When things don’t seem to get better
Fr. Thomas Berg writes that we are not necessarily called to be successful . . .
Arriving at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars annual conference in Philadelphia last September, I was delighted to find out that Archbishop Charles Chaput would be the main celebrant and homilist at Mass the following day.
I have long been a fan of the archbishop, not least of all for the depth of his message, the clarity of his thought — and for his candor. True to form, he opened his homily with the following reflection (paraphrased): As he now reflects back on his years of priesthood and episcopacy, the one thing that has surprised him is that during these years things have not gotten any better in the Church!
How’s that for candor?! The archbishop’s point, of course, was not to throw a wet towel on our conference, nor to get us all depressed. He certainly did, however, intend to reconnect us with what we might call the realism of the Gospel as it applies to our efforts at personal holiness and at evangelizing the culture.
He went on to remind us that the reality is that Christ’s resurrection was preceded by Calvary — and that in the paradoxical ways of grace, the grain of wheat must fall in the ground and die before it bears fruit. It reminds us that we are called not to lay aside our cross and follow Jesus, but to pick it up, drag it, and struggle under its weight. Gospel realism also tells us that it might often seem that things are not getting better, but worse!
Of course, there are victories in the struggle to evangelize the culture — and plenty of them. For example, the fruits of the right to life movement over the past 40 years have resulted in the continued decline of abortion rates in the U.S., the passage of Women’s Right to Know laws with 24-hour reflection periods, partial birth abortion bans, bans on abortion of 20-week-old unborn infants capable of experiencing pain, and education efforts that have moved so many young people to take a stand every year at the March for Life in cities across the nation.
Yet no matter how often we remind ourselves of the victories, we are at times overwhelmed by a sense of paralysis — perhaps even a sense that our efforts seem to go one-step forward and two-steps backward, and even that we’re losing the culture wars.
What to do then? In those moments we need to recall Gospel realism — that the life of every committed Christian and the life of the Church as a whole, by God’s own unfathomable design, must experience Calvary through struggle, setbacks, opposition, contradictions and cross. We must remember that if we are faithful, our own Christian experience as disciples and evangelizers will necessarily be cruciform.
Christ on the cross — stretched in all directions — gives definitive form to the Christian life of the members of his Body as we follow Him in the present state of life, still alien-residents and sojourners, still making our way — ever so arduous most of the time — to our true homeland. This explains why we feel stretched to the point of breaking at times — and why an archbishop might honestly sense that “things don’t seem to be getting better.”
This realism of the cross reminds us that we are not good judges of “success,” “progress,” and “victory,” which ultimately must be assessed over time and according to the ways of God’s inscrutable providence and paradoxical designs. More importantly, Gospel realism also reminds us that the Holy Spirit, in spite of appearances to the contrary, is always at work in the world. And His work does obtain victories on a daily basis. But more often than not, those victories happen one soul at a time. Yes, it’s that changing-heartsand-minds-one-at-a-time thing. It’s not a cliché; it’s a reality!
As Lent draws near, let’s remember that when Jesus calls us to follow him and engage in the work of evangelization, he does not promise palpable success. On the contrary, he assures us that “all will hate you on my account,” that our efforts will all be molded in the mystery of the cross, and that consequently, the “mystery of iniquity” resists Christian goodness. We will struggle on a daily basis with our own inadequacies, sinfulness, and many apparent failures in his service.
Jesus does not promise that we will actually see the promised land of a more thoroughly Christianized culture. The important thing today and always will not be the apparent “victory,” but the intensity of our love — genuine Christian agape love — with which we engage the world one heart and one mind at a time.
FR. THOMAS BERG is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).