Be Brave.

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.

Called to be Catholic.

I will not bore you with the full story.  Suffice it to say that I was raised a Southern Baptist in a very Southern and very Baptist place.  My early life was marked by all that the evangelical faith had to offer:  worship services, Sunday school, youth groups, choir.  I was given a foundation, along with every tool I needed to succeed as a Christian.

Except for one problem. I didn’t buy it.  I knew in my heart that this was not my calling, not my path.  I can look back today, decades later, and see it much more clearly.  I was being called to the Catholic Church.  I was being called to a more ancient, more liturgical, more mysterious faith.

After high school, I fell away from church and wandered in the wilderness for a long time.  I hit a few different church services in college (very few), but nothing satisfied me. Finally, in law school I met the woman who would finally pull me over the threshold.  She was Catholic, and it was time to face God’s plan for my life.  We got married in the Church.  Three years later, in 1994, I was confirmed at the Easter vigil, only a month before my oldest child was born.  At the time, I believed that I had neatly tied up the faith aspect of my life and could move on to other things.  I was wrong.  I had no idea what it really meant to a Christian, much less a Catholic. 

There is no neatness to my story; no beginning, no middle, no end.  No climax.  No denouement.  No triumph.  And there are far too many episodes of sin and doubt to serve as an example for young impressionable Christian minds.  It has been a long, slow crawl.

I enjoy reading Catholic apologetics, but this is not such an exercise.  I do not intend to intellectually defend the doctrine of the church, or to denigrate the doctrine of other Christians.  There are many scholars and authors writing excellent work on that subject.  Those people are much smarter than me and possess greater moral authority than me.  I will simply tell you, if required, what I believe. If there is one consistent attribute to my path in Christianity, it is my disinterest in arguing the particulars of doctrine.  Doctrine is important, no doubt.  It matters.  It provides the construct of our faith and provides boundaries for our belief. But too many souls have been lost over confrontations about doctrine.  Too many opportunities to bring people to Christ have been missed.  Christians of all stripes have spent too many years and too much spiritual energy worrying about what other Christians believe, or don’t believe, and not enough on serving God and others.  Younger Christians today appear less concerned about doctrine than past generations.  The divisions based on orthodoxy are breaking down, and the fear of hell is no longer the primary motivator for the faithful.  I do not insist that I’m right.  Therefore,  I am not writing only for Catholics, but for people who seek God.  Whether we know him well or not at all, I believe that most human beings desire to know him.

I also am not trying to convert the reader to Catholicism.  I wish only for each person to listen for his or her calling and respond to it.  It took me years just to hear God speaking to me, and several more to respond to it.  I am still deciphering the message.  Your calling may be completely different from mine.  While some of the true believers on both sides of the Reformation fence will disagree with me, I am convinced that God calls all of us in different ways.

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has taken huge hits in the last 20 years.   Priest sexual abuse scandals, financial scandals, and the rapid rise of secularism in the west have all combined to shrink the church.   The  exodus of many faithful has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream press; in some cases, the press has been gleeful over the decline.  Baptisms are down; the number of priests has continued to decline; churches have consolidated and closed. It is a church said to be out of touch with the modern world and the modern mind, a lumbering dinosaur doomed to certain extinction.  This may be wishful thinking.   The church going forward will be a smaller, no doubt.   Gone are the days of the immense Catholic machine, which was mainly fueled by large families and shared cultural and ethnic identity.  But the church is alive and well.  Catholicism is on the rebound.   (Secular intellectuals recoil at the very thought.)   The people left in the pews when the dust clears will be the truly committed, and many of those people will be young Catholics who want to be there.  The elevation of Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio to the seat of Peter on March 13, 2013 has pumped new life and energy into a faith that has doggedly gone about its business.  The throngs of people assembled on Copacabana Beach in Rio in July 13 for a mass celebrated by Pope Francis (estimates ranged from 1.3 million to an improbable 3 million) belie any talk of a dying church.  The opportunity for renewal and growth is now.  The hundred year experiment with hardcore evangelicalism is waning, but the Catholic Church presses on.

I was called to be Catholic.  Simple as that.  No, I didn’t misunderstand God.  No, the wires were not crossed.  It was real.  I do not believe that another person’s calling is illegitimate (as my own has been labeled by evangelical friends).  We are all called to some path of holiness.  Pope Francis said as much when he declared, that God “has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!”

So that, in a nutshell, is the backstory. I would love to interact with other nice people on the same road. Let me hear from you.
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