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God is not absent or distant; we have a reason to hope

Archbishop Wenski's Advent reflection with archdiocesan priests

Archbishop Thomas Wenski delivered this Advent reflection to archdiocesan priests gathered Dec. 2, 2022, at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.

Let’s begin our Advent Reflection with an ancient Advent prayer, a prayer with which the New Testament revelation ends: Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus!

By preserving Mary from all stain of sin, the Lord himself was doing his part in preparing the Way of the Lord. Mary — full of grace — would say “Yes” to the Lord, accepting her role in the history of our salvation. Her “yes” opened the doors of our world to hope, to the one hope that will never disappoint, Jesus Christ. We hear John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord. If Mary opened the doors of the world to hope, John the Baptist identified that hope when he pointed to Jesus and said, Behold the Lamb of God.

Mary and John the Baptist are the two icons of the Advent Season, a season that ends with the proclamation of the birth of Jesus, known as Emmanuel, God with us. As Pope Benedict said, a world without God is a world without a future, a world without hope. And so, Advent and Christmas remind us that because God comes into our world, because God matters, because God is not absent or distant for us, we have reason to hope, we have a future.

How do we communicate that hope in an increasingly secular world — a world in which God is exiled to the margins of our lives, and of our consciousness?

A world without hope might be an existential desert — a lonely, arid, hostile place where tribalism has replaced religious fervor, where dysfunctional kids shoot up classrooms, where people resort to consumerism, or drugs, or sex to dull their pain and loneliness. St. Peter in his epistle tells his community: “Be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you.”

But there doesn't seem to be that many people waiting breathlessly for us to tell them.

We all are familiar with the statistics: in the US today, roughly one-third (35 percent) of Americans were raised in a Catholic household; and while most Catholics have remained within the religious fold, a significant number have left the Catholic faith: 15 percent of the U.S. population says they were raised Catholic but no longer identify as such. But contrary to what many believe, they don't become Evangelicals or Protestant. Almost half of the former Catholics remain unaffiliated. They become part of that newest and fastest growing religious denomination called the “nones” (Not n-u-n-s but n-o-n-e-s) — with no religious affiliation.

Not too long ago, I was at a conference with some bishops in which a bishop presented the results of a survey that asked why they stopped practicing their faith (the “nones,” not the bishops). There was a long laundry list of “reasons” given: the sex abuse crisis, poor homilies, boring liturgies with bad music, a priest who was “mean” to them, the rules that to them seemed “old fashioned” or irrelevant, etc.

After the conference, I said to another bishop: These aren't reasons, they are excuses: Homilies were poor and music was bad and priests were all too human, the rules were hard before — when people were still coming to Church.

I'm not saying that we priests don't have to be more coherent in our lifestyles nor that we should not work harder on our homilies; nor am I saying that liturgies should not be better prepared.

But what I am saying is that it isn't enough — and it won't be sufficient to reverse the negative trends that we all have to acknowledge and worry about. And the bad news isn't just for us Catholics.

We all know of Catholics who have left us to join evangelical churches — and so some suggest that we look to see what they're doing and maybe learn from them. We can learn a lot from them — I am sure. They do put a lot more of their resources into youth ministry. But if we consider our Catholic school system from PreK to post-grad as a youth ministry (and why shouldn't we?) the commitment of our resources isn't shabby. But Catholic schools don't seem to be that successful at handing on the faith. And here's a news flash: neither are the evangelicals doing so well. Another study of the millennials (the 20- and 30-somethings) paints a bleak picture. I quote: “Millennials stand out as least likely to value church attendance; only 2 in 10 believe it is important. And more than one third take an anti-church stance.”

In Aparecida, a document that prepared the way for Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, the bishops wrote in May of 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 the faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized, would not withstand the trials of time. Our greatest danger is the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church in which everything apparently continues normally, but in reality, the faith is being consumed and falling into meanness.”

