Editor’s Note: Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, gave the following keynote address at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast May 24 in Washington, D.C. The event was aired live on EWTN.
As we assemble as a people of faith to pray for our nation, we must first give thanks for our many blessings. We enjoy religious liberty, freedom of speech and expression, the right to assemble — to name only a few of the freedoms for which our Founders fought and subsequent generations sacrificed heroically to preserve. Despite our economic challenges, middle-class Americans enjoy creature comforts that were unavailable to kings of earlier ages. For all this and so much more, we must give thanks to God, from whom all blessings flow.
At the same time, there are certainly many challenges facing our nation. Within the past week, we had another deadly school shooting. There are several tense international situations: the Holy Land, Iran, Syria and Korea. Many Christians throughout the world experience brutal religious persecution. Racial tensions remain high in many cities. One-third of American children are being raised in homes without their biological fathers. The legal status of more than a million young people who were brought to this country as children remains in limbo. In Massachusetts, Illinois and the District of Columbia, Catholic Charities is no longer able to place children for adoption. Our nation continues to give legal protection to doctors and organizations that profit from the killing of more than 1 million innocent unborn children. There are efforts in the courts and some states legislatures to coerce Catholic hospitals to perform abortions.
Unfortunately, this is by no means an exhaustive list of the serious threats to the well-being of our nation. However, the most serious crisis for our country is none of the above, but, rather, a “God crisis” — a crisis of faith.
‘Is God Dead?’
“Is God Dead?” This was the title cover story for the April 8, 1966, edition of Time magazine, when I was a junior in high school and Time was the most influential periodical in the United States. The 1966 article began with these words:
“Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes, both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect the answer is No.
“Is God dead? The three words represent a summons to reflect on the meaning of existence. No longer is the question the taunting jest of skeptics for whom unbelief is the test of wisdom and for whom Nietzsche is the prophet who gave the right answer a century ago. …”
At the time, the subject was considered shocking and provocative. I was reminded of this article while reading the 2017 book The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher, who makes the case that we need a new St. Benedict to form vibrant Christian communities to preserve the truth of the Gospels during a new Dark Age of unbelief.
Dreher notes the decline in church attendance, the large number of millennials who profess atheism or even more commonly identify themselves as spiritual, but not religious. This nonreligious spiritualism is a new paganism, where God is not the God of revelation who makes himself known to us, but a god or gods that are fashioned in our own image to reinforce our own desires. Dreher gives his assessment of the status of faith in America: “… God may not be quite dead, but he is in hospice care and confined to bed.”
A Crisis of Faith
Our culture is indeed experiencing a crisis of faith that leads to a denial of truth. Once the relationship between man and God is severed, man becomes just a highly developed organism. Human life becomes just another thing in a world of things. Materialism reigns and breeds utilitarianism — our value is determined by our usefulness. We no longer possess inalienable rights that are God-given and from which no human being can deprive us.
The pursuit of pleasure becomes the highest goal. This hedonism is a futile seeking of greater and more intense pleasures that in the end leave us more and more empty. Suffering and death become the great enemies that we strive futilely to eliminate, or at least impede.
It is this loss of a sense of God that also leaves us vulnerable to lose sight of the innate value of each and every human being. We consider those who are profoundly disabled as more vegetable than human. We experience their care as a burden rather than as an opportunity for the expression of the noblest form of love.
We begin to see human life at its earliest stages as something too tiny to have rights, but something very useful to destroy in order to exploit its components in the hope of healing or restoring youth to those already born. This loss of a sense of God also leaves us helpless to find meaning in suffering. Suffering becomes the other real evil, and thus to be avoided at all costs. If it is impossible or perhaps difficult to eliminate the suffering, then it becomes acceptable to eliminate the one suffering.
The Essence: An Encounter With a Person
Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his writings and speeches reflecting on the essence of what it means to be Catholic, declared it is not our dogma and doctrine. Obviously, it is not that he thought these to be unimportant; after all, he had been the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. He was the architect of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Yet, important as they are, they are not the essence of Catholicism. Similarly, Pope Benedict maintained that living an ethical life is not the heart of what it means to be Catholic. Again, he was not claiming this is insignificant, but it is the fruit of our faith, not its essence.
