Ambiguity, young people, and discernment

Pope Francis and the Vatican are hosting the Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” in Rome this month. Chris Stefanick suggests what Catholic engagement with young people requires right now:

A back-to-basics clarity. I’m not merely speaking about clarity when it comes to specific teachings, but in a more encompassing sense of the word: They want clarity on what, exactly, we have to offer for their lives. And if we can’t answer that for them, they want us to get out of the way.

Our message, the “thing” that we offer, is the Gospel, which, despite all the failures of the Church, remains the best news ever. It’s the news that the human person isn’t a cosmic accident whose destiny is worm food and then nothingness. It’s the message that we’re created with a purpose, redeemed by a loving God who has a plan for our lives, and destined for eternal glory. It’s the message that we’re called to greatness by making Jesus the Lord of our lives. We’re not just invited to call him “friend” and then do what we want. It’s the message that he loves us, even in our weakness, and that his love has deep and profoundly good implications for our lives.

The results are conversions. Every week. A young woman recently approached me after an event and said, “I had an abortion. You’re the first person I’m telling this to. And this is the first time since my abortion that I feel like God can love me again.” I walked her to her priest who heard her confession, and she left a different person. These stories happen all the time. …

Ambiguous language about hard moral issues won’t win souls. After the McCarrick debacle, frankly, vague language from our clerics attempting to be more open-minded and push the envelope on sexual ethics will just seem … well … creepy. (Now is definitely the hour for black-and-white clarity to make a comeback.) …

Creating a rift between new propositions and old moral teachings in an effort to go along with the times won’t make us attractive. It will make us look faithless and confused.

If we want to actually win souls in a world where young people are bombarded by 3,000 ads per day, we have to get back to the basics. We need to be clear about what, exactly, we offer the world. … We have to be known as the Church of the Gospel again.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is in Rome for the Synod, and is a member of its permanent council. At gatherings like these, bishops offer statements called interventions and I’m excerpting from two of Archbishop Chaput’s interventions. First:

Who we are as creatures, what it means to be human, why we should imagine we have any special dignity at all — these are the chronic questions behind all our anxieties and conflicts. And the answer to all of them will not be found in ideologies or the social sciences, but only in the person of Jesus Christ, redeemer of man. Which of course means we need to understand, at the deepest level, why we need to be redeemed in the first place.

If we lack the confidence to preach Jesus Christ without hesitation or excuses to every generation, especially to the young, then the Church is just another purveyor of ethical pieties the world doesn’t need. …

In reality, young people are too often products of the age, shaped in part by the words, the love, the confidence, and the witness of their parents and teachers, but more profoundly today by a culture that is both deeply appealing and essentially atheist.

The elders of the faith community have the task of passing the truth of the Gospel from age to age, undamaged by compromise or deformation. Yet too often my generation of leaders, in our families and in the Church, has abdicated that responsibility out of a combination of ignorance, cowardice and laziness in forming young people to carry the faith into the future. Shaping young lives is hard work in the face of a hostile culture. The clergy sexual abuse crisis is precisely a result of the self-indulgence and confusion introduced into the Church in my lifetime, even among those tasked with teaching and leading. And minors — our young people — have paid the price for it.

And second, Archbishop Chaput on youth and vocational discernment in light of maturity:

In his opening Mass homily, the Holy Father described Jesus as “eternally young.” When I heard this, it reminded me of a song by the artist, Jay-Z, that was popular a few years ago. The song was entitled “Forever Young,” and it was a remake of a popular tune by the German group, Alphaville, from the 1980s. Jay-Z sang for the young – and for all of us – “I want to live forever and be forever young.”

The image of Jesus as “eternally young” is not only beautiful but powerful. As we deal with the many outside pressures on the Church today, and the problems we also face within our believing community, we need to remember that Jesus is alive and vigorous, and constantly offering his disciples an abundant new life. …

Of course, the Jesus who came into the world as an infant did not end his mission as a youth. He matured into an adult man of courage, self-mastery, and mercy guided by justice and truth. He was a teacher both tender and forceful; understanding and patient – but also very clear about the kind of human choices and actions that would lead to God, and the kind that would not.

