To the JPII Generation from the John23 Generation, with Love

Continuing the subject of the importance of living the truth in love, my friend The Hermit brought to my attention a blog post by Fr Seamus Griesbach, a young parish priest of the Diocese of Portland, Maine. Fr Seamus reflects in this post on the Church and the world that he and his cohort–those he refers to as the JPII Generation–have inherited. Like many of peers, Fr Seamus finds that inheritance nothing to write home about, and–also like many of his peers–he blames my generation for having messed it all up.

Culturally, we were raised on washed out themes – the words to “Hear I Am, Lord” ring in our ears, reminding us of the tear-filled retreats of youth even if we know that half the time we were just being emotionally manipulated. Even though we know we should, we don’t know how to live a life rooted in ritual prayer because our parents didn’t even know what that looked like. And so even basic spiritual discipline requires herculean effort for us. Intellectually we lack rigor, we were told that every opinion was valid for so long that we have a hard time being critical, even if we are suspect of what we hear. We tend toward reactionary extremes, and toward a certain nostalgia for times when there seemed to be greater regard for human excellence and virtue. But we’re really not sure what that looked like or how to achieve it, because we’ve never experienced it in a living culture. Instead we grew up on the Nintendo and MTV, the St. Louis Jesuits and cut out butterflies. A washed out culture, a decadent culture, and a largely secular culture.

This is not news to me. Since my reversion, I have spent quite a bit of time in mea culpa mode, being expected to apologize for the poor catechesis, moral relativity, tone-deaf musical sensibilities, architectural bastardization, liturgical hokey-pokey, and general letting-down-the-troops that I and my cohort inflicted on Mother Church and America the Beautiful. If the Church were a cocktail party, I’d be the one in a corner sucking down straight gin, shaking my head in a chastened fashion as a circle of the righteous repeated “What were you thinking?” in ever higher dudgeon, and discreetly checking my watch to see how soon I could safely escape to my peace-stickered station wagon and blast my St Louis Jesuits CDs.

Most of this, as I told Fr Seamus in his combox, is just to be expected. Replace the list of specific ills, and we of what I suppose might best be called the John23 Generation could have written just such a jeremiad about the Church and the world we inherited from our elders. (Some of us, unfortunately, are still writing them.) As I learned in a long ago lit class, Killing Daddy is a necessary part of claiming one’s own maturity. It’s only as you get to be as old as Daddy yourself, if you’re wise, that you come to appreciate that the old man wasn’t such a dummy about everything after all. So I would ordinarily add Fr Seamus’s post to the list of things I shake my head at and move on–except for one particular charge he levels against my generation, which I can’t let stand.

He says our sin was that we loved too much.

We were basically taught that the heart of the Gospel was to love others, and that that meant we should always compromise conviction in favor of the person. The only virtue I recall being drilled into my head was that we seek to be on good terms with everyone, regardless of their point of view. To be likable. It was the underlying subtext in most moral narratives: the protagonist gives up his or her convictions or preconceived notions in order to love the antagonist.. . .[M]any of us realized that the generation before us had sold us a useless bill of goods, rather than the Gospel. We had not been taught the fullness of the faith, we were not given adequate tools to handle real life – to deal with evil, to seek what is good. We were not trained in the virtues, we were not given a solid foundation in logic and critical thinking, we were not exposed to the cultural and religious treasures of our western heritage. Instead, we had been brought up by a generation that was convinced that the way to show their love for us was by being likable and entertaining us. The youth ministry mantra was, I’ll never forget, the “4 F words”: food, fun, friends, and faith.

Fr Seamus, respectfully, the heart of the Gospel is to love others. Surely no one needs to quote you chapter and verse upon chapter and verse in which Jesus makes that perfectly clear. That you believe this–or more properly your flawed interpretation of it–to be a “useless bill of goods” may be the fault of bad catechesis (which exists in every age, in every generation) or poor understanding on your part, but it is terribly sad in either case. Love, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians, is the enduring virtue upon which all others rest and from which they flow. It is the only good with the power to resist evil, and every sin–especially the deadly ones–begins as a failure of love.

