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'We must all start again from Christ'

Archbishop Wenski's talk to men, women religious gathered for their Advent recollection

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this message to men and women religious gathered at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami for their annual Advent day of recollection, Dec. 8, 2019. Later the same day, he celebrated Mass with them.

Perhaps we can begin this recollection with some words from Saint Anselm that we may have read in Friday’s Office of Readings:

“Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him.

“Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him and when you have shut the door, look for him. Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: I seek your face; your face, Lord, I desire.”

Tomorrow we will celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. 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.

Later, at Mass on this the Second Sunday of Advent, we will 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 then 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 the Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, 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 people’s lives, and of their consciousness? As we did last year in the Archdiocese, this weekend our parishes are hosting open houses – we’re calling it a Welcome Weekend in which parishioners are supposed to have reached out to neighbors to invite them to Mass — but I have no illusions that many of our parishioners succeeded in bringing someone new to church, nor do I have many illusions that more than just a few tried. But the exercise is important — and serves as a reminder to all our parishioners of what we're supposed to be about as a Church.

A world without hope easily becomes 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 U.S. 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 priests don't have to be more coherent in their lifestyles nor that they should not work harder on their 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 enough 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 Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, the bishops of Latin America 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 new programs 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 must 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 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, and as consecrated religious, 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 emeritus 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 pot holes 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.

I began quoting St. Anselm – from Friday’s Office of Readings; let me finish with Anselm:

“Teach me to seek you, and when I seek you show yourself to me, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, nor can I find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you in desiring you and desire you in seeking you, find you in loving you and love you in finding you.” Amen.

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