Monday, December 5, 2016

Marianist Monday

Image result for Fr. Philip Eichner
December, 2016

My dear friends in college . . . and beyond,

About a year ago, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, delivered the Erasmus Lecture as part of the tradition of the magazine, First Things. I would like to start this letter by quoting the first few paragraphs of that lecture. The Archbishop started out in the following way:
I’ve always had an affection for French Canada. My father’s family began there.  When I was growing up in Kansas in the 1950s, Quebec was deeply Catholic, one of the most profoundly Catholic cultures in the world. The province had 90 percent church attendance. Catholic education, health care, and social services pervaded daily life.
All of that changed. A young Catholic friend recently moved to Quebec from Washington, D.C., with her husband. When she asked some of her new friends if they’d like to join her for Mass, the answer she got was: “What is a Mass?”

Today, barely six percent of Quebeckers attend Sunday services. Only nine percent of high school-age young people identify as Catholic. About thirty-eight abortions occur for every hundred live births. Nearly half of newborn children go unbaptized. And many of those who are baptized will grow up without seeing the inside of a church. In just fifty years since Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, an entire Catholic culture has collapsed.

That is a sad but accurate description of what has happened in many parts of the world. In fact, it has happened at different times all through the history of the Church – a deep fervor and sudden collapse. It occurred in the French Revolution where “the eldest daughter of the Church” became almost a pagan country. Father Chaminade grew up in that country at the time of the French Revolution. I am sure he could have identified with the words of Archbishop Chaput.

I think the Archbishop’s use of the word “collapse” is quite accurate. It is not a period where another religion takes over or during which there is some general religious movement afoot. It is a collapse, pure and simple, creating a void, a vacuum in society. Nothing replaces it except some type of vague feelings or heightened use of words or phrases, such as “spiritual but not religious.”

Father Chaminade’s experience for us is very relevant to that which we have today, particularly in the United States, but also in other parts of the Catholic world. Blessed William Joseph Chaminade described this as “an almost universal apostasy” and “indifferentism.” The latter term describes the situation of the vacuum. It is characterized by the expletive that you hear so often: whatever! Nothing means anything, and anything means nothing. It is reduced to a personal interpretation or personal experience without any background in reality or reference outside the self. It is very hard to deal with indifferentism. It has no energy into which you can plug your lifeline. It is neutral, barren, and energyless. At least if there were some energy, albeit negative or hostile, we could try to engage dialogue with that energy. This lack of energy paralyzes or inhibits severely any form of dialogue. Blessed William Joseph Chaminade realized the challenge that this presented to his time. How did he deal with it? I believe that is the same question that Pope Francis is trying to answer. Archbishop Chaput’s statements above indicate that “cultural Christianity” has failed. I believe that it has failed a number of times in the past. We build a culture and try to Christianize it, thinking that once the culture has some Christian roots, it will be there forever and continue to influence future generations in the faith. Often that transmission has failed in the history of the Church.

I had an experience that taught me about the vulnerability of depending on culture to evangelize. In 1965, I spent a summer in Germany, in the Sauerland at a retreat house where a series of pastoral seminars were given by German professors from various universities. It was in itself a wonderful experience. The group attending were from many different Dioceses of Europe – Switzerland, Germany, France. On one occasion, I talked with a German seminarian who, in the course of our dialogue, said, “You know, we Europeans really do not trust the American Church because it has no roots (In German, the word for roots is Wurzeln.) In a reply, somewhat chauvinistic, I said, “Is that so? Where were your German roots (deutsche Wurzeln) in the years 1933, 34, 35, 36, 37, etc.?” Needless to say, there was no rational answer to that question, since there was a large blackout of Christian influence during the Nazi time. From that encounter, I came to the conclusion that mere cultural Christianity will not carry the day. What is needed is continual conversion. Each person must be evangelized and take into his or her heart the Gospel message. Culture may help it at times, but it alone is not sufficient. I believe this is what our recent Popes have meant by “The New Evangelization.”