We must all start again from Christ, recognizing that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

In other words, why do young people leave the Church? Why does anyone leave the Church? The answer is simple: They have not encountered Christ and his love. If we don’t understand this, we will — despite all our good intentions — end up with ineffective and thus bad strategies. If we don’t understand what the real problem is, what strategies we come up with will be “bad strategies.” As St. John Paul II said, we are not saved by programs but by a person, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever. As one Presbyterian pastor said, “It is easier to develop a new program than to minister grace to a sinner.” And our people are sinners — just like the rest of us. And so a young person is in need of the reconciling love of Jesus Christ — just like the rest of us.

And, as the pastor added, “There is no mystery here,” so there is no need to radically alter the mission of the Church. The Great Commission given to the apostles by Jesus on the day of the Ascension remains operative.

In 2005 — that’s a long time ago — but in 2005, a man named Christian Smith wrote a study of the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers called “Soul Searching.” He says that the dominant religion among current American teenagers is what he called MTD, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This MTD is a religion that believes in a distant god — out there — who simply wants everyone to be nice to each other and for everyone to be happy. This faith, Smith says, is parasitic — it has to feed on established traditions of historical religions like Christianity and Judaism to survive and grow — but it changes and distorts the theological substance of those traditions in order to create its own distinctive theological and religious viewpoint. Of course, this MTD is found not only among teens, but it is the popular faith among many, if not most, U.S. adults.

And simply to accommodate our ministries, programs and practices to this alternative religion of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is not a formula that will “save the world for Christ.”

Smith talks about “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism;” Pope Francis has spoken in a similar vein. In various speeches and homilies, he has spoken about two trends that he sees make the transmission of faith difficult in our times. He sees these trends as modem incarnations of two ancient heresies and thus he calls them Neo-Pelagianism, which holds that the individual essentially can save himself or herself by their own efforts; and Gnosticism, which reduces salvation to just a kind of subjective good feelings. This Neo-Pelagianism can be seen in what we tell kids sometimes: You can be anything you want to be if you really work at it. Listen, as much as I might work at it, I'm never going to be an opera singer. But more sinisterly, no one born biologically a male can make himself into a female. But a society in which the individual is autonomous, and truth is not a reality outside of ourselves but something we can create on our own, betrays this Neo-Pelagianism. An example of the tendency towards “Neo-Gnosticism” is seen in what many people today say: I am spiritual but not religious and so I don't need the Church and its rules.

In any case, in the face of these trends, it still remains true that the Church exists for the purpose of bringing the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, the one mediator, to all men and every creature. Salvation is not to be reduced to individual effort or to simply good feelings; rather salvation is a gift that incorporates us body and soul into Christ and therefore into a series of relationships that make up the Body of Christ, living in history and beyond history, namely the Church.

Maybe, digressing on MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) or on Neo-Pelagianism and Neo-Gnosticism is to get too deep into the weeds.

But as missionary disciples, it falls to us to transmit the Gospel in an adequate way in the new cultural context in which we live. But our task is not to change the Gospel but to present the Gospel in such a way that it changes us — and those with whom we share it.

Of course, the Christ that is the answer to the longings of the human heart — the Christ that is found in the Gospels — is much different from the image of Christ that prevails in our culture today. The “popular” image of Jesus today, that of MTD, is of a Jesus who demands nothing, who never scolds, who accepts everyone and everything — a Jesus who no longer does anything but affirm us.

And, of course, this image of Jesus — in the view of many of our contemporaries — is the exact opposite of the Church — at least in as much as the Church still dares to make demands. Jesus wouldn't care about these things, would he? And so, the Church — according to this popular mindset — is equated with prejudice and intolerance. The Church is seen as an obstacle, a barrier keeping people away from Jesus.

Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, said: “The Jesus that makes everything okay for everybody is a phantom, a dream, and not a real figure.” The Jesus we meet in the Gospel — who is the same yesterday, today and forever — is demanding and bold. And therefore, he is not always convenient for us in his boldness and in his demands. And the Church, if she is to be the effective presence of Christ in the world today, cannot be ashamed or afraid of the very real demands of discipleship that Jesus boldly makes on those who would be his followers.

