‘We’re the subjects of history, not its objects’

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivered a talk recently at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus:

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. …

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…

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.

Chaput is speaking to young men embarking on the priesthood, but his words are just as apropos for any person of good will seeking clarity in uncertain times.

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