Forging the Future America Forfeited

The Archdiocese of Denver sponsored the second annual Mile Hi Congress Feb. 25-27 with the theme, “On the Road to the Father,” focused on Catholic educators, both teachers in schools and parents in the home. Following are excerpts from Archbishop Chaput's address.

My theme this morning is “forming disciples for the third millennium.”

Let's talk first about the idea of “forming.” Forming is not the same as informing. It's not just a matter of providing choices to another person, and then standing back to see what happens. I'm a Capuchin Franciscan, and I was formed to think and feel, act and pray, in the spirit of my community, which is rooted in the life of St. Francis. I was molded.

Spouses mold each other in the covenant of marriage, guided by God's grace. Friends form each other through the joys and sorrows of their friendship. And parents form their children through their encouragement and discipline. In every case, the goal is a deepening of communion, love, joy and maturity — but the means to that end can be experienced as pressure and suffering. Real love can sometimes feel like a hammer. …

Proverbs (3:11-12) tells us, “Do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” And the letter to the Hebrews (12:7) reminds us that in suffering, “God is treating you as sons, for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?”

And this is why the letter of James tells us, “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (1:2). Suffering is a tool. God uses this tool to shape each of us into the saints he wants us to be. God sees the shape of our holiness in the marble of our humanity. Then he cuts away the stone of sin to free us.

The Sculptor and the Teacher

Now, people aren't blocks of stone. They're living tissue, with the freedom and dignity of children of God. And teachers aren't chisels and hammers. Or at least they shouldn't be. They are active, cooperating agents in God's plan, not merely his instruments. But we can still draw some lessons from the sculptor and his work.

First, the great sculptor is motivated by love, not merely technical skill. The sculptor loves the beauty and the truth he sees locked in the stone. In the same way, the great teacher loves the possibilities for beauty and truth — the hint of the image of God — she sees in the face of her students.

Next, the great sculptor has a passion for his work and a confidence in his vision. In like manner, no Catholic teacher or parent can form another person in the faith without a passion for the Gospel, a personal zeal for Jesus Christ, and an absolute confidence in the truth of the Church and her teaching. No teacher can give what she doesn't have herself. If you yourself don't believe, then you can only communicate unbelief. If I'm not faithful myself, then I will only communicate infidelity. Who we are, is part of the formation we give to others.

Finally, we need to recognize that people, unlike marble, have free will which must be respected. A person can freely reject the Gospel. The person who forms another in the faith must rely, therefore, on persuasion and never coercion. At the same time, though, the teacher should never lose sight of the fact that real freedom, Gospel freedom, is a very different creature from secular ideas of liberty, and choice for choice's sake.

Real freedom emerges from self-sacrifice, not self-assertion. That's a radically counter-cultural message today. But of course, it's the truth. If we believe God created us for a purpose, then some choices lead to beauty, truth, dignity and joy. And others do not. Real freedom consists in conforming ourselves to God's plan.

Who is Jesus Christ?

“Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” But what does a disciple look like? What does a disciple do? Well, maybe we should start with what a disciple doesn't do.

A disciple doesn't merely assent to Jesus Christ, with this or that intellectual reservation, because Jesus is not an idea. A disciple doesn't endorse the message of Jesus Christ from the sidelines. A disciple doesn't relativize Jesus Christ as a first century reformer who would have included this or that social issue in his agenda if he'd just had the benefit of 20th century hindsight. A disciple does-n't merely admire Jesus Christ as a great teacher and prophet.

Jesus is so much more than all these things.

On the contrary, the disciple of Jesus Christ loves and follows him. The disciple of Jesus Christ accepts him without reservation as the Son of God. The disciple of Jesus Christ submits and conforms his or her whole life to the Gospel. The disciple of Jesus Christ believes that he is “the way, the truth and the life,” the only redeemer, the only messiah, the only sure path to eternal joy. He is the savior; there is no other.

Discipleship is not the equivalent of a club membership. Properly lived, it's sacrificial. In fact, it's all-absorbing, which is why real discipleship is so unpopular in contemporary American culture. It gets in the way of consumer self-indulgence. Discipleship is the total dedication to following Jesus Christ, preaching His Gospel and serving His Church.