And 50 years into the sexual revolution that has given us broken marriages and fractured families, HIV and abortion, hooking up, so called same sex marriage and gender confusion, we cannot be ashamed or afraid of the Gospel's proposal about sexuality and human flourishing. The Church's teachings on this have always been challenging to believers and a stumbling block to non-believers — regardless of their sexual orientation. (cf. Matthew 19: 9-11) For we all are sinners. The Church is, as Pope Francis has said, a “field hospital” tending to those wounded in the battlefields of life with the healing balm of God's grace and mercy. The “medicine” of the Gospel is denied to no one. That's why, in the Church, we seek healing, and we ask God to forgive our sins — and not to bless them.

Jesus — the real Jesus of the gospels — answers the deepest questions of our existence. As St. John Paul II wrote: “Young people, whatever their possible ambiguities, have a profound longing for those genuine values which find their fullness in Christ. Is not Christ,” he continues, “the secret of true freedom and profound joy of heart? Is not Christ the supreme friend and the teacher of all genuine friendship?” Then, he adds: “If 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, of course, what St. John Paul II said in reference to young people is also true of us as well.

To quote Pope Benedict again, a world without God is a world without hope. So many of the problems, so many of the social ills of our time, are merely symptoms of loss of hope, a loss of the view of eternity, of the transcendent. Without hope, the toils of our daily life, the trials and tribulations that we all face in one way or another make life joyless and just drudgery. Life becomes like that arid desert.

And from that desert — from the depths of the loneliness that is our plight when God seems silent and far away — John the Baptist announces that the Lord is in fact very near to each one of us. But we must prepare the way — making straight those paths along which we travel, removing those obstacles, those potholes in the road of life, that keep us exiled from God. And so, Advent and Christmas remind us that because God comes into our world, because God matters, because God is not absent or distant for us, we have reason to hope, we have a future. Thus, Advent is a call to repentance, to conversion — for if we do not recognize our need for God, if we don't acknowledge that he can save and that we cannot save ourselves, then what meaning would Christmas have for us? May the icons of the Advent Season, Mary and John the Baptist show us the way.

There’s a scene in the middle of The Lord of the Rings, where the quest to destroy an evil, all-powerful ring seems to be utterly hopeless. Darkness and danger have surrounded and hounded Frodo, the little hobbit ultimately given the mission to destroy the ring, ever since he set foot out of the Shire, the idyllic and safe home he left behind for this quest.”

This was the scene my friend, Archbishop Charles Chaput, emeritus of Philadelphia, set for a group of university students, as he spoke to them a few years back about their vocations and the purpose of their lives. He was not speaking on South Beach, but at a small Catholic college in North Dakota.

In a moment of despair, Archbishop Chaput noted, Frodo turns to his most faithful friend, Samwise Gamgee, a hobbit who has refused to leave Frodo’s side, and asks him whether it’s even worth continuing with the seemingly impossible mission.

Sam says yes, “because there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

We can complain about our Church and her bishops; we can complain about our family life, our careers, our parish, the state of our world, but unless we decide to be the change that we want to see, we will be just left with our complaints. We can curse the darkness – or we can light a candle.

St. Augustine, who watched the Roman Empire collapse around him and who was a bishop at a time when the Church struggled with bitter theological divisions, would remind his people, when they complained about the evil times they lived in, that the times are made by the choices and actions of the people who inhabit them.

Back to Archbishop Chanut’s talk. He told those millennials that “American life today is troubled by three great questions: What is love? What is truth? And who is Jesus Christ?” These are not the questions debated on cable TV News programs – or, maybe they are, if we’re perceptive enough to read between the lines, as it were.

The secular world proposes easy answers to each of these questions: The secular world reduces love to sentimentality or just confuses it with lust. For the secularist, there is no Truth – with a capital T, something that transcends me, something that I must conform to; there is only “my” truth. And Jesus Christ? No doubt a good guy – who just wants everybody to be nice to each other. (But wait for it, when Easter comes, the secular press will have an article in which some “expert” will say something outlandish about Jesus or dig up another proof of the humanity of his followers – as if the actions of Judas and the apostles after the Last Supper didn’t give us enough proof that we are sinners.)