The wealthy societies of today’s world that style themselves as “developed” – including most notably my own – are in fact underdeveloped in their humanity. They’re frozen in a kind of moral adolescence; an adolescence which they’ve chosen for themselves and now seek to impose upon others.

[We need] to be much stronger and more confident in presenting God’s Word and the person of Jesus Christ as the only path to a full and joyful humanity.

I might share one or two more items as the Synod continues, but I’m following it as news filters from Rome. If there’s anything I’ve taken from this so far, it’s how true it is that relationships between different generations can be very difficult, especially for older generations. There’s a continual temptation to “read into” younger generations the same virtues or vices, the same spirit and passions, that characterized your own life, or your own entire generation at an earlier time. This sort of thing makes real encounter with others really difficult, because you’re bringing lots of psychological and emotional baggage into that encounter.

‘Strangers’ in Philadelphia

It was really great, late-summer-feeling weather in Center City Philadelphia yesterday. I’m in town wrapping up odds and ends, and as evening came on walked over to the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute at 19th and Walnut for the Collegium Institute‘s “Strangers in a Strange Land” talk/symposium.

Fran Maier led a fruitful conversation on the topic of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s book of the same name, released last year. While the role and place of Christianity in American life is increasingly in doubt, there’s no doubt about the necessity of the theological virtue of Christian hope.

I think the last Collegium event I attended was Roger Scruton’s talk at Penn.


An evening conversation about Archbishop Chaput’s recent book and the future of American Catholicism.

Fran Maier: Senior Advisor to the Archbishop of Philadelphia and former editor of the National Catholic Register.

Michael P. Moreland: University Professor of Law and Religion, and Director of the Eleanor H. McCullen Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy at Villanova University.

Jessica Murdoch: Associate Professor of Fundamental and Dogmatic Theology at Villanova University, and member of the National Advisory Council of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Mission territory is all around us

In light of the scandal of Theodore McCarrick and the apparent pastoral failures of Pope Francis and others of this particular moment, George Weigel’s recent reflection (before the McCarrick revelations) on the Acts of the Apostles is something I turned to for perspective:

We live at a time when the surrounding culture no longer supports the transmission of the faith. On the contrary, as the contemporary experiences of Ireland, Quebec, and Belgium graphically demonstrate, the prevailing cultural climate can asphyxiate once-robust Catholic instincts—especially when Catholic leadership is weak, defensive, unenthusiastic about the Gospel, and seemingly embarrassed by Catholicism’s countercultural claims. In these post-Christian circumstances, the New Evangelization is going to have to unfold one convert at a time. …

When those conversions take place, they’ll likely do so in the most quotidian circumstances: in random encounters with open hearts in homes, recreational settings, and other everyday venues. U.S. Catholics older than 50 once thought of “mission territory” as places that got glossy full-color photo spreads in National Geographic. Acts alerts us to our true situation: Mission territory is all around us—at our kitchen table, in our offices, in our lives as consumers and citizens.

Christianity is inherently countercultural because Christians are always called to convert the culture. The great vignette of Paul on the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17 reminds us of one evangelical strategy for cultural conversion: Appeal to a culture’s noblest instincts and try to demonstrate a deeper foundation for those aspirations—the foundation that comes from friendship with Jesus Christ. It’s not the only such strategy (and it didn’t work out all that well for Paul). But it was one of John Paul II’s favorite biblical metaphors for the Church in the twenty-first century, and it’s very much worth pondering in contemporary America. …

Over two millennia, shipwreck has always been a call to a deeper fidelity and a more courageous evangelization. So in 2018, perhaps Acts is calling those with ears to hear to get beyond the food fights of the Catholic blogosphere and engage in some retail evangelization—a challenge, to be sure, but also the bracing vocation into which each of us was baptized.