In his recent apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America, the Holy Father says, “the vital core of the new evangelization must be the clear and unequivocal proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ — that is, the preaching of his name, his teaching, his life, his promises and the kingdom he has gained for us by his paschal mystery.” …

First Millennium Spirit, Third Millennium Realities

That brings us to the final idea in our theme for this morning. What exactly does it mean to form disciples for the third millennium?

I have two answers.

Here's the first: Forming disciples for the third millennium is going to demand exactly the same missionary spirit and missionary skills it took for the first 2,000 years. The human predicament on January 1, 2000, will probably look pretty much the same as it did on January 1, 1990, and pretty much the same as it will on January 1, 2010. There's nothing secret or magic or frightening or radically new, or even particularly dramatic, about New Year's Eve 1999 — unless you're looking for an excuse to party. Or unless you believe in Jesus Christ as the center and meaning of history. God is still God. We're still made of the same stone. And most people in the world have still not heard the Gospel preached to them.

For 70% of the people on this planet, the “new millennium” is no more than a convenient standard for measuring time. It has no religious content whatsoever. For me, that's much more troubling than the hands on any clock. If the world does not know Jesus Christ, it's because of us: our lack of missionary zeal, our lack of sacrifice, our lack of love. And that problem isn't solved by new tools or new information. It's solved by our own conversion and discipleship — which is pretty much the same story as every generation since the cross.

Real freedom emerges from self-sacrifice, not self-assertion. That's a radically counter-cultural message today.

But we are entering an age which will have its own unique challenges, and this is my second [point] — that we need to form disciples in the decades ahead who are prepared for a world drastically different from anything in American memory. Physics is changing the way we articulate the structure of the universe. Genetics is changing the way we articulate the structure of the human person. And in the midst of this accelerating power and knowledge, Western societies — many of them constituting the Christian world as we once knew it — are removing themselves from the future.

Removing Ourselves from the Future?

What I mean is this: In today's developed countries, one in seven persons has an age of 65 or older. But in 30 years, that number will grow to one in four. In other words, over the next three decades, the percentage of older people in our population will nearly double.

Here are some other statistics: In 1950, the developed countries had about 24% of the world's population. By 2050, they will account for barely 10%. Over the next half century, more than 30 developed countries, from Austria, to Russia to Spain to the United Kingdom, will actually lose population in real numbers. The fertility rate in every developed country has already fallen below the replacement rate of 2.1. By 2050, the 12 most populous nations in the world will include only one of today's developed countries. That will be the United States, which will sustain its population on immigration. These data come from Peter Peterson's new book, Gray Dawn, but they're widely available from other reliable sources as well.

The implications for people in the developed countries are pretty obvious. As lifespans increase and fertility drops, pension and healthcare expenses will go up. Unfortunately, the workforce supporting those expenses by taxes will shrink. Therefore, the tax burden on each younger worker will grow. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that euthanasia, to name just one example, will look more and more cost effective in the coming decades. At a minimum, friction between the old and the young in developed countries will increase. And it will have a huge impact on social welfare policies. Population growth in the less developed countries, meanwhile, is likely to continue. This is why governments like our own are forcing population control on the more fertile developing countries — it's now seen as a matter of urgent national security in many of the aging, industrialized states.

I mention these projections because the assumptions which we've made, for most of our lives, about the shape of the future — well, they're going to be wrong. Drastically wrong. The human story will remain the same, but the organizational terrain of human societies and institutions will not. And we can't avoid much of what's coming, both the good and the bad. If the entire developed world woke up from its death wish tomorrow and began restoring its fertility rate, it would take decades to have any effect. More importantly though, if a society has freely chosen against life, does it make any sense to mourn it? Beyond a certain critical threshold, the human family might be better without such a society. …

Whatever lies ahead, the world doesn't need more anger, more fear and more enclaves. It needs seeds of renewal, and the leaven of Christian hope. That means us, and those whom we teach. The work each of you does today as a Catholic educator is the most important enterprise in the world. Forming disciples for the third millennium boils down, finally, to preaching, teaching and building the culture of life which flows from the cross of Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Charles Chaput is the ordinary of Denver.