These are “easy answers” – but they are ultimately false answers, false because they do not satisfy the hunger of our hearts, a hunger that noise, drugs, and sex can never fully anesthetize. We cannot reduce “man’s search for meaning” to what we can consume.

The Englishman, G. K. Chesterton, was an English man of letters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He surprised and dismayed many of his friends when he converted and became a Roman Catholic. When pressed for an explanation, he told them: “I became a Catholic so that I could have my sins forgiven.”

That is a pretty good reason. And, if we were to put out a “want ad" to seek more converts, perhaps the headline could read, “Sinners wanted,” or “Only sinners need apply.”

Advent should be a time to take a spiritual inventory – to ask ourselves those hard questions about the extent our hearts are unredeemed and thus in need of the coming of Christ.

So, the questions we must ask this Advent might include: How much of my heart truly belongs to Christ? How have I been self-sufficient instead of asking for and surrendering to God’s grace? Where in my life do I need God to enter my “weakness and wretchedness” and transform it with his strength? 

Advent with its warning that we be “watchful” can help us avoid making the one great mistake in life: getting absorbed in a thousand things and not to notice God.

Drawn by our own interests…and distracted by so many vain things, we risk losing sight of what is essential. Thus, the byword of the Advent Season is: Keep watch and stay awake.

You might remember the movie, Groundhog Day. The star woke up – and still found himself caught in time, each day repeating what he did the day before. And once he realized that he was trapped in time his life became one of sad desperation.

Many religions of the world present life in somewhat the same fashion – that it is just one big cycle – always going back to the beginning as it were.

However, our Christian religion – like the other two religions that claim Abraham as their father in faith, Judaism, and Islam – does not see life as some sort of endless cycle. God puts us on this earth – but this earth is not a treadmill but a highway. Our earthly life has a purpose; our earthly life has a destination.

We live in a society of instant gratification – which is probably why the stores are already filled with carols and Christmas trees, the Church, however, marches to a different tune. We put on purple vestments, we don’t sing the Gloria. The wake-up call, which is the Advent Season, calls us to penance, to conversion of heart. During this season of Advent, all of us should approach the confessional, if only to remind us that Jesus is the reason for the season. Without acknowledging that we are not as self-sufficient, as autonomous as we sometimes pretend; without recognizing the false turns we have made, the sinful choices that turn us away from the destiny to which he calls us, God will be not only “missing” from our lives; he will not even be “missed.” How can we welcome the one who comes to save us, if we don’t acknowledge our need to be saved?

“Stay awake”, Jesus tells us in Sunday’s gospel. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.”

That vigilance demands we distinguish ourselves from the routine of a world that doesn’t hope for anything more than the here and now. In a such a world people go about their normal routines – eating and drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage, working in the field, and grinding at the mill – without any awareness of God, or God’s purpose for them, in their lives. Life in this way, as St. Paul told us in the second reading can ensnare in “the works of darkness”. Advent calls us to reorient ourselves towards “the dawning light.”

St. Paul doesn’t devalue the activities that make up our daily lives, but he tells us to live these activities “in the light of eternity.” So, while eating and drinking continues “not carousing and drunkenness,” marriage continues, but without “sexual excess and lust”; work in the fields and mills remains but “without quarreling and jealousy.”

This is how Advent invites us to make straight the path to the Lord.

Advent as our annual “wake-up” call reminds us of our eternal destination – that we were made by God, and for God. We have to get off the treadmill of our lives and move in a purposeful direction through these weeks of penance and prayers towards the Christmas feast. Otherwise, we risk succumbing to the dangers of mediocrity, lukewarmness, and indifference in our Christian life.

Without making an effort to love God daily and awaiting the newness he constantly brings, we easily become mediocre, lukewarm, worldly – and this is what eats away and erodes our faith. Pope Francis says that “faith is the very opposite of mediocrity: it is an ardent desire for God, a bold effort to change, the courage to love, constant progress." Faith is not water that extinguishes flames, it is fire that burns; it is not a tranquilizer for people under stress, it is a love story for people in love.

