Why the Church? Minneapolis. Hyatt Regency Hotel
Do What He Tells You
We offer a few notes from the testimony of the Archbishop of Boston at the presentation
of Why the Church? in Minnesota, last January 19th
by Sean Patrick O’Malley
And without truth, there can be no freedom. And without freedom, there can be
no love. And that’s why the Church is very concerned about freedom. Our
mission is to lead people to the truth so that they can be free, so that together
we can establish a civilization of love. Truth and freedom are threatened in
a very hostile culture today. You know, for centuries, the great ideal of the
Catholic faith was martyrdom. In our altars, we still have the martyr’s
stone to remind us how our spiritual ancestors gathered for the Eucharist in
the catacombs and, on the tombs of the martyrs, celebrated the divine mysteries.
These martyrs were witnesses to truth and had such great freedom in their lives,
that they could lay their lives down in a supreme act of love…. In this
irrational age, we will only be able to convince people by the martyrdom of holiness,
the martyrdom of self-giving.
The religion of relativism
Today, relativism is the religion of the mass media, and also of the educational
establishment. [Alan – Tom S.] Bloom wrote so well of it in The Closing
of the American Mind. Today we’re turning out writers, editors, teachers,
and managers who embrace this new religion of relativism. Perhaps our idolatry
of freedom has led to the belief that we can all choose our own truth because
the truth as an absolute is rejected as too confining, too demanding on the autonomous
The traditional Catholic approach to the intellectual life for people is fides
quarens intellectum–faith seeking understanding. Today, the crisis is quite
complex. We have a crisis of faith. People are prepared to believe almost anything.
It’s a crisis of credulity. Religion is being reduced to New Age warm fuzzies,
little inner voice, little ritual. And I’m OK, you’re OK, even when
I’m a wreck.
The crisis, more than a loss of faith, is often a disintegration of reason among
the managing classes, the judges, the writers, the teachers, the pundits. Reason
is the matter on which the form of faith works. Faith perfects reason in a manner
analogous to the way a sculptor perfects a stone. But if the stone is pulverized,
the form is empty air. An illusory pseudofaith survives, like a puff of dust
under the loss of reason, as a vague, uncertain sentiment.
Babel and Pentecost
To me, Augustine’s two cities find their Scriptural counterpart between
Babel and Pentecost.
At Babel, the people had rejected God’s plan, and came together to fulfill
their selfish ambitions and vanity. The Spirit descended on them and confused
their tongues. Suddenly, the people cannot understand each other. They can no
longer communicate with each other. Their project is abandoned, and they are
scattered to the ends of the earth.
Pentecost is the mirror image of Babel. Jerusalem is full of strangers, pilgrims
from all over the Mediterranean world. When the disciples go forth from just
having received the gift of the Holy Spirit, every one of the foreigners understands
them, each one in his or her own language, as they speak to all about the wonderful
things of God.
Human vanity and selfishness are the components of the Tower of Babel. The lack
of communication, the confusion of tongues, is the hallmark of our Promethianism,
our modern individualism that tramples the common weal and subordinates everything
to personal gain and convenience.
The Pentecost experience does not obliterate our differences, but joins us in
professing one faith, in one language, the language of the Spirit, the language
of love. Those who belong to the City of God are builders of the civilization
of love. A few years ago, our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, brought together
all of the apostolic movements in a wonderful Pentecost celebration, I think
to underscore the fact that the movements are to help us to come out of that
bunker mentality and invite people to join the ranks of the disciples.
Description of the Christians
One of my favorite documents from the early Church is the beautiful letter to
Diogneto. It was a letter written about 150 A.D. The author is describing early
Christians to a distinguished and noble pagan gentleman. He writes, “The
Christians are distinguished from others neither by country, nor language, nor
the customs which they observe, for they neither inhabit cities of their own,
nor employ a particular form of speech. They follow the customs of the citizens
of whatever country they inhabit in regard to clothes, or food, or the rest of
their ordinary conduct.”
Then the author goes on to say, “They marry, they beget children, but they
do not destroy their offspring. They share their table, but not their bed. They
pass through days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the proscribed
laws, and at the same time, surpass the laws by their life. They love all people.”
We live at a time in history when believers will again be singled out as those
strange people who don’t kill their offspring, those quaint folk who share
their table but not their bed. Our challenge is to be champions of the Gospel
of Life, defenders of the sacredness of marriage and family, and promoters of
the common good. And when we do these things, we are building the civilization
Forgetting God is very dangerous. We are Catholics today because Christ commanded
us to gather around the Eucharist: “Do this in memory of Me. Never forget
my love. I am with you always, when two or three are gathered in my name.”
Being part of a worshipping community is the best way that we remember God and
are nourished by Christ’s Gospel and His sacraments, so that we will, in
solidarity with our brothers and sisters, be able to carry out our mission that
has been entrusted to us.
There are two scenes in the Gospels that have always fascinated me, where Jesus
approaches his disciples and is with them, and then begins to move away from
them. One of them is Emmaus, which is probably the one you’re most familiar
with, where Jesus is walking with them, talking with them, talking about the
Scriptures. And when they get to Emmaus, Jesus makes as if he’s going to
continue on his way. And the disciples say, “Nonne nobidcum Dominus.” “Stay
with us”. Jesus wants to be invited. He wants to be wanted.
Freedom and obedience
When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, it was because they wanted to be like
God, and have complete freedom. The desire for freedom made them disobedient.
In reality, Christ did not cling to His Godliness, but emptied Himself, took
on the form of a slave, became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Jesus,
who was truly free, chose to obey.
The great American theologian Archie Bunker was having a discussion once with
his son-in-law, Meathead, and Archie made a disparaging remark about the Jewish
people, and Meathead immediately rebuked him, and said, “Archie, remember,
Jesus was a Jew.” And Archie said, “Yes, but only on his mother’s
Mary is the link with God. She is the model of all discipleship. She freely embraces
God’s will, and changes the course of history. When God knocks on the door
of humanity’s heart, it is Mary that opens that door. She says yes to God
Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who’s always inventing these great theological
terms, talks about “Theologie auf Knien,” “theology on the
Knees,” and describes Mary’s fiat with the wonderful German expression “Geschehenlassen
des Ja,” a yes that allows something to happen.
Permission to come in
Isn’t it freedom, perhaps–giving God permission–the “Geschehenlassen
des Ja,” the yes that allows God to come into our lives, into our world,
into our history?
Mary’s first word in the Gospels is that “yes” to God, her
fiat: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” And her last word
in the Gospel is the Gospel we heard yesterday, the wedding feast at Cana, the
words I have written on my ring, my motto as a bishop: “Quodqumque dixerit
facit”–“Do whatever He tells you.”
So Mary’s first word is “yes,” and her last word is telling
us to say “yes.” And to be doers of the word. To give God permission.
It’s the obedience of faith that St Paul is always talking about.
As our Holy Father has said so often, we achieve human fulfillment only by making
a gift of ourselves. Only those who are free can make this act of self-giving.
When Jesus invited the rich young man to follow Him in a life of discipleship,
we see that he was unable to because he belonged to his possessions. His wealth
had enslaved him. His heart was with his treasure, locked in a Swiss bank some
place. He was rich, but he was not free. And he went away sad. And he is nameless.
The Church is to lead people to the truth that is Christ. The truth will set
us free. And with that freedom, we can truly love.
(Notes not reviewed by the author)