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A 'faith of custom' is no longer good enough

Archbishop Wenski's homily to archdiocesan catechetical leaders

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily during a Mass with archdiocesan directors and coordinators of religious education. The Mass was celebrated June 16 at St. Martha Church, Miami Shores.

In another time, when the broader culture still was shaped by Christianity (what some might describe as Christendom), the faith was transmitted to the next generation almost by osmosis: You inherited Christian values and attitudes from the environment around you. People got the faith through custom, as it were.

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 led us to tolerate more than we should have the inadequate and even defective religious formation of our young people.

The defection of thousands of Hispanics to Protestant sects and the fact that many of our youth 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. 

The custom and culture 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.

Future generations are 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. Secularist 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.

So catechesis needs to pass from beyond maintaining a faith of custom to helping foster among the catechized a mature faith, “expressed in clear, convinced, and valiant personal options.”

In other words, since the exoskeleton of religion-friendly custom has collapsed, in order to proclaim the Good News into the Third Millennium we need to be about forming Christians with “backbones.”

This is a daunting task — and when we consider the magnitude of it all, the best possible position for us to start from is “on our knees.”  Antes de hablar de Dios a los hombres, hay que hablar con Dios de los hombres.Before speaking about God to people, we have to speak to God about the people.

Nobody has all the answers, there is no one program, there are no magic formulas — so we do well to start off with a sense of humility, and humility has us turning to God and allowing him to lead us.

St. John Paul II said that young people are for the Church “a special gift of the Spirit of God.” He said that, “Sometimes when we look at the young, with the problems and weaknesses that characterize them in contemporary society, we tend to be pessimistic.” But his experience with the young — and it was amazing how much young people were drawn to him even in his old age — but his experience with the young at World Youth Days, for example, taught him “that young people, whatever their possible ambiguities, have a profound longing for those genuine values which find their fullness in Christ.”

Again, “Is not Christ the secret of true freedom and profound joy of heart? Is not Christ the supreme friend and the teacher of all genuine friendship?”

If this is true — and I’m sure you believe that it is, otherwise you wouldn’t be catechists — it is true therefore that when “Christ is presented to young people as he really is, they experience him as an answer that is convincing and they can accept his message, even when it is demanding and bears the mark of the Cross.”

And today’s Gospel reading reminds how just how demanding — and how counter-cultural — Christ can be.

As Pope Saint John Paul II said commenting on his own ministry with young people: “…in response to their enthusiasm, I did not hesitate to ask them to make a radical choice of faith and life and present them with a stupendous task: to become 'morning watchmen' (cf. Is 21:11-12) at the dawn of the new millennium."

The phrase "morning watchmen" is taken from the prophet Isaiah. Morning watchmen announce the coming dawn — and so for people in darkness and despair they announce light and hope.  And is this the task of catechesis today — to announce light and hope, to proclaim “the joy of the gospel”?

And what more do we need in our post-modern world — a world that increasingly seems like a desert from where God is absent — but the light and hope promised us in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection?

Remember what St. Paul tells us in today’s first reading. “Since, then, we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, ‘I believed, therefore I spoke,’ we too believe and therefore speak, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence.”


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