WASHINGTON — Catholics at the 10th anniversary of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast got a startling wake-up call on May 13: They have lost the luxury of being comfortable in their faith in 21st-century America. More than ever before, they must embrace the risks of discipleship by encountering others and witnessing to the Gospel.
For the 800 people gathered in Washington, the speeches were mainly divided between Princeton professor Robert George’s sobering assessment of what Christian discipleship requires in America’s current cultural-political landscape and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston’s cheerful exhortation for Catholics to embrace the missionary spirit of the early Church.
The breakfast coincided with the feast of Our Lady of Fatima as well as the 33rd anniversary of the near-assassination of St. John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington set the tone for the morning with his invocation, asking God’s blessing "in this time of spiritual renewal and New Evangelization" on the breakfast participants gathered "together here in faith and testimony to the Holy Spirit."
The cardinal asked that God might "lift our hearts, enlighten our minds and strengthen our souls," and he asked for the intercession of St. John Paul II and Mary under her titles of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe, as attendees prepared to "re-propose the Gospel to the world."
"We ask you to inspire us to be more courageous in responding to the challenges of religious liberty, social justice and to the gift of human life," he said. "Let us be agents of the New Evangelization, living as faithful followers of Jesus, your Son, in sharing our faith with those around us."
After a short video introduction from actor Jim Caviezel about his new film, When the Game Stands Tall, the audience settled in for the two main speakers.
No More ‘Tame Catholics’
George told Catholics that he had a "somber" message for them: "The days of acceptable Christianity are over. The days of comfortable Catholicism are past."
He warned that a "price is demanded" of all committed believers, as mainstream America registers its preference for Catholics who might go to Mass but do not embrace the totality of the Church’s teachings — or those who know the Church’s teaching but prefer safety in their silence.
"In other words, a tame Catholic who is ashamed of the Gospel is socially acceptable," said George, even as he called on his audience to "take risks" and follow Christ’s words to "take up thy cross and follow me."
The costs of discipleship may be personal, familial or professional, he said. Standing up for the Church’s teaching on the dignity of human life and marriage — teachings which he said are "not fourth-class Gospel truths" and must be proclaimed with all of the Church’s revealed teaching — may lead to charges of "bigotry" or waging a "war on women" or that Christians are an "enemy of reproductive freedom."
"To believe in the Gospel is to make oneself a marked man or woman," he said.
Culturally, the Church in America has found itself in "Good Friday," George observed.
The shifting, more hostile cultural landscape indicates American society’s "love affair with Jesus and his Church is over."
George reminded his audience that while Jesus Christ has won the ultimate battle, those who live during this time must one day "give an account for all we do" before the "Lord of truth, the God of history."
"One thing and one thing only will matter: Was I a faithful witness to the Gospel?"
"My friends," he said, "the Gospel is true, and that is the most important thing to know. … We’re betting our whole lives on it."
Happy Gospel Warriors
Following upon George’s somber analysis, Cardinal O’Malley livened the mood with a couple of humorous anecdotes. But the cardinal’s levity served to underscore his point that Catholics must embrace Pope Francis’ call to foster a "culture of encounter" and practice "the art of accompaniment" as modern-day disciples of Jesus Christ.
"Our task is to turn consumers into disciples and disciples into disciple-makers," he said. "We need to prepare people to witness to the faith and not to send people into the witness-protection program."
He pointed out that the Church has always dealt with a culture of unbelief, particularly during its beginnings amid the pagan Roman Empire. Although most persecutions of the Church in the past have centered on its revealed doctrines, Cardinal O’Malley noted that today’s hostility focuses on the Church’s teaching on "the dignity of the human person."
Cardinal O’Malley echoed George’s point that belief in the Gospel requires accepting the totality of the Church’s teaching on the human person and said it encompasses even the immigrants living and working in the United States illegally.
He related his own experience working among those people for 20 years in Washington, which opened his eyes to realities that were not originally apparent to his Midwestern "lace-curtain Irish" upbringing.
"Most of my parishioners were undocumented workers — refugees from the wars of Central America," he said. "They were not evil invaders, but people seeking to feed and clothe their families in safety, much like the immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Poland."
The Capuchin cardinal alluded to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, where the protagonist and reformed criminal Jean Valjean is hounded mercilessly by his nemesis, Inspector Javert, for breaking his parole to start a new life.
"If they had broken the law in coming to this country, they were like Jean Valjean," he said. "The solution is not to punish them, but to initiate new and more just laws to replace a system that is broken and woefully inadequate."
Toughest Mission Territory
Cardinal O’Malley said the toughest mission assignment for the Church today is no longer the far-off lands of Papua New Guinea, but the United States or places in Western Europe, "where secularization and de-Christianization are gaining ground."
He observed that while contemporary society offers the example of "superficial, self-absorbed" celebrities, the Church proposes the lives of the saints. He pointed to Servant of God Dorothy Day as an example of how the Church "call[s] everyone to conversion."
"One of the worst effects of the scandals of the Church in our contemporary era is the cynicism of the call to holiness," he said. "People can be overwhelmed by the bad example of priests and bishops who fail to fulfill their calling."
He called on Catholics to "break the habit" of presenting the Gospel in a way that "deceives people into thinking that they can be Christians and remain strangers." The privatization of religion and individualism is "poisonous" to the communal nature of the body of Christ.
"There can be no Catholic life, no holiness, no discipleship without prayer and the sacraments," said Cardinal O’Malley as he pointed to the Mass, "where, by partaking in the Eucharist, we become one with Christ and each other."
He repeated Pope Francis’ call that "love and justice must motivate us to work for the transformation of our own hearts, so that we can transform the world around us."
"We all need to discover more deeply our vocation to live the Gospel teachings," he said. "To put others first and to seek the last place to be close with Jesus, who came to serve and not to be served."