17th Jan 2013
The World Needs Real Catholics
by Kathryn Jean Lopez
The night before the election this past November, the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, just a few blocks from the White House, was talking about Pentecost.
Pentecost? In November? Had someone played a trick on him? Switched texts on him? Played with the calendar setting on his iPhone?
Nothing of the sort. He was doing his job.
He had just returned from Rome and was reporting on the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization there. He talked about the fact that there are Catholics walking around everywhere who simply do not know what it means to be Catholic, but think they do. It’s a problem of catechesis and of witness. This New Evangelization business is about renewal, personal renewal, nourishing and sharing. It’s Church talk for being who we say we are and sharing it with the world, like the first disciples did: A new Pentecost.
People continue to ask me: What happened with the Catholics in November? I thought they were geared up to save religious liberty.
The truth of the matter is that bishops throughout the United States were unprecedented in their opposition to the Obama administration’s decision to pick a fight with those opposed to abortion and to violate the consciences of Americans who happen to believe that the use of contraception and sterilization is morally wrong. The Obama re-election campaign, with a lot of help from the media, did a bang-up job of making it an issue of “women’s health” instead of what it was really about: Freedom. Never has this debate been about Catholics or others (including evangelical Wheaton College and the Green family that runs the Hobby Lobby arts & crafts chain) forcing their morality on American women, it continues to be about the religious freedom of Americans not to be compelled to violate their consciences.
Barack Obama wasn’t re-elected because the bishops didn’t do enough. The United States is where we are today — 40 years of legal abortion, a mess of relations between men and women, financial disarray — because Catholics contributed to this state of affairs. And it is going to take a whole lot longer than one year or an election cycle to rebuild an authentically Catholic culture at a time when too many Catholics are secularists, too.
I read the most beautiful tribute the other day extolling a man who was “a wonderful human being — intelligent, caring, wry in a funny way — because he had been transformed by the power of God, through the Holy Spirit. His great desire was that others might share in the gift he had been given, the gift of faith.”
That excerpt was in a new book, a collection, from George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, called Practicing Catholic (Crossroads, 2012) and he was writing there about the late former archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger.
About the cardinal’s faith, Weigel continues: “That gift led him to read situations in their true depth … [he] understood that the most dynamic force in history over time is neither politics nor economics, but rather culture: what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; what men and women are willing to stake their lives, and their children’s lives, on.”
That’s it. That’s how to live! That’s how we change the world. Men and women transformed by the power of God, through the Holy Spirit. Living lives following the model Christ, God Himself. That’s not just an epitaph for cardinals but a mandate for every man and woman who claims to be Christian.
“It is not enough by far to have taken radical initial steps of conversion and to be a reasonably observant and faithful Christian,” theologian Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis points out. I’m addicted to Magnificat, that devotional monthly and on Monday it included this reflection: “At the center of our being we must remain poor and free and available to God, rather than barricade ourselves through habit to the approaches of God’s ever-surprising grace.”
“Freedom” is a word we hear a lot, we use a lot. For some, freedom has been warped into forcing employers to provide insurance plans that violate their consciences for the sake of treating fertility as a disease so that women can live by poisonous cultural expectations — expectations that try to suppress the complementarity between men and women, each with unique, creative gifts that the world needs. This concept of freedom is false. Freedom is what men die for, ache for, and for which they flee to lands peopled by good stewards of this God-given gift.
If we are serious about this Christ who we say we follow, freedom is surrender to He who came into the world to save us from sin and death. “Mature Christian freedom … is my total availability and obedience to the will of the all-wise God,” that particular reflection continued.
When was the last time we were totally available to God? When did we last take the time to discern just what it is that he wants for us? Do we instead act as if we are our own gods, plotting our own course, finding our own way, getting annoyed at God when things doesn’t work out the way we planned?
There’s a Year of Faith going on in the Catholic Church right now. It’s an attempt to remind us of our vocation as Catholics. It is, as Pope Benedict introduced it, “a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world.” The life, death, and Resurrection of Christ is our merciful salvation.
