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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Regaining Our Catholic Identity

As we move forward into this Year of Faith, this New Evangelization, one subject that certainly merits our attention is the importance of maintaining our Catholic identity.  

In this ever-increasing secular world, we seem to be experiencing an identity crisis when it comes to our Catholic faith.  This is not unlike the identity crisis that many a teenager experiences during adolescence.  The youngster knows who his family is. He know about academics and pop culture, but, he might not know much about himself.  Sometimes, he might wind up experimenting with new things, hanging around with different kids and taking on a new attitude that may or may not be for the better. 

Can we not say the same thing about ourselves as Catholic?  Many of us were baptized in the Faith of our ancestors.  We know about God the Father, Christ, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, as well as the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Yet, our knowledge of the Faith tends to stop after Confirmation.  Some of us, like the adolescent, want to explore new things, hang out with different people and seek another route. 

The former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger accurately diagnosed this problem on April 18, 2005, when, during the holy that he preached at the Mass to start the Conclave, he said that we faced the "dictatorship of relativism."  When we lose our identity as Catholics, we might tend to think that everything is alike and allow ourselves to be thrown by every wind.

Yesterday's daily Mass reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, the same Epistle proclaimed at that particular liturgy seven years ago, pulls no punches:

"And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried by every wind of doctrine, buy the cunning men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles."

The situation is critical, but, the man who would emerge from that Conclave as Pope Benedict XVI gives us a solution, Christ Jesus.  Christ is the cornerstone of our identity as Catholics. His Church, built on the firm Rock of St. Peter's faith, constantly invites us to moor our little boats unto the Barque of Peter.  If is no coincidence that the logo for the Year of Faith, which I posted in my previous blog post, depicts no less than the Barque of Peter, that strong steady ship which is not easily rocked by strong winds.  

But, how do we go about regaining our Catholic identity?  Again, we turn to Pope Benedict XVI for the answer to this crucial question.  In the homily that he preached at today's closing Mass for the Synod of Bishops, the Holy Father seemed to have picked up where he left off back in 2005.  He gives us the beginnings of what I consider to be the Benedictine plan of action:

"I would like here to highlight three pastoral themes that have emerged from the Synod. The first concerns the sacraments of Christian initiation.  It has been reaffirmed that appropriate catechesis must accompany preparation for Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.  The importance of Confession, the sacrament of God's mercy, has also been emphasized.  This sacramental journey is where we encounter the Lord's call to holiness, addressed to all Christians.  In fact it has been often said that the real protagonists of the new evangelization are the saints: they speak a language intelligible to all through the example of their lives and their works of charity.  

"Secondly, the New Evangelization is essentially linked to the Missio ad Gentes.  The Church's task is to evangelize, to proclaim the message of salvation to those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.  During the Synod, it was emphasized that there are still many regions in Africa, Asia and Oceania whose inhabitants await with lively expectation, sometimes without being fully aware of it, the first proclamation of the Gospel.  So we must ask the Holy Spirit to arouse in the Church a new missionary dynamism whose protagonists are, in particular, pastoral workers and the lay faithful.  Globalization has led to a remarkable migration of peoples.  So the first proclamation is needed even in countries that were evangelized long ago. All people have a right to know Jesus Christ and His Gospel; and Christians, all Christians - priests, religious and lay faithful - have a corresponding duty to proclaim the Good News.

"A third aspect concerns the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of Baptism.  During the Synod, it was emphasized that such people are found in all continents, especially in the most secularized countries.  The Church is particularly concerned that they should encounter Jesus Christ anew, rediscover the joy of Faith and return to religious practice in the community of the faithful.  Besides traditional and perennially valid pastoral methods, the Church seeks to adopt new ones, developing new language attuned to the different world cultures, proposing the Truth of Christ with an attitude of dialogue and friendship rooted in God who is Love.  In various parts of the world, the Church has already set out on this pat of pastoral creativity, so as to bring back those who have drifted away or are seeking the meaning of life, happiness and, ultimately, God.  We may recall some important city missions, the "Court of the Gentiles", the continental mission, and so on.  There is no doubt that the Lord, the Good Shepherd, will abundantly bless these efforts which proceed from zeal for his Person and his Gospel."

This last aspect hits particularly close to home, especially in our country.  It seems to me that well-meaning Catholics seem, at times, to be tossed around by "every wind of doctrine", especially during this election season.  Rather than using the Church as their guide, these individuals follow the dictates of a particular party.  Many of them seem to be more familiar with party platform than with the Church's catechism and her teachings.  It's as though the party has substituted the Faith.  