It appears that the most important sort of retail evangelization that is required at this moment is for faithful pastors, priests, and bishops to put aside their clerical fears and institutional hesitations, and live and celebrate the liturgy in a faithful way. In this moment, orthodoxy and tradition have become the counter-culture.

The love that moves the sun

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivered a great lecture at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington earlier this week for the Faith and Reason Institute. The lecture marks the 20th anniversary of John Paul the Great’s Fides et Ratio encyclical letter.

Permanent truths about good and evil, man and his behavior and meaning, do exist.  Faith and reason are the means to find and know those truths.  Each needs the other in its search. John Paul stresses this in the encyclical’s opening words: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

In a sense, Fides et Ratio, like nearly everything else written by Karol Wojtyla, is simply a working out of the genius in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis,“Redeemer of Man.”  The dignity and destiny of every human person as the child of a loving God were central themes of the John Paul II pontificate.  I want to talk today about why Fides et Ratio is so important to those themes.

I’ll do that in three parts.  I’ll talk first about the current state of the Church and her witness.  Then I’ll turn to the realities of our culture.  And finally I want to ask whether the Christian revelation is really true; whether it has anything useful to say to the modern heart; whether the Gospel message of hope and joy is anything more than a sentimental myth.  Sooner or later, all of us as believers struggle with doubt.  We need to decide whether our faith is reasonable; whether we’ve given ourselves to a beautiful but naïve illusion, or not. …

a few words about Christian hope, and whether the Catholic faith can be “reasonable” for women and men in the current age.

About 25 years ago, the British scholar Michael Burleigh wrote a book called Death and Deliverance.  I want you to read it.  I said a moment ago that the Jewish Holocaust was a tragedy without parallel, and that’s true.  But it did have a precedent; a kind of test run.  Starting in the late 1930s, the Third Reich carried out a forced euthanasia program that murdered roughly 300,000 persons with mental and physical disabilities.  Many of the victims were children, ages 6-15.  The excuses given were legion: saving patients from their suffering; cleansing the Aryan gene pool; reducing the financial burden of unproductive citizens on the life of the community.  Many patients were killed by injection.  Some were starved.  Others were gassed as groups in holding rooms or mobile “treatment” vans.  German films and propaganda promoted euthanasia as a gift of mercy.  Many of the institutions that housed the targeted patients were run by Protestant and Catholic organizations or religious orders.  Most buckled under government pressure.  Only a very few religious leaders – men like Munster’s Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen – spoke out publicly to condemn the program.

Blaming these murders on National Socialist race theory would be easy.  And it would be accurate – but only part of the story.  In reality, the German medical establishment began shifting to a utility-based morality as early as the 1890s.  Doctors, not the Third Reich, first pressed for euthanasia as national policy.  What occurred among medical experts, in the words of one German psychiatrist, was “a change in the concept of humanity,” with its perfectly logical consequences.  Sentimental words about human dignity, unmoored from some authority or purpose higher than ourselves, were just that – words.

I mention Burleigh’s book because several of my friends have children with disabilities.  Watching them parent is a lesson in what the author of the Song of Songs meant when he wrote, “love is strong as death.”  My educator friend, the wife and mother I spoke about earlier, has a son with Down syndrome.  She also has three grandchildren with disabilities ranging from the moderate to the severe.

Her son has an IQ of 43.  His syndrome makes it hard for him to speak.  Sometimes he needs to repeat a sentence three or four times to be understood, even by his family.  He’s more prone to illness.  Simple griefs like getting dumped by a girlfriend lead to inexpressible feelings because he doesn’t have the words to articulate his hurt.  He’s likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease at some point in his life.  Some persons with Down syndrome face it as early as their 30s.  So my friend and her husband live with the knowledge that the son they love may one day be unable to recognize them.