When we sit down to watch a movie, we don’t usually fast forward to watch the final scenes first. Rather we start the film at the beginning. Well, Advent proceeds differently: It begins with the end. Advent tells us to “watch” – but this is not like watching a movie where we can just sit there. We watch a movie and later we will give our review, our judgment on whether it was a good movie or not. Advent tells us to “watch,” to be vigilant – because we will be the ones reviewed, our lives will be judged – and vigilant we must be since we do not know the day or the hour.

A ship that does not know its destination will just drift aimlessly across the seas. And if we do not know our end we can drift aimlessly through life. That’s why Advent starts with the end – because it’s important for us to understand that our lives are going someplace and that someplace will be sorted out on the Day of Judgment when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Like Isaiah, one of those “Advent” prophets we hear in the liturgies of Advent, we do well to pray to God saying: “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways.”

We will be judged – and that should concern us; but not paralyze us with fear, because even as the Advent season begins with the end, it ends with the beginning: the beginning of God’s kingdom on earth when the Son of God takes on our flesh and is born of the Virgin Mary. That beginning which the Advent season prepares us to celebrate reveals that God’s judgment is that we – all of us – are worth saving. Jesus is God’s judgment of the world – but Jesus comes in mercy and grace. For God sent his only begotten Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it.

Isaiah seems to be describing our world as much as he was describing his world: “There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you...” The ascendant secularism of our times has pushed God to the margins of life – and a world without God is like a desert – a dry, arid, hostile place, a place without life, without hope.

 The Scripture readings of Advent — drawn mostly from Isaiah — tell us of how God prepared Israel and the world for the coming of the promised Messiah. As we pray in the fourth Eucharistic prayer: “And when through disobedience he (mankind) had lost yourfriendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death. For you came in mercy to the aid of all, so that those who seek might find you. Time and again you offered them covenants and through the prophets taught them to look forward to salvation. And in the fullness of time, you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our Savior.”

God acts to save us — for God so loved the world that he sent his Son to be our Savior. Jesus is Emmanuel: which is translated “God is with us” but also means “God is for us.”

God saves us freely — but he does not save us without our consent, without our collaboration, without our obedient acceptance of his Will.

Jesus comes into our world to bring us peace, joy; he comes to show us the Father and to forgive our sins. And as God chose a people in the Old Testament to collaborate with him in carrying out his plan, so Jesus chose apostles and disciples to collaborate with him “announcing to the world the good news of salvation.”

As Catholics we must respond to the challenges of our times with the courage of faith. In coming months, one of the most important challenges will be the Eucharistic Revival, an effort to re-catechize our people about the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and our communion in his Body and Blood.

Our parishes exist to reintroduce the world to God – they should be communities of love, schools of prayer where people can experience something of God’s forgiveness and love of them.

There are corrosive ideologies and idolatries that have created very turbulent waters for the Barque of Peter and those of us who travel on the ship which is the Church. And sometimes it seems that we who are traveling on the ship are trying to scuttle it through our sins of commission and omission, as we see today in the various crises in the Church.

Yet we should never give in to a spirit of pessimism. For Jesus has given the Church his Holy Spirit. “The gates of hell shall not prevail over her,” Jesus assures us. And so, for almost 2000 years, and here in the Archdiocese of Miami for 60 years, the Church sails on.

Thanks to the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, neither the enemies of the Church nor the sins of her members have been able to destroy her. We might travel on rough seas – but we are not adrift. Thanks to our faith in Jesus Christ, we know the end and the beginning of our existence.

Thanks to Advent, that lets us see the end of the story even as we prepare to celebrate the story’s beginning in a town when in a small town called Bethlehem a child was born for us.

But just as the Hobbits did not remain in the Shire, so too, are Christians called to go out from the relative safety of their parishes to engage the world as missionary disciples in the war between good and evil being waged for the soul of the world.

Let me end again with Sam’s answer to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: “There’s some good in the world, and it’s worth fighting for.” And as Archbishop Chaput told those college kids, “That’s a pretty good description of the vocation God asks from each of us.”