I am sorry that you are under the mistaken notion that faith, for my generation, could be summed up as “food, fun, and friends,” and that we had no concept of the real world and its evils as we cut out butterflies and held hands and sang “Kumbaya.” You are not alone in that distorted view; it’s particularly common among recent converts who don’t know better. It’s quite possible that we of the John23 Generation have not made a strong enough case for the rigorous, countercultural, and dangerous virtue of love. That may, in part, be due to the fact that many of those who might speak most compellingly are dead, having given their lives for the love of God’s littlest and least ones. If you want to know at what cost the love at the heart of the Gospel comes, you might need to take it up with Archbishop Oscar Romero, with Jean Donovan and the religious women martyrs of El Salvador, with the Jesuits slain in their front yard for loving God’s poor. When you say, “I don’t recall hearing anything about principles, about virtue, about sacrifice, about the truth,” I wonder if, perhaps–like all of us, when we’re young–you simply weren’t paying attention.

And for you to blame our generation’s “overemphasis” on love (which you have incorrectly defined as “niceness”) for the tragic mishandling of the abuse scandals, and for your generation’s loss of innocence after the 9-11 attacks, is just foolishness. Both of these had roots that go back much deeper into the history of the Church and the world–not to mention the depths of human sinfulness–than a few dozen years. You will learn that, too, as you grow up. You might begin now by recognizing the parallels between Islamic fundamentalism of the sort that wishes to war against modernism with Catholic fundamentalism that does the same.

The important thing for Fr Seamus and for all of us to remember is that these differences between generations are not the tragedy he makes them out to be. Each generation begins by being precisely the Church that is needed at that time in human history. Because human history is as flawed as the humans that make it, however, no one generation brings the Kingdom, and over time its response to the world becomes ineffective both because it has succeeded in righting some wrongs and because it loses its youthful immunity to the world, the flesh, and the devil. When Pope John XXIII threw open the windows of the Church to the spirit of aggiornamento (on my 10th birthday!) it was precisely because the Church and the world would have suffocated without that deep breath. It’s a different time now, and it may well be time to replace the windows and see to the weatherstripping.

The pendulum swings. Balance is dynamic in living creatures; stasis means death. When you are sailing before the wind, my sailor friends tell me, you have to tack. You make constant course corrections that sometimes look like zigzigs and reversals. So the next generation rises up, not to take the Church back to some imagined Golden Age, but to help carry it and the world forward to the Kingdom’s fulfillment. That’s proof, not of previous generations’ failings–though those always exist, and are always most visible to those who come after–but of the living, dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit.

Fr Seamus ends his post on a dark note.

We came of age during a time that was nothing short of spiritually catastrophic. The bastions had been razed. Christian culture in the West had been devastated. Through no fault of our own, we are building from scratch . . .

He has clarified with me, in his combox, that he really means this. He really believes this is no mere pendulum swing, but a call to build anew, ex nihilo, a Church that is utterly destroyed. Maybe it’s all those upbeat guitar Masses, but I can’t share his pessimism. After all, if Fr Seamus and the JPII Generation were truly starting from scratch, how would they know what to build? If the Catholic culture of the West were truly razed, by what blueprints would this new generation go forward? A good many of us, in spite of it all, must have guarded the rich deposit of faith entrusted to us, must have passed it on along with the butterflies and the bubbles and the pizza, must have lived lives of just enough logic and virtue and critical thinking, just enough clear defiance of evil and sin, that the JPIIs know what they think they’re missing. No generation, so far, has completely thrown the baby out with the baptismal water, and none will, until we get it right at last.

Fr Seamus doesn’t want my advice (as I wouldn’t have wanted the advice of the uptight, anti-Semitic, sin-obsessed, ritual-bound, Latin-prattling, war-mongering, woman-hating Pius XII Generation), but if he were to ask, I’d say “Look in that toolbox you think is empty. At the bottom is the Gospel in its fullness. It’s Love. As one of the prophets of my generation would say, It’s all you need. Believe it.”

And at the risk of your feeling emotionally manipulated, Fr Seamus and friends, I need to remind you what the response of every generation called by God, as you are, to witness to him in the world–from Abraham on the road to Canaan, to Samuel in his bed in the Temple, to Mary at the well of Nazareth, to Francis in ramshackle chapel of San Damiano, to Karol Wojtyla in the Sistine Chapel–has been and must be. Hineni is how you say it in Hebrew. But you can sing it this way:

Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

  • Father Seamus

    Joanne, I just can't help but have the feeling that you really have made my point better than I did… And that it's interesting that as much as you hold up my article as an example of negativity and intolerance, I did not speak with nearly the demeaning or patronizing tone that you have. As per your major critiques…First: yes, the bastions were razed. I’m not sure how that can be argued. Priests and religious left in droves, Mass attendance plummeted, divorce skyrocketed, belief in the core teachings of the Church like transubstantiation was seriously undermined, prayer in the home all but completely abandoned, Catholic lay organizations jettisoned. There are 156 priests in Maine, I am one of 10 under 50. There were 300,000 Catholics in Maine in 1970, today there are 180,000.Now perhaps you will tell me that the Church didn't change enough – that's the problem. That we need to further abandon core Catholic convictions in order to find a place in the modern world. But the reality is that churches and communities that have attempted that path are dying. The Episcopals and Methodists are in much worse shape than we are. The so called bastions of progressivism in the Church are breathing their last gasps. New life, new vocations, faithfulness, are found in the areas of the Church that are seeking to face the future in continuity with the past, abandoning the failed attempt to redefine what it means to be Catholic by singing a new Church into being.As far as how we begin from scratch – well it’s not scratch all the way back. I think many younger Catholics are working to legitimately draw upon the whole of the Christian tradition up to our present day. We read that tradition through the lens of the documents of the 2nd Vatican Council and the magisterial teaching of the recent popes. It has been a laborious task – a lot of sifting through piles of treasure that the previous generation threw into closets after deciding it was outmoded. But, as I said in my piece, it is good work and interesting.Lastly – You said that my criticism of likability: "always compromise conviction in favor of the person" and "seek to be on good terms with everyone, regardless of their point of view" equates to a criticism of the command to love. That is precisely my point: the previous generation confused likability with love.Instead, I think a far more Christian understanding of love is based on Gospel passages like "No one has greater love than this, than to lay down life for one's friends" and "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Furthermore, love is not the only major theme of the Gospels: so are truth, sacrifice, mercy, and judgment. As I said, what we received was impoverished.So yes, there are fundamental disagreements. My concern is that many of those who now hold positions of power in society, the Bernadin Catholics, seem bent on continuing to impose this misguided experiment on the Church, despite the increasingly clear evidence of what a tragedy this has all been. How much longer will all of this have to be endured? When will we be able to leave behind the continual bemoaning of an era that has ended and go about the work of building up the Church?

  • Joanne K. McPortland

    I'm sorry you read my tone as demeaning or patronizing, Father. It's an occupational hazard of old folks. And I am glad we agree that love is of value, especially when understood in its deepest Christian sense. We could, I'm sure, go back and forth, but I think you might be reassured to find that most of those you persist in calling "the Bernardin Catholics" will be dead soon, and the living ones no longer hold nearly the power you think we do, nor are we all bemoaning an era that's passed. I simply felt it was important to remind you that it was not all tragedy. In any case, you won't have to endure it long. All too soon you'll be being chastised for misguided experiments of your own. Let's just hope the next generation does you the courtesy of spelling your name correctly as they dismiss you.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, things swing back and forth – we learn that as we age. But, I had a conversaation at Church the other day about our fantstic, serious-minded priest. The lady said he didn't make church 'fun' for the children. My Anglican husband (64) almost fell off his chair. His jaw dropped. I'm still trying to figure out how this cradle Catholic expected the sacrifice of the Mass to be 'fun'. So give the young father the benefit of the doubt. A lot has gone really off the rails when church is supposed to be 'fun'.Love your columns – the are the highlight of my day.Marilyn

  • yoly2go

    I feel sorry for Fr. Seamus. Does he have any idea how many of us read The Vatican II documents, that were edited by Cardinal Ratzinger now Benedict XVI? Does he have any idea how many of us are now involved in Religious Education? Does he have any idea how many of us were saddend by the abuse scandal, yet are still members of our Lord's flock. Does he have any idea of the abuse of power committed by our Bishops and Cardinals with the cover up, yet proceed to go to Mass and share in the fellowship of the communion of saints, both dead and alive? Does he know how many of us consider our parishes as homes? The laity is stepping up to the plate to help with the crises of vocations; are you aware of this Fr. Seamus? Anger is a neutral emotion but when taken out on an entire generation it becomes one of the 7 deadly sins. As the 2nd reading in last weeks Mass stated who is there to judge us? As our Lord bent down and wrote in the dirt and said let he who is without sin throw the first stone. Please, Fr. Seamus, remember that stones kill.

  • Anonymous

    As one who straddles PJ23 and PJPII (55), I thank you for this post, Joanne! When I needed belonging/affirmation/acceptance as a teen/young adult with a disability, butterflies, warm fuzzies and "Here I Am, Lord" (See Isaiah 6:8ff) gave me the strength to move forward in faith to degrees in Psychology and Theology and very fulfilling work as a hospital chaplain. I don't see this as 'either/or', but 'both/and'. NAD

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