And yet, he has a job.  He has friends.  He’s a distance runner.  He’s a Special Olympian, an opinionated savant of restaurant fare, a master of the mysteries of the rosary, and a sports fanatic.  His life is filled with good things, not sadness.  He’s a daily education in the virtue of patience for his parents, and in what it means to be human for his siblings.  And among his greatest blessings is this:  He will never be alone.  He will always be loved.  None of his family’s behavior is rational in a worldly sense.  Not one of my friends who has a child with disabilities is “rational.”  All of them are unreasonable; all of them are irrational – unless, like Augustine, we believein order to understand.

The genius of Fides et Ratio, the beauty and the glory of the text, is its defense of the capacity of human reason to know the truth; a truth rooted in the deep harmony of creation.  The world has a logic and meaning breathed into it by its Author, who is Love himself.  And reason lit by faith can see that, and find the path to him.

There’s a plaque on the wall of my educator friend’s kitchen, and it overlooks every meal the family shares.  Most of the time, nobody notices.  Life is a busy and complex enterprise.  But when they do notice, it reads, “The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”  It’s the final line in the greatest of all poems, Dante’s Divine Comedy:

… my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

There are many different types of logic, and depending on the sort of logic a people embrace a whole range of choices become either rational or irrational, prudent or imprudent, foolish or wise.

Thomas’s faith and doubting

John Henry Newman on the weakness of Thomas’s faith as a blessing for Christians seeking Christ:

“We must not suppose that St. Thomas differed greatly from the other apostles. They all, more or less, mistrusted Christ’s promises when they saw him led away to be crucified. When he was buried, their hopes were buried with him; and when the news was brought them, that he was risen again, they all disbelieved it. On his appearing to them, he “upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart.” (Mark 16:14)… Thomas was convinced latest, because he saw Christ latest. On the other hand, it is certain that, though he disbelieved the good news of Christ’s resurrection at first, he was no cold-hearted follower of his Lord, as appears from his conduct on a previous occasion, when he expressed a desire to share danger, and to suffer with him…: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn 11:16)… It was at the instance of Thomas that they hazarded their lives with their Lord.

“St. Thomas then loved his Master, as became an apostle, and was devoted to his service; but when he saw him crucified, his faith failed for a season with that of the rest… and more than the rest. His standing out alone, not against one witness only, but against his ten fellow disciples, besides Mary Magdalene and the other women is evidence of this… He seems to have required some sensible insight into the unseen state, some infallible sign from heaven, a ladder of angels like Jacob’s (Gn 28:12), which would remove anxiety by showing him the end of the journey at the time he set out. Some such secret craving after certainty beset him. And a like desire arose within him on the news of Christ’s resurrection.

“While our Saviour allowed Thomas his wish and satisfied his senses that he was really alive, he accompanied the permission with a rebuke: “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”… All his disciples minister to him even in their weaknesses, that so he may convert them into instruction and comfort for his Church.”

Christianity, virtue, and wholeness

In my reflection piece the other day on Andrew Bacevich’s piece, one of the things I wrote was that Christianity as a “belief system” was more important than Christianity an “organizing principle.”

This was in response to Bacevich writing on another author of Christianity “as project—reference point, narrative, and source of authority—[which] imparted to history a semblance of cohesion and purposefulness.”

What I was trying to get at was that the question, “Is Christ who he said he was?” has always been distinct and incomparably more important than the social impact of Christian institutions, but in thinking this way I probably responding to something that really wasn’t contested. Aside from getting my understanding of “organizing principle” exactly backward, my friend Ben Novak wrote to me in what became a back-and-forth correspondence on the direct of Christian faith generally. There are two questions in particular that I posed and to which he responded, and that we wanted to share:

Question 1: “Can you explain what you believe the early organizing principle(s) Christians defeated was/were?”

All of the ancient religions (except the Greeks) worshipped power. Power was the essence of divinity, especially great wealth and power over people. The ancient gods of the East were gods of power. Whoever had power had a touch of divinity about him that could not be questioned–power was divine. Wealth was the sign of power. Power as evidenced by wealth and command was the first and highest attribute of power. This is why we refer to Eastern “Potentates” (definition: one who has power over others, ruler, sovereign).

