WE NEED TO SHARE THE URGENCY of Pope Francis in preaching the joy of the Gospel. But what is joy? It’s more than satisfaction. More than pleasure or contentment. Even the word “happiness” doesn’t really capture it. Happiness is a state that results from something greater. It flows from joy. And joy is more than an emotion. It’s an experience and indwelling of delight. Joy is the exhilaration we find in the discovery of some great beauty or truth or gift, and the passion that drives us to share it with others, even if we suffer in the process. In effect, we don’t possess joy; joy possesses us.
One of the reasons the Pope Francis seems so frustrated with the state of the Church today may be that, in his experience, too many Christians tend to confuse doctrine and law and rituals and structures with the real experience of faith. Obviously these things are important. St. Augustine, one of the greatest bishops, scholars and saints of the Church, would say that they’re very important, because without them our faith is disincarnate and little more than a collection of warm feelings. The Church would only be harmed by an overly sentimental or anti-intellectual spirit in her work. In an “emotivist” age, the last thing we need is a flight from clear teaching.
But Augustine would likely agree with Francis that the structural elements of Church life become empty and dead when they’re not animated by love; in other words, if they don’t proceed from a living relationship with Jesus Christ. We can too easily use them as a hiding place from the real task of discipleship, which is preaching the truth of the Gospel by our lives and our actions.
Did St. Augustine know joy? Read his Confessions. In his sermons, Augustine called this earth “a smiling place.” Portions of his work read like a litany to the goodness and beauty of creation. His biographer, Peter Brown, describes him as a man immoderately in love with the world. And the reason is simple. Augustine loved the world because he was in love with the Author of the beauty and goodness he found there.
What does that mean for us today? Augustine would tell us that the real problem with the world is bigger than climate change or abortion or poverty or family breakdown, and it’s much more stubborn. The real problem with the world is us.
As Augustine said in his sermons, it’s no use complaining about the times, because we are the times. How we live shapes them. And when we finally learn to fill our hearts with something more than the noise and narcotics of the wounded societies we helped create; when we finally let our hearts rest in God as Augustine did; then – and only then — the world will begin to change, because God will use the witness of our lives to change it …
We’re passing through a religious revolution in America. For many generations a common Christian culture transcended our partisan struggles. It gave us a shared framework of behavior and belief. Now another vision for our nation’s future has emerged. It sees no need for Christianity. In many cases, it views our faith as an obstacle to its ambitions. We’ve become, in Stanley Hauerwas’ famous phrase, “resident aliens.” We’re tempted to turn bitter and retreat. Nobody likes to be driven from his high seat.
And this is exactly what has happened to American Christianity. Many believers are ill-equipped for life on the “outside.” But we need to fight this temptation. And to do so we need to approach 21st century America with a spirit of love.
Love is grateful: We need to thank God for all the good in America, not just in the past, but today.
Love is patient: We need to recognize that we’re not going to “win” many of the culture-shaping struggles we face – at least, not on our own time. Only on God’s time.
Love builds up: We need to do what can be done, rather than anguishing over what can’t.
Patriotism is a natural love for the land of our birth or adoption. It can be manipulated by demagogues. It can be a cheap substitute for real religious faith. But at its core, it’s a good thing. When St. Paul speaks of love, he says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1Cor 13:7). By “love” he means the Christ-like charity made possible by God’s grace, and he calls us to this spirit of love in our life together as believers.
Our relationship to the nation we call America is not our relationship to Christ’s body, the Church. There are things we should not bear, should not believe, and should not endure in civic life. But we need to welcome some, and maybe a lot, of bearing and believing and hoping and enduring, for the sake of saving what can be saved.
Because for better or worse, what happens in this country has meaning for a much wider world.