The Holy Father continues:
For St. Paul, this Love ushers us into a new life: “We were buried ... with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Through faith, this new life shapes the whole of human existence according to the radical new reality of the Resurrection. To the extent he freely cooperates, man’s thoughts and affections, mentality and conduct are slowly purified and transformed, on a journey that is never completely finished in this life. “Faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) becomes a new criterion of understanding and action that changes the whole of man’s life (cf. Rom 12:2; Col 3:9-10; Eph 4:20-29; 2 Cor 5:17).
This past Sunday we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. Why was the son of God baptized? Why would perfection be purified? This great contemporary teacher of our time, Benedict XVI, helps us remember the significance of this:
Why did Jesus, in whom there was no shadow of sin, go to be baptized by John? Because he wanted to make that gesture of penance and conversion, along with so many people who wanted to prepare for the coming of the Messiah? That gesture — which marks the beginning of Jesus’ public life — takes the same line of the Incarnation, of God’s descent from the highest to the abyss of hell.
“The meaning of this downward movement of God can be summed up in one word: love,” he continued in his Angelus message Sunday. And love “is the name of God.”
The Apostle John writes: “In this was manifested the love of God in us, that God sent into the world his only Son so that we might live through him” and He sent him “as a victim of expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4.9 to 10). That is why the first public act of Jesus was His baptism by John, who, seeing him, said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).
Once baptized, Jesus “was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit in a bodily shape like a dove descended upon him, and a voice came from heaven: ‘You are the Son my beloved, in you I am well pleased,” Luke tells us (3:21-22). “This Jesus is the Son of God who is totally immersed in the will of the Father’s love. This Jesus is the One who died on the cross and resurrected by the power of the same Spirit that now rests upon Him, and consecrates him. This Jesus is the new man who wants to live as a son of God, that is in love; the man who, in the face of evil in the world, chooses the path of humility and responsibility, chooses not to save himself but give his own life for truth and justice. Being Christian means living like this, but this kind of life involves a rebirth: reborn from above, from God, by grace. This rebirth is Baptism, which Christ has given to the Church to regenerate men to new life.”
Are we changed? Do we seek constant transformation? Do we go to Him? Does he rule over our hearts and minds and bodies?
“Only through believing, then, does faith grow and become stronger; there is no other possibility for possessing certitude with regard to one’s life apart from self-abandonment, in a continuous crescendo, into the hands of a love that seems to grow constantly because it has its origin in God,” Pope Benedict wrote in his introduction to the Year of Faith. For that continuous crescendo we baptized Christians need to go to God. We need to read about God. We need to live lives that are different, that show others that being Christian makes a difference.
“Like Blessed John Paul II, Cardinal Lustiger was completely convinced, on the basis of both faith and reason, that being a Catholic and being an engaged, compassionate, intelligent human being, dedicated to healing the world’s wounds and advancing the cause of human freedom, were two sides of the same coin,” Weigel explained in his remembrance.
“John Paul II was the pivotal figure in the collapse of European Communism, and he was the great Christian witness of the last half of the twentieth century. The latter explains the former, which is itself something deeply significant for understanding the cultural dynamics of history,” Weigel noted to me in an interview about his second major book about Blessed John Paul II, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2011). There is a lesson to be learned here, for our current day.
The world needs what we say we believe. Do we believe?
Over the course of the last year, and its unfolding struggle to defend religious liberty that continues today, the example of St. John Fisher, the only bishop to stand up to King Henry VIII, was raised up from across the pond where he died to do his job.. A reflection on his life of heroic virtue remains the meditation of our hour: “. . . the fort has been betrayed even [by] them that should have defended it.”
That’s a call for bishops, but also for every single one of us who claims to be a follower of Christ. We must defend freedom, we must tell the truth. We won’t all be called to be martyrs, but we must die to self and follow — or we are not Christians, and the world won’t know the glorious difference real Christianity makes.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.
(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)