Thus the first attribute of God in all semitic religions (Muslim, Jewish, and even Christianity) is “omnipotence,” or “almighty.” (First line of the Apostles’ Creed: “Credo in unum Deum, patrem omnipotentem”–I believe in God the Father Almighty.)

Power was the paradigm of all society and religion, and all of society was designed and organized in terms of the flow of power. The emperor or king had absolute power over other men, and other men had power only insofar as it came from him.

Now, imagine what the simple story of Christ meant to this paradigm. The first element was that when the son of God chose to become a man, but did not choose to have power over men. Absolute reversal. Suddenly, divinity was not found in power or wealth, but in something else—the example of Christ, who was a poor man, born in a stable, raised the son of a carpenter, who had nowhere even to lay his head to sleep, and had no elaborate funeral upon his death, but was crucified among common criminals.

This overturned the entire basis not only of society but of personal life. It meant that one did not have to have or to seek power to reach the divine. Divinity to a poor man could be sought someplace else. It also changed the relation of the individual to those with power–they no longer participated in divinity solely by the power they had, but based on their virtue–and even poor men could have virtue. Only the fact of the son of God being born poor was necessary for this organizing principle to be established. From this fact alone, divinity could no longer be associated solely with power.

The underling for the first time had a basis on which to judge those above him other than their possession of power. Whereas before, divinity was associated only with power, now even the slave could judge his master as lacking in divinity based on the story of the son of God, who in the desert even turned down the devil’s offer of power over all the earth.

This story of Christ changed the organizing principle of both personal and societal life. Men suddenly could organize their lives on a principle other than seeking or worshipping power or wealth. It changed the organizing principles of society because it meant that those in power could be judged as lacking in the attributes of divinity as displayed in Christ.

The simple fact of the story of Christ was simply that power was not divinity. This is why, for example, even today people have a warmer feeling toward Christmas than Easter and we celebrate the former much more. It is because it is the story of the son of God choosing not to be born in a palace of power, but in a manger in a barn. God chose to become a man born not to power but among the poorest of the poor and the most powerless. Even the most abject slave could see that the path to God–and a share of divinity—was as open to him as much as to the Emperor on his throne. Even today, the story of the child in the manger resonates more than Christ’s ascension to power and glory.

The story of the resurrection is also a new organizing principle, for no longer did power and wealth in this world matter, but even the poorest and most miserable could look to happiness in the next, while the power of the most powerful men was no longer absolute and unconditional, but subject to being judged after death.

Now slaves could look in judgment on their masters, and the poor no longer had to envy wealth. What a totally different basis of society and personal life! Now power was subject to judgement that even the poor could see and understand.

The story of the crucifixion is also important here, for at the crucifixion, in crucifying the son of God, power had executed its own divinity—God himself. What those in power did to the son of God meant that power could never be seen in the same way again.

It is in this sense that the story of Christ in its barest bones, as the earliest Christians probably heard it, introduced an entirely new organizing principle into the world and changed the basis of both personal and societal life.

They only had to believe that Jesus was the son of God, and everything else flowed from that. A new organizing principle, by which every man, even the poorest, could re-organize his life and reorient it had come into the world with the story of Christ.

So, to specifically answer your first question (“Can you explain what you believe the early organizing principle/s Christians defeated was/were?”) the answer is: the organizing principle that the story of Christ defeated was that power is the essence of divinity.

Question 2. “What is the organizing principle confronting Christianity today? Is it what animated Communism and other ideologies; slogans like ‘everything is economics,’ ‘the personal is the political,’ etc. Is it something else?”

The issue is that the story of Christ has been co-opted. Socialism and Marxism as well as democracy furnished new and alternative theories to justify the poor judging the rich and powerful. If one believes in any of these, one no longer needs the story of Christ to empower the poor.