What did Blessed William Chaminade do to counteract this indifference and the loss of faith in post-revolutionary France? He decided to create small Christian communities aimed at those whom he found to have some spiritual sensibility, to bring them together, to reinforce their faith, and to create an atmosphere in which “the full Gospel could be lived.” It was tedious work, personal, and demanding a great deal of insight. He reminded us of the early Christian communities whose existence became a visible sign of the Gospel. His was not a mass movement or something that today we would commit to mass media. What Blessed William Joseph Chaminade wanted to create were core communities that would continue this process of evangelization. And thus he founded the Society of Mary, which would be the living embodiment of his apostolic method.

Before continuing on this theme of thought, I realize that some may say that you are creating “Ghetto Catholicism.” That certainly is a temptation, namely, that in times of religious failure, we would hole up with those who are still fervent and live a life totally independent of those around us. But such is not the case for the early Christians, nor was it for Father Chaminade, nor is it a choice for us today. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, wants us to be in dialogue with those who reject faith or are neutral to it; we are not to be in a mode of condemnation, correction, or excommunication. We do not change our principles, but we try to dialogue with others by the goodness of our lives and the witness of our communities in these areas that are so filled with bitterness and disagreement. The traditional Chaminadian role of building faith communities is very relevant to today’s crisis. We cannot depend on former cultural structures, even familial cultural structures. There has to be a living confrontation with Christ and with the small Christian community.

I want to conclude with a long quotation from Father Ronald Rolheiser. He has used the biblical image of Noah’s Ark to express the same need for community inculturation of the faith. Father Rolheiser sets the scenario:
The story might be recast this way: Every so often, there comes a time in
history when there is so little vision, faith, idealism, decency, and charity
left on this planet that there is a real danger that the world itself will sink,
will drown, and revert to a chaos that will kill everything that’s precious.
But one person, despite all that is going on around him or her, will keep
his or her eyes on what’s higher, keep faith intact, protect life, and refuse
to compromise charity and decency. Eventually the earth will drown in
chaos, but because of this one person’s vision, idealism, faith, decency,
and charity, a pocket of life, that still contains all that is precious, will
be preserved and given a new chance to grow.
Father Rolheiser describes the Noah’s Ark that we are to build:

Noah’s Ark is a boat of faith, vision, idealism, decency, and charity.
These virtues give us the capacity to float above the chaos that drowns
things. Moreover, our decency, charity, faith, and vision contain within
themselves all that’s precious
Father Rolheiser then gives an example of one who made an Ark. He cites Father Daniel Berrigan, who warned us:
Beware, beware, or the culture will swallow you whole! It’s easy to be
swallowed whole and drowned by our culture. It is that kind of a narcotic.
To counteract this in his own life, Father Berrigan chose to work full-time at a hospice for the dying. Father Rolheiser continues:
When you see your culture and your world through the eyes of someone
who is dying, things take on a very different perspective, and a lot of what
fires ordinary life (tiring our bodies, minds, and heart in its pursuit) is now
exposed as secondary and as not worthy of all the attention and energy it is
 For Daniel Berrigan, building an ark meant attending to the dying so as to be given the faith and perspective to not drown in our culture.Paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling, Father Rolheiser gives us some guidelines:
If you keep your faith when all about you they are losing theirs, but are
comfortable in the feeling that there is strength in numbers, that everyoneelse is following suit, that so many million people can’t be wrong;If you can keep giving others respect when, all about you, this is seen asweakness, and disrespect is held as strength and passion for truth;
If you can remain courteous and retain your manners, when all about youcourtesy is seen as quaint, and crassness and crudity are paraded as
sophistication; If you can live in tension when, all about you, there is compromise because it is judged that it is better to let the devil take tomorrow than to live intension today; If you can refuse to settle for second-best, when all about you it is accepted that this is all that life will offer; If you can combine chastity and passion, when all about you this is judged as na├»ve and impossible; If you can make room for Sabbath amidst the pressures of life, when all about you those pressures have begun to dictate all of life; And, if you can bear down even more in charity and forgiveness, lovingand forgiving those who hate you, when all about you they are advocating hate for hate; 
Then, just as surely as Noah, you will have built an Ark!