Lamentably, it's not necessarily the faithful's fault.  In many of our local churches, catechesis ends the minute that the Sacrament of Confirmation is conferred.  We don't do enough to educate the adults in the Faith of the Church, whether young or old.  It's no wonder that when political parties come calling, or people from other religious denominations come knocking on the door, these folks do not know how to respond when the Faith is challenged.  They wind up being swayed by the other side, almost as though the proverbial winds from every doctrine have capsized their little boats.  How can we engage in dialogue when our Faith is challenged when we do not know enough about our beliefs to be able to explain it ourselves?  As I noted in my previous blog post, we need to learn about our Faith so that we an know Jesus.  Spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament.  Even if you sit there in silence, that is a good first step.  He will lead you to what you need to do.  Take part in your parish's activities.  Volunteer for the next festival coming up or sign up for an adult religious education class if you believe you need a refresher.  Above all, learn about the Mass.  While this is the Church's most sacred, public prayer, this also affords us with the most intimate time spent with Jesus, when we come into direct contact with him.  

The work of the New Evangelization should not rest squarely on the shoulders of bishops and priests.  It is part of our baptismal responsibility.  As St. Paul notes in the aforementioned excerpt from his Epistle to the Ephesians, we may not all be called to the same role (we can't all be Apostles, Teachers and the like), we each have a responsibility in this sacred act of evangelizing, whether it's serving as a catechist, writing a blog or just giving simple witness in the public square.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

To Know is to Love

We are now 11 days into the Year of Faith.  When our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, proclaimed this privileged time of grace and renewal for the Church, he charged all of us with the task of doing what we could to bring about the New Evangelization.  It was as though he renewed the same call that he issued in Scotland back in 2010, when he invited the laity to be collaborators with him and the bishops.  It also reminds us that his own episcopal motto reads, "Co-workers in the Truth."

Many dioceses have already embraced the Year of Faith.  One bishop, the Most Rev. Alex Sample of the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, traveled to four points in his See, staking out the entire area under the Sign of the Cross.  As he proclaimed in his Twitter post, "This land belongs to Jesus Christ."  This is certainly a bold and visible manifestation of what the Year of Faith means. It also reminds us of our own call as Christians.  When we were baptized, the first thing that the priest (or, in some cases, the deacon-if he was the one administering the Sacrament) did was to trace the Sign of the Cross on our foreheads, claiming us for Christ.  He then invited our parents and godparents to do the same.  After our baptism, the celebrant anointed us with the oil of salvation, charging us to be priests, prophets and kings.  Just as the unborn John the Baptist leapt for joy in the presence of the unborn Christ, making his first proclamation in the womb that salvation was close at hand, so, we, too, even as infants, were charged with bearing prophetic witness to the Lord.

As magnificent as Bishop Sample's bold proclamation of the Faith was, he, the Holy Father and our own bishops cannot undertake this New Evangelization by themselves.  They need our cooperation.  Although the Holy Father has the means of television, radio and the internet at his disposal to relay the Church's message, he cannot be at all places at all times.  We, too, need to spread the Good News.  We, too, need to sow the seeds of faith in our homes, in our workplaces and in our community.

But, how do we go about doing this?  Before we can go and evangelize, we need to learn about our Faith.  Before we can talk about Jesus and His Church, we need to know Him and the Church.   Knowing Someone and knowing about that Someone are two very different things.  In the Bible, when the word "knowing" is used, it bears an intimate context, often associated with marital love.  In the Gospels and in the Book of Revelation, Jesus reveals Himself as the Bridegroom.  He does not merely know about us; he KNOWS us.  He wants to have a deep relationship with us.  Satan and his legion know ABOUT Jesus.  Whenever Christ was about to expel a demon, the creature knew ABOUT Jesus, calling Him by name; it did not, however, KNOW Jesus.  Thus, we cannot simply get by with merely knowing about Christ and His Church.

To this end, the Church, as our spiritual Mother, gives us the means to help us know her and her Divine Spouse.  She breathes with two lungs, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.  Sacred Tradition was handed down to us through the centuries from the hands of the Apostles.  She also hands down to us her most precious and valuable form of prayer, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  While it is the Church's supreme form of public prayer, it is also one of her most intimate, as we return to that moment when Christ hands himself to us, for us men and for our salvation.  We then receive from the Altar His own glorified Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.  He comes to embrace us and to be one with us. Any aspect of the New Evangelization needs to have this Eucharistic element.  Because, as rightly stated by Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,  the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the "source and summit" of our life as the Church, what we do must flow from this supreme prayer.  If we get this wrong, then our efforts lose their meaning.

Before we can go and boldly proclaim our Faith, we must first learn it, love it and live it.