The organizing principle that is confronting the Church, however, is that these organizing principles are denuded of divinity. In the story of Christ, divinity was relocated from power to virtue and innocence. But in the modern world, these heresies have re-enthroned power, and merely shifted the argument to where power should be located: in the few or the many?

Thus, in another article by Bacevich (which I can’t find right now), he notes that modernists can march for the poor and against the rich without any need to be personally good; it doesn’t matter if they are adulterers or delinquent dads or druggies or sinners at all. All they need to be socially moral is to hate those with power and wealth and to demand it for themselves. Virtue and innocence mean nothing to them, social justice is everything.

How shall the Church (or the son of God) re-enthrone virtue and innocence—as well as the ability to achieve virtue and innocence again even after sinning, by forgiveness and repentance and mercy? That demands wholeness and integrity.

So, to specifically answer your question, my answer is this:

No, it is not by opposing beliefs with beliefs. Admit that after 1,800 years the social sciences figured out another way to decouple power from divinity. But that does not have to result (as Marx would have it) in destroying all divinity in the world, it only succeeded in one separation—the total identification of God as power. Now the Church must insist that virtue, rather than simply social justice, is still divine. At the same time, it must teach that while power is not the sole essence of the divine, it is also part of the divine, but only with innocence, humility, and all the other virtues. Therefore, the new organizing principle that the Church must offer is wholeness and integrity, rather than parts.

That is why, for example, I once argued at one of the conferences we attended together that truth is the issue, for truth to me means integrity which means wholeness.

Here I am speculating:

I think that the reason God had allowed the horrible scandals in the Church is to teach us that proclaiming virtue and innocence is not enough without humility and forgiveness and mercy for sinners. As a result, the Church has first had to relearn humility.

So, it’s no longer a single issue of decoupling power and divinity, but re-coupling a whole panoply of issues including humility, virtue, innocence, forgiveness, mercy, etc., all at once.

Frankly, I welcome this, for it pits the “whole man” against the partial man—a heck of a challenge in a technological world that favors specialization! Just as finding wisdom in a world drowning in information and knowledge is hard enough, today’s Catholic must argue for wholeness in a world that divides and dissects everything into parts.

We’re not sharing this because we think it’s necessarily right, but because it might be a helpful exchange for anyone trying to think through these issues.

Engaging and redeeming

A number of years ago Andrew J. Bacevich wrote an incredible analysis of the challenge of Christian witness in the 21st century. In the wake of the McCarrick scandal I want to revisit it. He starts:

Confronting the twentieth century, Catholicism stood fast. This was its mission: church as bulwark against the disorders afflicting the age. The excitement of Vatican II (I was a teenager when the council convened) derived from the sense that the church possessed a hitherto unsuspected capacity to adapt its witness. Rather than merely standing in lonely opposition, the church intended to engage—and then redeem—modernity.

Catholics in the twenty-first century find it increasingly difficult—perhaps impossible—to sustain any such expectations. The problem is not simply that the institutional church today stands dishonored and discredited, but that it has misconstrued the problem. The ramparts it persists in defending—a moral order based on received, permanent truth—have long since been scaled, breached, and bypassed, and have fallen into ruin.

What Bacevich seems to be suggesting is that Christians have generally lost the hope that living lives of virtue and witness to Christ still works, in terms of cultural renewal. Is this too broad a way to describe the situation?

What else is Bacevich pointing out, in effect? The world has not always been like it is today. Evolution and miracles are phenomenon which coexist within the same reality. Modernity has distinct animating principles and attitudes from other periods, like the late Middle Ages. The Genesis story of humankind’s fall due lusting after a sort of universal knowledge continues as rancor in our hearts, driving our desire for new forms of power. And that through it all, Jesus Christ has always been who he said that he was, and that this truth can continue to engage and redeem in every era.

Not himself conventionally religious (watching his sister suffer an excruciatingly painful death, he had concluded that God might be “a Substance, but He could not be a Person”) [historian Henry] Adams was referring to Christianity not as a belief system but as an organizing principle. Christianity as project—reference point, narrative, and source of authority—imparted to history a semblance of cohesion and purposefulness. So, at least for centuries, Europeans and Americans had believed or at least pretended to believe.

