Some recent thoughts I've been having about the Church: about where we find ourselves and where I find myself as a young Catholic.
I am a JPII priest. Seeing Blessed Pope John Paul at World Youth Day in 2003 swept away the final reservations I had about entering the seminary. “Do not be afraid,” he told us, “to set out into the deep for a catch.”
By then we knew, I knew, that entering the seminary meant setting out into the deep. New revelations in the priest abuse scandals were breaking daily. Every year it seemed that another priest left ministry with a lover, male or female. The Church had been declining in youth and vigor in Maine for decades. It was not hard to conclude that my ministry as a priest would be carried out during dark and difficult years for the Church in the West.
The seas had not always seemed so ominous. I grew up in the Bernadine years. The years of consensus leadership, of being welcoming and tolerant. Dialogue was the way to address any disagreement, any difficulty.
I don’t recall hearing anything about principles, about virtue, about sacrifice, about the truth. It seems that a whole generation, the generation before me, had been turned off by such things. They distained talk of objective right and wrong. Of good and evil. Of virtue and sin. And they pointed out continually that such dichotomies were either the mark of simplistic and naïve thinking, or the propaganda of those who seek to control others.
We were basically taught that the heart of the Gospel was to love others, and that that meant we should always compromise conviction in favor of the person. The only virtue I recall being drilled into my head was that we seek to be on good terms with everyone, regardless of their point of view. To be likable. It was the underlying subtext in most moral narratives: the protagonist gives up his or her convictions or preconceived notions in order to love the antagonist.
I think 9/11 was the first sign that the Bernadine years were over. People kept asking “Why do they hate us?” We looked at ourselves, we all seemed likable enough to one another – so we were completely thrown by the idea that someone could possibly not want to get along. Didn’t they know the golden rule? What kind of rock were they living under?
Then, for Catholics, came the pedophilia scandals. And all of a sudden many of us realized that many, many likable people, bishops, priests, and laity alike, had been so concerned about being likable that they had turned a blind eye to horrendous evil right in front of them. Being likable, being kind, had aided and abetted some of the worst criminals in society while they perpetrated unmentionable crimes right before our noses.
It was all coming down around us in that summer of 2003, the summer of World Youth Day. And I think it was then, as we looked upon the humble yet strong frame of that man of God, John Paul II, that many of us realized that the generation before us had sold us a useless bill of goods, rather than the Gospel. We had not been taught the fullness of the faith, we were not given adequate tools to handle real life – to deal with evil, to seek what is good. We were not trained in the virtues, we were not given a solid foundation in logic and critical thinking, we were not exposed to the cultural and religious treasures of our western heritage. Instead, we had been brought up by a generation that was convinced that the way to show their love for us was by being likable and entertaining us. The youth ministry mantra was, I’ll never forget, the “4 F words”: food, fun, friends, and faith.
But in the face of terrorists trying to kill us, criminal priests, divorce, substance abuse, psychological illnesses, violence, and promiscuity, the 4 F words just didn’t cut it, being likable and entertaining didn’t cut it either. Many of my peers left the faith, tired of being around a bunch of people who seemed obsessed with being likable, rather than being good. Who didn’t have any answers for the larger questions of life. Who didn’t seem to want to talk about suffering and death and desire and addiction.
But there were some of us who, through God’s providence and grace-filled guidance, were able to hold on to our faith. And with much struggle and prayer, we began an arduous transformation, a fundamental shift in the understanding of what it means to love and be loved as Christ has shown us. To this day we are trying to make that shift, even as we remain a conflicted generation, this JPII generation.
The conflict within the JPIIs is caused by a dissonance between the appetite and the intellect. Temperamentally, we are deeply uncomfortable with conflict and want people to get along, even if that means sacrificing what we know is right. Culturally, we were raised on washed out themes – the words to “Hear I am, Lord” ring in our ears, reminding us of the tear-filled retreats of youth even if we know that half the time we were just being emotionally manipulated. Even though we know we should, we don’t know how to live a life rooted in ritual prayer because our parents didn’t even know what that looked like. And so even basic spiritual discipline requires herculean effort for us. Intellectually we lack rigor, we were told that every opinion was valid for so long that we have a hard time being critical, even if we are suspect of what we hear. We tend toward reactionary extremes, and toward a certain nostalgia for times when there seemed to be greater regard for human excellence and virtue. But we’re really not sure what that looked like or how to achieve it, because we’ve never experienced it in a living culture. Instead we grew up on the Nintendo and MTV, the St. Louis Jesuits and cut out butterflies. A washed out culture, a decadent culture, and a largely secular culture.