Pope Benedict asserts the essence of Catholicism is an encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ. Without that personal encounter, our dogma and doctrine makes no sense. Without this encounter, we will not have the capacity to persevere in living a virtuous life.
Jesus, the Man Who Lives
Malcolm Muggeridge, the late BBC television personality, while an agnostic, filmed a documentary on Mother Teresa of Calcutta entitled Something Beautiful for God. Muggeridge made Mother Teresa a household name in the English- speaking world. Muggeridge’s experience of Mother Teresa’s selfless love changed the trajectory of his life.
The BBC subsequently assigned Muggeridge to do a documentary on Jesus. In Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity, while observing the prayerfulness of Christian pilgrims venerating the spot commemorated as the birth place of Jesus, Muggeridge was inspired to name his documentary — Jesus, the Man Who Lives. Muggeridge realized Jesus was not just another historical figure, but he was still alive and animating the lives of his disciples, like Mother Teresa and millions of other saints canonized and uncanonized for the past 2,000 years.
It is this same Jesus we encounter every time we open our hearts to his presence in prayer. It is this Jesus, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, who conquered death and is alive, whom we receive in the Eucharist.
It is this Jesus who transformed Peter from the coward of Good Friday to the martyr in Rome; who changed Paul from a persecutor of his disciples to the greatest Christian missionary; who inspired Francis of Assisi to abandon a frivolous life of comfort, and, through simplicity and poverty, to awaken the world to the Gospel. It is this same Jesus who motivated Thomas More to resign as chancellor of England and die a martyr’s death rather than betray his conscience; who emboldened the North American Martyrs to make the perilous crossing of the Atlantic to evangelize Native Americans, well aware that they would meet violent deaths; who led St. Damien to provide pastoral care for the lepers of Molokai, knowing the probability that eventually he would succumb to the dreaded disease; and who gave Blessed Stanley Rother, a farm boy from Oklahoma, the courage to stay with his flock in Guatemala, despite being a target of the death squads. This is to name only a tiny fraction of some of the more well-known disciples who found abundant and eternal life in losing their lives following Jesus, the Man Who Lives.
A God Who Died but Is Not Dead
The original sin was the decision by our first parents to push God out of their garden in order to become their own gods. This is the archetype of every sin. God’s response to humanity’s rebellion is mercy. God does not abandon us to dwell in the darkness created by our rejection of his love. Instead, God comes to rescue us, just as he saved Israel from the slavery of Egypt. Sin masquerades as freedom, but, in reality, enslaves us to disordered cravings. Jesus came to liberate us from the bondage of sin and to vanquish death, destroying its power to rob life of its meaning and render it absurd.
The method of this rescue was not to use his almighty power to force us into submission to his will, but it was through his incarnation to become one with us in all things but sin. Like a special operations soldier dropped behind enemy lines, Jesus entered fully into our humanity, enduring unspeakable suffering because of our sin.
Jesus defeats humanity’s twin enemies, sin and death, by walking through death to eternal life. We believe in a God who died but is far from dead. The triumphant Risen Lord is still animating the lives of those who open their hearts to encounter his love. Thus, for the Christian, we are never without hope.
In recent years, I have been drawn to read the memoirs of former atheists who have become Catholic. Two of my favorites in this genre are Jennifer Fulwiler’s Something Other Than God and Sally Read’s Night’s Bright Darkness. Both of their conversions illustrate, if we just open a crack in our hearts, God’s amazing grace will come rushing in.
A New Great Awakening
In our prayer this morning, let us pray for a religious revival in our nation, another “Great Awakening.” For those of us who have encountered the Risen Jesus, we have a responsibility to bring his love and mercy to others, especially, as Pope Francis so often reminds us, to those on the peripheries. We are called to be missionary disciples, communicating the love of Jesus to others and bringing others to encounter the Risen Lord.
We have no permanent enemies, but only confused brothers and sisters who have yet to encounter the Lord of Life and to experience his unconditional love and amazing grace. We are called to renew our nation, not primarily by enacting laws, but by announcing the joy and hope of the Gospel of Jesus to individuals in desperate need of its Good News. It is our task to reclaim our culture one mind, one heart, one soul at a time.