Adam’s “organizing principle” carries less weight than I would like, apparently akin more to a theory or hypothesis rather than an encounter with anything certainly true.

In any event, after a century of global war on different scales, we’re now living through a time of fractured cohesion and purpose. We barely have a clear, shared civic organizing principle any longer, let alone a shared spiritual belief system to guide our civic activity or inform our moral conscience. We’re drifting.

Christianity as a personal ethic or as a medium through which to seek individual salvation might survive, but Christianity as a formula for ordering human affairs had breathed its last.

I suppose “Christendom” might be understood as nations wherein Christianity was the formula for ordering human affairs—not as outright theocracy as in parts of the Muslim world, but as a means to balance raw state power with a coherent moral order capable of holding it to account for the health of the whole people. And because so few Christians now know their history or their scripture, it’s likely impossible to expect any sort of robust belief on a wide scale. You can’t remain faithful to someone you’ve never met.

Scripture no longer provided an adequate explanation of these events—even to consider situating the Holocaust in what Christians called salvation history seemed obscene. Unwilling to own up to their own complicity in all that had gone awry … nominally Christian Americans sought refuge in ideology. …

As successor to the Machine Age, the so-called Information Age promises to empower humanity as never before and therefore to complete our liberation. Taking the form of a wireless handheld device, the dynamo of our time has truly become, as Adams wrote, “a symbol of infinity.” Rather than spewing masses of stone and steam, it offers instant access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In this Information Age, we can access coursework from Harvard or Yale or any number of great institutions for free; it’s closer than whatever’s at the nearby public library. We can also access and participate in soul-corroding hate and destructive behavior from our kitchens, bedrooms, and anywhere, all on a magnitudes unimaginable in past times; the sort of things that local zoning boards might have fought to keep out of their towns in times past can now be present in every private room and public space.

What are Christians supposed to do in response to this? How can Christians engage and redeem a world like this? A struggle takes place now in each and every heart to decide whether Christ was honest and whether virtue is true, in essence, and what sort of life and world we might work to create as a result of our conclusions. These struggles have always taken place, but it’s entirely different when there’s no community or social support for it; when we’re living as autonomous, liberated individuals rather than as members of a particular community with responsibilities and relationships with particular people.

So the frantic pursuit of self-liberation that Adams identified and warned against enters yet another cycle, with little sign of anything having been learned from past failures. If the God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament exists, then it must be that he wills this. Yet his purposes remain inscrutable.

God’s ways have always been inscrutable. I’m consoled by John Henry Newman’s attitude of our own somewhat unknowable purpose in life as superior to Rick Warren’s notion that each of us can discover and live out our own “purpose driven life.”

I think what we’re challenged to realize is that we cannot engage and redeem if we are not ourselves converted in our heart; if we, in effect, do not love Christ.

Why celebrate mass

I was at mass a few years ago at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Center City Philadelphia, and wrote the following afterwards and thought it made sense to share.

It was a mass celebrating Latino heritage and was said by Bishop Nelson Perez of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Bishop Perez was a local and pastor in West Chester previously, so it was something of a warm homecoming for him. The Mass was in Spanish which gave me more mental space than I typically find when it’s in English and am pulled into responding at the appropriate times.

Why go to Mass, at the most basic level? A friend shared the engraved illustration not long ago, and although I don’t know the source it conveys the traditional theological reasons:

But let me offer a non-theological basis for celebrating mass. This is the one place I’ll be this week where no one around me has any designs on me. No one wants to use me. No one wants anything. We’re just here to celebrate and worship. In that sense, we’re truly at liberty.

You’re free to retreat, if you’d like, into a mental space of solitude that we rarely get very much of in a noisy world of false urgencies.

The mass presents an opportunity every day to be a new person. To think of yourself differently. To reclaim a sense of oneself, and one’s essential role. And don’t we all want to be a new person in some way?