And yet even as conflicted as it is, I believe that gradual conversion was begun and continues in the JPII generation, my generation. Slowly, and with God’s grace, many are breaking free of the appetite for a Church experience that is characterized by a warm and fuzzy group hug among people who like each other, and instead developing the desire for a new and more profound ecclesiology that is rooted in a common fidelity to Christ and sacrifice for the sake of what is true and good and beautiful. This conversion of appetite in my generation has been largely due to the reforms undertaken during the last 25 years to some of the fundamental structures of the Church. Doctrinal soundness and rigor in formation has been restored in seminaries for the most part. Core doctrines of the Church have been clearly expressed in the Catechism and in many wonderful encyclicals and other papal teachings. The liturgical excesses of the 70s and 80s have for the most part been cleared up and the new translation has brought us into greater continuity with our tradition. Bishops are for the most part speaking with one voice and in union with the Holy Father. The basic structures necessary for the continuation of Christianity in the West have been buttressed in recent decades, and the JPII generation is the first to really experience the fruit of these reforms. Thus we really bear the name of the great reformer: John Paul II.
Yet as much as the JPII generation has been graced by the reforms of these last years, I pray that the hell that is fermenting in the West does not break lose until our children come of age. They will be much more competent to handle the wiles of the evil one. They will have had the advantage of clear Catholic teaching from their youth, of being formed by a reasonably intact liturgy and reconstructed domestic ritual of prayer. And they will not have to contend with an older, ideological and jaded generation that second guesses every effort at holiness and is threatened by any attempt at human excellence.
I am not sure how my generation would handle the full weight of what this culture of death is capable of throwing at us. The reforms are so new and have only had a decade or two to sink in. We are still very weak and our training cursory at best. We are not well supported by family and friends. Too often we foolishly resort to political power plays, are distracted by worldly fears. We are easily side-tracked by minor skirmishes, we underestimate the cunning and force of the enemy. And we are too attached to the things of this world – to our stuff, our esteem, our comfort. God’s will is often not the first thing on our minds. We lack the spiritual imagination, depth, and discipline required for the all-out pitched spiritual battle that approaches.
Thus I think that it is critically important that the JPII generation realize in all humility its limitations, the limitations inherent in the time and place that we were born. We came of age during a time that was nothing short of spiritually catastrophic. The bastions had been razed. Christian culture in the West had been devastated. Through no fault of our own, we are building from scratch and our generation therefore lacks the sophistication of many generations of Christians who have gone before us. We are largely incapable of the aesthetic beauty of gothic stained glass, of the heights of contemplative prayer, of the theological prowess of the great doctors of the Church. Mounting such heights required the dedicated work of successive generations of Catholic men and women, not one generation alone.
And so such heights are probably not for most of us. Ours is instead the work of John Paul: the work of the quarry. We have been called to lay the foundation for such heights to be attained once more. To take up the backbreaking toil that falls to a first generation: slogging into the mud, into the trenches, working to gradually break up the rubble of vice and error and to lay the foundation stones of virtue and human excellence. In doing so, we can work to ensure that the Church that is rebuilt upon our shoulders stands not upon the sand of likability and false tolerance, but upon Christ, clearly present in lives rooted in the sacrificial love and fidelity. And this work, far from being a drudgery, can be a source of joy as we find comfort and consolation in knowing that, as a first generation in the process of building an authentic Christian culture, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the first apostles and countless missionaries who have undertaken such work over the course of the Church’s 2000 years.
In short, our holiness, the holiness of the JPIIs, is unlikely to lie in heights of virtue and excellence – it is more likely to lie in blood, sweat, and tears. In fidelity: in sacrifice and toil unconditionally offered for the love of Christ and his Church. It will not be particularly beautiful. But foundations do not need to be beautiful – they just need to be solid. And, with the grace of God, we can do that.