Today is the first Sunday of Lent. It is traditionally the day that the church welcomes those people who are nearing the end of their journey of converstion to the Catholic faith, culminating in their confirmation at Easter. This morning our pastor welcomed seven new catachumens and one candidate (a person who has already been baptized in another Christian tradition), along with their godparents, in what is called the First Scrutiny. Their godparents attested to their readiness to complete the process. Over the next six weeks, these folks (male, female, young, old) will be baptized, make their first confession, and receive the Easter sacraments of confirmation and th Eucharist. That was me twenty years ago. Time flies.
At the end of Mass, Father implored these newcomers to live their faith, not just to practice it and go through the motions. It takes real bravery to voluntarily proclaim the Christian faith in the modern world. We are caught up in a time when many of the fundamental pillars of Western civilization, those rooted in the faith, are under attack.
The Enlightenment brought science into the forefront of human understanding. Although it initially struggled for oxygen against organized religion, including the Roman Catholic Church, the human quest for knowledge ultimately prevailed and the world was changed forever. It survived the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, Calvinist Fundamentalism, and the great rise of American Evangelicalism. God and science lived in harmony for five hundred years, with only occasional dustups. Most of the artists, scientists and mathematicians who wrote the source code for the scientific revolution of the last two centuries were Christians. Some of the greatest artistic and engineering marvels (e.g., the cathedrals of Europe) ever created by man were dedicated to Christ. But, ironically, the Enlightenment gave birth to the process whereby religion itself would one day become expendable. We have now come full circle. In a breathtakingly short period of time, almost during the lifetimes of my children, the burden of proof has been shifted from those who reject the Christian faith to those who advocate it to establish the merit of their position. While the religious still outnumber the irreligious in North America, the Judeo-Christian foundations of our society are crumbling. Public hostility toward religious expression is no longer scandalous. To the contrary, it is normal. Public expressions of religiosity now draw smirks of derision. Many fundamental tenets of Christian morality, unchanged for 2000 years, are now viewed as the ravings of haters, oppressors and bigots.
It is in this social context that the faithful must find their way. New Catholic converts (like me in 1994) were once primarily concerned with overcoming the Protestant sensibilities and prejudices of their families. Today, that hurdle seems almost minuscule compared to the struggle against a world that tells them that the very belief in God is outdated and foolish. Catholics and Protestants alike are caught up in this struggle. For those of us who believe that evil is real, we can only despair at the sight of a world that seems to be rushing to embrace it.
I am proud of the bravery displayed by eight people this morning. I pray that there are many more to come.