It’s a gift.

Everything is that firework

The question of being, the wondering about our origins and the basis for our existence, is the question that nags at the human heart. Bishop Robert Barron addresses this today in reflecting on Matthew 6:19-23, today’s Gospel reading:

Friends, in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples not to store up treasures for themselves on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven, “where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.”

St. Augustine once said that since every creature is made ex nihilo, it carries with it the heritage of non-being. There is a kind of penumbra or shadow of nothingness that haunts every finite thing.

This is a rather high philosophical way of stating what all of us know in our bones: no matter how good, beautiful, true, or exciting a thing or state of affairs is here below, it is destined to pass into non-being. Think of a gorgeous firework that bursts open like a giant flower and then, in the twinkling of an eye, is gone forever. Everything is haunted by non-being; everything, finally, is that firework.

But this is not meant to depress us; it is meant to redirect our attention precisely to the treasures of heaven, to the eternity of God. Once we see everything in light of God, we can learn to love the things of this world without clinging to them and without expecting too much of them. Think of how much disappointment and heartache could be avoided if we only learned this truth!

That beautiful, powerful, moving moments of joy, fellowship, singing, philosophizing, and baseball games even exist in passing is just incredible.

We say that anything above or below the “natural” doesn’t exist; that even the possibility of the supernatural or metaphysical is a sort of superstitution—maybe useful for abstract  thought experiments, but not for pointing to anything of ultimate concern. And at the same time, we do everything we can to pursue happiness. So why should happiness exist at all? Why should we exist? Why should the universe be intelligible in the way that it is? Doesn’t the intelligibility of the universe suggest an antecedent intelligence?

Why is there something rather than nothing? Why should being, be?

It’s good and fortifying to wonder about these things.

Distressing disguises

Brandon Vogt writes on Mother Teresa:

The Christian Church has a long history of saints who helped the poor, sick, and dying. And like so many others Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) devoted herself to this vital work. But what sets her apart is the way she not only served people in need, but dignified them. This makes her a model for the first major theme of Catholic social teaching, the life and dignity of the human person.

From the time of her birth in 1910, Agnes Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa) was trained to respect the dignity of others, even those society ignores. Each weeknight Agnes’ mother invited poor people into their home for dinner and conversation. She especially welcomed women in distress: old widows with no caretakers, homeless women with no roof, and unwed mothers shunned by family and friends. Agnes’ brother later commented that, “[Our mother] never allowed any of the many poor people who came to our door to leave empty handed. When we would look at her strangely, she would say, ‘Keep in mind that even those who are not our blood relatives, even if they are poor, are still our brethren.’”

It was through serving these visitors that Agnes first discovered “Jesus in his most distressing disguise.” She came to value the poor not because of what they could do or produce, not because of their job or credentials, but because they radiated the image of God. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” (CCC 1700). Thus from the beginning until now, every man and woman bears the divine image and so bears within an inestimable dignity. …

When the priest says the words of consecration, Christ becomes substantially present even though he’s not evident to our senses. Our faith helps us transcend sensory experience to spot the divine image in its most ordinary form.

Mother Teresa knew how crucial this was. Seeing Christ in the Eucharist enabled her to see him in the streets. “If we recognize [Jesus] under the appearance of bread,” she explained, “we will have no difficulty recognizing him in the disguise of the suffering poor.” This is why Mother Teresa could say, “I have an opportunity to be with Jesus 24 hours a day.” Whether in the chapel or the slums, the pew or the hospital, she recognized the Lord everywhere she went because she trained herself each morning at the altar.

I’m not sharing this for any particular reason other than the fact that confronting the poor is something we all do, and I think almost all of us struggle to do well in terms of any willingness to encounter that person as a person rather than as an inconvenience. I know I struggle with that. It helps to imagine our neighbors—of all walks and means—as wearing disguises, to some degree. In thinking this way, maybe we can put our ego to one side.