There is a growing consternation among some Catholics that the Church, at least in her leadership, is living in the past. It seems there is no awareness that we are at war and that Catholics need to be summoned to sobriety, increasing separation from the wider culture, courageous witness and increasing martyrdom. It is long past dark in our culture, but in most parishes and dioceses, it is business as usual, and there is anything but the sober alarm that is really necessary in times like these.
Scripture says, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle” (Psalm 144:1). Preparing people for war — a moral and spiritual war, not a shooting war — should include a clear setting forth of the errors of our time and a clear and loving application of the truth to error and light to darkness.
But there is little such training evident in Catholic circles today, where, in the average parish, there exists a sort of shy and quiet atmosphere — a fear of addressing “controversial” issues, lest someone be offended or the parish be perceived as “unwelcoming.”
But, if there ever were a time to wear soft garments, it is not now. The Church of the 1970s-1990s was surely well described as the era of “beige Catholicism” (a term coined by Bishop Robert Barron, and not by way of flattery either). Those of us who lived through that era, especially in the 1970s, remember it as a time when many parish signs beckoned people to “come and experience our welcoming and warm Catholic community.” Our most evident desire was to fit in and be thought of as “normal.” Yes, Catholics were just like everyone else; and we had been working very hard to do that, at least since the early 1960s, when John F. Kennedy was elected president. Catholics had finally “made it” into the mainstream; we had been accepted by the culture.
Church architecture and interiors became minimalist and non-descript. Music and language in the liturgy became folksy. Marian processions, Corpus Christi processions and many things of distinctive and colorful Catholicism all but disappeared. Even our crucifixes disappeared, to be replaced by floating “Resurrection Jesus” images.
The emphasis was on blending in, speaking to things that made people feel comfortable, and affirming rather than challenging. If there was to be any challenge at all, it would be on “safe” exhortations, such as not abusing the environment or polluting, not judging or being intolerant and so forth.
Again, if there ever was a time to wear soft garments, it is not now. It is “zero dark thirty” in our post-Christian culture. And while we may wish to blame any number of factors for the collapse, we cannot exclude ourselves. We who are supposed to be the light of the world, with Christ shining in us, have preferred to hide our light under a basket and lay low. The ruins of our families and culture are testimony to the triumph of error and the suppression of the truth.
More than ever we need to shift toward being distinctive from the culture we have refused to critique and call to reform. More than ever our faith needs to shine brightly and clearly in our churches and communities.
And if a world now accustomed to great darkness calls our light harsh, so be it. If our light does not shine, there is no light at all. Our Catholic faith is the sole and last hope for this world. It has always been so.
Simply put, it is time for clergy to prepare themselves and God’s people for sacrifice. Seeking to compromise with this culture is now unthinkable. Our only recourse is to seek to lance the boils. And the culture will cry foul. And we who do the lancing will be made increasingly to suffer. But we have to be willing to embrace and endure such suffering in increasing ways in the months and years ahead.
We are at war for our own souls and the souls of people we love. We are at war for the soul of this culture and nation. And like any soldier, we must train to fight well. We must study our faith and be more committed than ever. We must also know our enemy and his tactics, and we must be prepared to suffer — and even to lose our lives.
We have to retool and provide every opportunity to get clear about our faith. Sermons and other teachable moments must sound a clear call to personal conversion and to battle for souls — and to stop treating lightly the sinful disregard for God’s law in our families and communities.
Our bishops especially need to shift into another mode entirely. Collectively and currently they seem more interested in protecting what little we have left than summoning the Catholic people to battle. Priests, too, seem loath to summon people to anything challenging or uncomfortable. The image of Peter trying to keep Christ from the cross comes to mind. Peter said, “This shall never be for you!” And the Lord severely rebuked him, saying that he was thinking as a man, not God, and was in the service of Satan.
And what of us? The Church cannot even seem to ask people to attend Mass on a holy day if it is on a Monday or a Saturday. It is apparently too much to ask people to come to Mass two days in a row. If that be the case, who will summon them to withstand and vigorously protest unjust and evil laws, even if it means financial penalties or even jail — and blood martyrdom?
It hardly seems likely that most clergy today would counsel readiness for such a thing or even be close to being ready ourselves. Bishops or priests who do so can expect to be called reckless and imprudent in shy and soft times like these. The cry will surely go up, “It is not yet the time for such things!”
But if not now, when?
Scripture says, “If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8). It cannot simply be priests who must make this call. Parents and other leaders need to sound it, as well.
Yes, parents need to prepare their children for more than a career. They need — now — to prepare them for difficult days ahead, days that will include persecution and even martyrdom, if they decide to follow Christ unambiguously.
Am I wrong? I sure hope so. But we can no longer, as a Church, sit idly by and hope things just magically get better. As a culture, and even in segments of the Church, we have sown the wind, and now we are reaping the whirlwind.
Many, these days, like to criticize the Church of the past for any number of failings. But I wonder how the future members of the Church will remember the Church in our times. Columnist Joseph Sobran, writing more than 15 years ago, wondered the same thing and wrote:
“[Catholics of the future] certainly won’t accuse us of excessive zeal. They might be shocked by our lukewarmness, our cowardice masquerading as tolerance, our laxity, our willingness to countenance heresy, sacrilege, blasphemy and immorality, even within the Church itself, our eagerness to ingratiate ourselves with the secular world …” (Subtracting Christianity, p. 268).
Yes, I, too, wonder. From the time of St. Peter to Constantine, there were 33 popes. Thirty of them were martyred, and two died in exile. Countless clergy and laypeople too were martyred. It is hard to imagine the Church in the decadent West being willing to suffer so. Surely our brethren in many less affluent parts of the world are dying in large numbers. But I wonder: After all these years of “comfort Catholicism,” would the average American parishioner or clergyman be willing or able to endure such loss?
It is time, past time, to retool. It is time to prepare for persecutions that will get bolder by the month and year. The dark movements that marched in under the banners of tolerance never meant it. And having increasingly gained power, they are seeking to criminalize anyone who resists their vision. No tolerance for us. Religious liberty is eroding, and compulsory compliance is already here. The federal courts increasingly shift to militantly secular and activist judges who legislate from the bench.
When will we as a Church finally say to the bureaucrats who demand we comply with evil laws: “We will not comply. If you fine us, we will not pay. If you seek to confiscate our buildings, we will turn maximum publicity against you, but we still will not comply. If you arrest us, off to jail we go! But we will simply not comply with evil laws or cooperate with evil.”
Right now, most of us can barely imagine our clergy standing so firm. Quiet compromises and jargon-filled “solutions” will be a grave temptation to a Church ill-prepared for persecution.
Call me an alarmist or call me an idealist, but I hope we find our spine before it is too late. It is usually a faithful remnant that saves the day in the biblical narrative. I pray only for the strength to be in that faithful remnant. Will you join me? Let’s pray and start retooling now. Only our unambiguous faith can save us or anyone we love. Pray for strong and courageous faith.
Msgr. Charles Pope is a priest
in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (c. 1863-1873)