count: conjugal love, birth, the raising of children, education, work, illness, the death of parents, our own aging, and the mortality of the persons we love most intimately.
This is the stuff of a life that matters, a life with sinews made of longing, hope, sacrifice, joy and a finite number of heartbeats. And this is why, in a frantically self-absorbed culture — a culture that runs on fantasies about remaking who we are, redefining what words and relationships mean, and mastering what we can do, even to our own bodies — people choose to avoid it. The kind of life that marriage and family offer is simply too real. It takes time. It takes effort. And it has consequences that really do “remake” the world and can’t be imagined away.
Along with John Paul II, the other great patron of the World Meeting of Families 2015 is St. Gianna Beretta Molla. A doctor and pediatrician by training, and a member of Catholic Action, Molla did generous apostolic work among the very young, the elderly and the poor of Italy. But Molla was also a devoted wife and mother. In 1961, during the pregnancy of her fourth child, she was diagnosed with a uterine tumor. She chose the life of her unborn child over her own, and carried the baby to term. Molla died a week after her youngest daughter was born in 1962. Fittingly, Pope John Paul — now St. John Paul II — canonized her as a saint in 2004.
Few of us will ever face a choice like Gianna Beretta Molla. Most of us will never know the violence and repression experienced by Karol Wojtyla. But the everyday world we face in the coming decades will demand its own special brand of heroism; its own costly “choice for life” against a world, and a nation, made ill by sin. We learn the habit of courage, of love, of choosing life — the habit of real Christian faith — in the school of the family. Strengthening that precious classroom is what the September meeting in Philadelphia is all about.
The preparatory catechesis for the World Meeting of Families, “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” is available for purchase from Our Sunday Visitor.