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Spirituality in Contemporary Catholic Church

Lecture by Archbishop Thomas Wenski at FIU

Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Archbishop Thomas Wenski - The Archdiocese of Miami

Spirituality in Contemporary Catholic Church: Lecture Given by Archbishop Thomas Wenski at Florida International University on Oct. 24, 2012.

I thank you for the invitation to speak here tonight; it is an opportunity that I welcome. Despite the secularism of our age or perhaps, because of it many people are rediscovering an interest in spirituality. One can go to almost any commercial bookstore and discover whole sections devoted to the theme.

Unfortunately, at least from my perspective as a Catholic, most of what sells as spiritual reading, is usually classified under the heading of New Age. And more often than not, such spiritual reading does not demand any more faith or belief than going to the movies. New Age spirituality born as a reaction to contemporary culture but nevertheless its child certainly represents a new challenge to the Church today. Yet, there is very little that is new in New Age teachings. It is pretty much a rehash of old Gnostic heresies.

So, not all that is marketed under the rubric spirituality is chicken soup for the Christian soul. Indeed, much of it, if consumed indiscriminately or unwarily, could prove poisonous to the life of faith. While New Age writings may seductively appeal to the legitimate longing of human nature, they are fundamentally opposed to Christian revelation.

Another reason perhaps for the interest in spirituality is the fact that an increasing number of Americans identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. (According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, one in five Americans identifies themselves in this way. I wont ask for a raise of hands here.) Add to this, the data Pew released a few years ago on religious affiliation in America. It found among other things, that the Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition because of affiliation swapping. While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, fewer than one in four say theyre Catholic today. That means roughly 10% of Americans are ex-Catholics. (I wont ask for a raise of hands here either.) The situation among what are called Mainline Protestant Churches is perhaps even direr.

Thus, we find people who say they believe but do not belong; and, as we see sometimes in many Catholics in public life (but not exclusively among them), we find those who belong but who apparently do not believe. Churches are seen as merely voluntary organizations and affiliation or non affiliation a matter of personal taste or choice. And thus Americans become individual consumers of religion, picking their religious identity a la carte as it were. And so, where many people define themselves as spiritual but not religious they may construct for themselves made to order creeds in which they profess to believe in Jesus (expressed sometimes very vaguely) but not in the Church.

The strong individualism of our American culture undermines the sense of a collective identity in which Catholicism is experienced as a distinctive way of life. Thus those who call themselves spiritual but not religious usually associate faith with private rather than public spheres of life (the private involving personal experience, the public having to do more with institutions, creeds and ritual).


If spirituality describes our struggle with issues of how our lives fit into the greater cosmic scheme of things, for the Catholic Church the personal act of faith (what the theologian calls the fides qua creditor) cannot be divorced from the content of faith itself (the fides quae creditor). Or as one of the ancient Fathers of the Church said: one could not claim God as his or her Father without at the same time acknowledging the Church as his or her Mother. The living out of that faith then is spirituality but it is also necessarily a living out of that faith religiously. The central act of our faith and the highest manifestation therefore of Catholic spirituality is participation in the Holy Eucharist seen as the source and summit of the Christian life.

Although all Catholics are expected to pray together at Mass, there are many different forms of spirituality and private prayer which have developed over the centuries. Each of the major religious orders of the Catholic Church has its own unique spirituality - its own way of approaching God in prayer and in living out the Gospel. There is a Benedictine Spirituality, of which the Lectio Divina is one example; there is a Franciscan spirituality, a Dominican, a Carmelite spirituality. We have the Roman Rite both the new form as well as the extraordinary form; we have the Byzantine and the other Eastern Rites. Its a big Church. So we can talk within Catholicism of distinct Spiritualities that fit the temperament and personalities of everyone.

What they all have in common is that spirituality in our Catholic tradition is more than just narcissistic navel gazing. It is not a self-absorbed seeking after self-fulfillment found through esoteric teachings or practices. Christianitys invitation is to look outwardly and beyond to a New Advent of the God who calls us to a dialogue of love, a dialogue which invites us to conversion and submission to his will.

Authentic spirituality, then, for the Christian, is not so much about our search for God but about Gods search for us. Spiritual life is a relationship with the Triune God entered into through our participation in Christs passion, death and resurrection through baptism and the living of a life of discipleship. This personal relationship with God grows through his free gift of grace and sheds light on our relationship to our fellow men and women and indeed on our relationship to the world.

Our beloved Pope John Paul II urged us all to learn to know Christ and make yourselves known to him! Personal encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ is true spirituality. It is the opposite of self-centeredness and self-seeking. Christian spirituality is self-emptying (kenosis). It is giving up everything to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

After he had fed the crowds with the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Jesus rebuked them not for following him but for following him for the wrong reasons. (cf. John 16) And people, then as now, often do seek Christ for the wrong reasons. We see this in the adherents of the prosperity gospel preached by some of the T.V. evangelists. These prosperity evangelists teach that Jesus is all satisfying because I drive a BMW The trappings of wealth are seen as a sign of Gods blessings. This health, wealth and prosperity gospel is in fact a heresy a false teaching which distorts the true gospel message. But it has been a perennial temptation. St. Augustine in the fourth century remarked: How many seek Jesus for no other purpose than that he may do good for them in this present life. Scarcely ever is Jesus sought for Jesus sake.

To build ones faith in Jesus on the promise of prosperity is to build on sand. For, faith in Jesus must be a faith in Jesus crucified. You cannot remove the cross from his message.

In the 1970s, in many of our parish churches unfortunately, the crucifix was removed from its position of prominence in their liturgical dcor. An image of the crucified Jesus was often replaced by a happier Jesus; that is, with an image of the Risen Jesus. Of course, the desire to give emphasis to the Resurrection, which is the basis of our faith, is certainly legitimate. But, one could ask if there was not also an attempt to accommodate to the self-indulgence of our culture by downplaying the hard sayings of the gospel.

