Monday, October 15, 2012

Year of's on, and here's why

Happy new year...the new “Year of Faith.”
What's the Year of Faith about? What's it for? 

Both the Holy Father and Bishop Olmsted have said that the year is really two-fold: first, the rediscovery and recommitment of our faith on a deeply personal level; and second, to dedicate ourselves to renewed efforts to proclaim, teach, and, when necessary, to defend our faith in Christ.

Our central conviction as Catholic Christians is that God has come to us in His Son Jesus Christ, and invited us into an unimaginable friendship that will never end.  Faith, then, is the door to this friendship. Our Catholic faith is the fullest expression of this friendship with God up and down the centuries. The Church doesn't just have a mission; the Church is a mission. 

I couldn't think of a more exciting time to be Catholic than right now, to take up the challenge of renewing our faith and our commitment to proclaim it in re-energized ways.

To best understand the context of the year of faith, we have to see it in light of the Second Vatican Council. 

Fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council had its opening session in October of 1962. What was the situation at the time? Europe, and actually much of the developed world, lay exhausted and scorched by two World Wars of unprecedented destruction and cost. Two bombs added to the uncertainty of the future, one literal and one figurative: the atomic bomb and the pill. The first unleashing technology's power over the future of human life, and the second harnessing technology's power of the origin's of human life. Our beginning and our end seemed to be in our own trembling hands. A time of terrible threat and exhilarating promise. 

And God sent us Pope John XXIII, good and jovial and rotund Pope John, who with sense of humor and humility galvanized the Church with a new sense of hope. He signaled that the Church was abandoning her defensive crouch behind her walls, and throwing open the windows, so that the world might see in and the Church might see out. The Church, he knew, possesses the Good News of Jesus Christ, the "Light to the Nations," Lumen Gentium, and it was time for that Light to Shine forth in a new brilliance.

How did the windows of the Church end up closed?

Let me take you back about four hundred years, to the origins of what we call modernity, a whole philosophical movement whose central concern is the subject, or the interiority of the individual. The self. 

You know of the great founding fathers of modernity from your philosophy classes: from Rene Descartes' wrecking ball of radical doubt, finding solid ground only in the thinking and doubting self "I think therefore I am," Martin Luther's obsessive search for certainty over his own personal salvation in which he wielded his wrecking ball against anything exterior to the interior act of Immanuel Kant's conviction that the human person cannot be used as a means to something else, but must be treated as an end in him or herself...

This was all new, this turn to the subject, to the interior life of the individual, to personal human dignity. And obviously, there is much to say for this, the modern notion of human rights, just to mention one positive. 

But an obsession with the scientific method as the privileged way to knowledge, coupled with radical skepticism about the past--and a prejudice against anything exterior to the subject--led to a fundamental equating of the old with the bad, and the new with good. This attitude found expression in the last years of the 1700's, in the so-called Enlightenment.

In 1789, this movement showed its dark underbelly, its bloody teeth. The French Revolution in particular--a vicious reaction against the past and its accoutrements--led to priests, nuns, bishops, normal Catholics, too, being imprisoned, tortured, executed. This experience penetrated the heart and memory of the Church with a deep wound. And, consequently, a defensive posture resulted. 

Through the 1800's this defensive posture endured, expressed clearly in any number of official Church condemnations against the heresies of modernity. The first Vatican Council, in 1870 began to provide a response beyond this evangelically weak defensiveness, but was cut short due to war, and so the Church's response remained in suspense. 

But by the middle of the 20th century, with the Church holed up behind her walls, dust settling on the incalculable physical destruction of war, we modern people found ourselves wandering through bombed out cities, literally and figuratively picking up the smashed fragments of meaning and purpose. In the 20th century, many voices provided clues to the search for purpose and meaning (e.g., Karl Marx: the material of production and economics; Sigmund Freud, the latent forces of sexual desires; Jean Paul Sartre, freedom from nature in favor of radical autonomy; Friedrich Nietzsche, the will to power.) 

We couldn’t quite put Humpty Dumpty back together a way that the modern culture found convincing. None of these competing voices could provide the personal and cultural resurrection for which modernity was searching.  

So, prompted by Pope John XIII, the Church came to grips with this: in her defensive crouch, her voice was not being heard. Modernity--despite its conviction to the contrary--had never really heard the Gospel. 

Like the rich young man in the gospels, the modern world had never really heard the voice of Jesus Christ saying, "If you want eternal life....sell what you have, give to the poor, and follow me!" Like the young man, fascinated only with his own devices, the modern world couldn't see past its own interior powers to the Other, to God, to Christ; it had not yet learned to be fascinated with following the call of crucified Love. 

So it dawned on Pope John XXIII: the modern world hadn't really rejected the gospel. It hadn't heard the gospel, the good news, at all. And the Second Vatican Council proposed to renew the faith of those who had met Jesus Christ, and then unleash them like a living fire into the world. This wasn't a Council to condemn heresies; it was a Council to captivate "modern" hearts and turn them loose ablaze with divine Love. 

Bishop Olmsted said at the opening Vespers for the Year of Faith that every Council in history is usually followed by 50 years of craziness and confusion, and then, often, great things happen. He said, "We're right on schedule." But the success of the Council is no guarantee. Some Councils that wanted great reforms fizzled out. In 1517 the V Lateran Council proposed great reforms. Catholics shrugged their shoulders and the response was underwhelming. Four years later the Protestant reformation erupted. 

Some Councils succeed. Perhaps most of the (there have been 21) were great successes, like the Council of Trent, for example, in 1570--exploding into wildly fresh displays of faith in art, music, teaching, preaching, missionary life, ethical reforms, etc.  

What about the Second Vatican Council, whose texts are our marching orders? Will it fizzle, or will it change the course of history? It's for us to decide, you and I. This is our time to live, to decide, to act. 

The Council's success will depend on our faithfulness to Christ. On our holiness; on our distinctive happiness of life. Will we--we modern people, so in tune with the unique desires of the subject, the self, the person--will we receive and share the Light to the Nations in the way radical way the Council invites us to? 

Even though our generation hangs in the balance, as does every generation, finally we know the victory is Christ's. This is our faith. In him, our victory is assured--for if God is for us, who can be against us?