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Needed: Christians with backbone

Archbishop Wenski's column for the May edition of the Florida Catholic

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During these weeks after Easter, there have been not only here in the archdiocese but throughout the world many celebrations of the sacrament of confirmation. Even Pope Francis presided over a confirmation ceremony recently at St. Peter’s in the Vatican where he conferred the sacrament on a representative group of 44 young people from across the globe. His message is not unlike similar messages being given by bishops in similar ceremonies throughout the world. “Remain steadfast in the journey of faith, with firm hope in the Lord. This is the secret of our journey! He gives us the courage to swim against the tide. Pay attention, my young friends: to go against the current, this is good for the heart, but we need courage to swim against the tide. Jesus gives us this courage!”

In many parts of the world, the custom that had once supported the faith has been eroded by an aggressive secularism which pretends that the life of society can be organized without reference to God. Even here in the United States, despite the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, our popular culture is increasingly hostile to religious faith. Public institutions, whether in government or the media, hardly ever take into account the role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans except to criticize it. 

In a document that the now Pope Francis helped write, the bishops of Latin America said in 2007: “a Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith . . . (or) to bland or nervous moralizing” cannot respond to the spiritual hungers of the postmodern 21st century or its agenda of aggressive secularism.” 

Today, to be a confirmed Catholic is not easy. Not to succumb to the temptation of mediocrity, our newly confirmed and indeed all of us need the courage of faith, “the courage to swim against the tide.” As Blessed John Paul II said some years ago: “for all the baptized it is essential to pass from a faith of custom to a mature faith, which is expressed in clear, convinced, and valiant personal options”.

The defection of thousands of Hispanics to Protestant sects and the fact that many of our youths abandon religious practice once they move out of their parents’ home are both indicative that the force of custom is no longer an effective means of keeping people loyal to the Church and her teachings. In the past, the force of custom in a culture that was friendly to faith gave rise to a sense of complacency among pastors and faithful. That complacency has led us to tolerate more than we should have the inadequate and even defective religious formation of our young people. 

This has left our future generations unprepared to swim against the tide of a radical secularism that threatens to wash away traditional morality based on right and wrong and to replace it with one based on desires. The fragility of the family, daily assaulted by these new secular ways, is increasingly apparent as divorce rates soar even as same sex couples attempt unions parodying marriage.

Like a lobster’s exoskeleton that protected it from predators and disease, a “faith of custom” at one time protected the believer and even “formed” him in faith. Secularistic culture has stripped away the outer shell of custom that at one time supported religious practice. Only a mature faith — freed of false fears, confident and unashamed — can witness convincingly to the truth of the Gospel in today’s world. We need to recommit ourselves so that all our formation programs, especially those involving our young people, are aimed towards challenging us to a mature faith “expressed in clear, convinced, valiant personal options.” In other words, the Holy Father is telling us that, since the exoskeleton of religion-friendly custom has collapsed, in order to proclaim the Good News into the Third Millennium, we need to be Christians with “backbones” — for only in this way will we have the “courage to swim against the tide.”

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