If we buy into this health, wealth and prosperity gospel, then inevitably we will undergo a crisis of faith when the cross intrudes into our lives. And the cross will intrude whether through sickness, business failure or family crisis.

Far from experiencing health, wealth and prosperity, the early Christians in their witness to Jesus Christ encountered opposition, persecution, imprisonment as well as a whole array of physical hardships hunger, shipwreck and illness. The first martyr, Stephen, experienced the cross in the opposition the Sanhedrin stirred up against him, in the false witnesses that distorted and defamed his message. Yet, even though he knew that what awaited him was death by stoning, his face shown like that of an angel. (Acts 6-7)

For Stephen, it wasnt money, or his acceptance by the authorities, or the acclaim of the crowds that made life valuable. It was God the God who revealed in himself in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. Steven is dragged out of the city gates and a certain Saul of Tarsus witnesses what happens; in fact, he holds the garments of those who stone Stephen to death. And Stephen, like the myriads of martyrs who will follow him (including Saul who after his conversion was known as Paul) gives witness, even through the deepest possible pain, that God is enough.

St. Theresa of the Child Jesus appeared on the world scene in the early 20th century a few years after her death at age 24. She lived, of course, in the last two decades of the 19th century at time when in Europe, the intellectual elites were convinced that human society could be organized without reference to God. This was the radical humanism that grew up from the Enlightenment and then morphed into the various ideologies of the 20th century. These ideologies self-consciously denied the existence of God or, if not denying his existence outright, they judged his existence to be irrelevant to real life.

In other words, Marie-Therese Martin, as she was known before entering the convent at 15, came of age in a time when people began to believe that they could live as if God did not matter. But, for her and this is, I believe, - the reason for her appeal, nothing else mattered but God. Living the spirituality of Carmel a spirituality that has given the world such giants of mysticism as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Theresa of the Child Jesus lived always in the presence of God. And, this God mattered because it was his Love that sustained the world.
Even if her contemporaries no longer thought to care about God, Theresa reminded us that God still cared about us and that the secret for true happiness was found in us caring enough to seek to please him in all things. She taught us the little way that is, the road to sanctity is found in turning what a worldly viewpoint might considered insignificant or unimportant into opportunities to do Gods will. To be a saint one did not have to do heroic things or work wonders. One could achieve sanctity by doing ordinary things with great love. This is what she teaches us in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, a journal she wrote in obedience to her confessor.

Where do we encounter Jesus today? In our daily prayer. In our active participation in the life of our parish. In the liturgy and the sacraments especially the Eucharist, our most intimate and most profound communion with Christ. In our veneration of Mary and the saints. In our service to those in need. In our patient waiting (and active preparation) for his coming again

If we are to serve our brothers and sisters as we strive to leave this world a better place, we must follow the example of Christ, who knelt to wash the feet of his disciples. We have to kneel in humility - to wash the feet of the people we wish to serve; but, if we are to do so consistently and constantly, day after day, then we must learn to kneel before our God in humble adoration and prayer.

This humility is what must characterize the interior disposition of anyone, of everyone, who wishes to walk on his lifes journey as a disciple of the Lord. For without it, we will stray in one wrong direction or another. Instead of following the Lords lead, we might, for example, give in to the temptation to take charge, in other words, to do go our own way rather than to follow his way. Or we may go to the other extreme and give in to a certain inertia in which we explain away our mediocre response to the challenges of discipleship saying: it doesnt make any difference anyway.
Didnt somebody say once that life is messy? Such is the state of our fallen nature; virtue is achieved with difficulty and only through our cooperation with Gods grace. Original sin has left our will weakened, our reason clouded and our heart confused in its desires. And faced with the messiness of our lives, we can sometimes be tempted to sell the gospel short.
All of us lose our way at times. We all become focused on things that dont really matter. We need a spiritual compass or road map to help us find our way. We need to find the path that leads us to Christ (the path that is Christ). Allow him to find you, Blessed John Paul II says, Allow Christ to find you. Let him know all about you, let him guide you.
Prayer can give us serenity even when dealing with the messiness of our lives for in prayer we learn to trust in the power of Divine Mercy even when we are confronted with the weakness of our own human nature. Prayer reminds us to Let go and let God. Of course this does not mean a resigned passivity in the face of lifes challenges. We must pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on us. But prayer must be the soul of all our human activity. In this way, prayer can keep us humble even while humility itself is the foundation of prayer. As the Catechism teaches (cf. 2559), the one who speaks with God out of the depths of a humble and contrite heart will experience the gift of prayer.

Well, I think I will end here and perhaps entertain a few questions. What I have tried to do is to present a vision of contemporary Catholic spirituality. I tried to draw a contrast to Catholic spiritually with two competitors, if you will: one represented by New Age thought; the other by a particular version of evangelism. But, my presentation today is certainly not exhaustive the theme is too board to be given justice in a short lecture. And as they say, talk is cheap. But I end by saying: To those shopping around in the worlds fair of religious proposals, the appeal of Christianity will be felt first of all in the witness of the members of the Church, in their trust, calm, patience and cheerfulness, and in their concrete love of neighbors, all the fruit of their faith nourished in authentic personal prayer. (Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life)

Comments from readers

BRIAN WADE - 10/25/2012 4:18 PM
Credit FIU's Program in the Study of Spirituality for bringing powerful Archbishop Wenski to the university setting. Students posed earnest and searching questions. And the Archbishop sometimes paused to respond with his most thoughtful answers. Faith brings surprises... We were just starting to reexamine a premise when we were suddenly transported to a remote and dangerous part of the world.
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