Chaput: “Embody it, witness it, live it.”

Cardinal Dolan gets the lion’s share of the headlines, but we have another brilliant leader in the American church: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. I’ve had an opportunity to report on the Philadelphia diocese over the past few years, and his work there has been astonishing: bold, decisive, charitable, intelligent, and, always, deeply faithful. He has led a troubled diocese through tough times with consummate skill.

Archbishop Chaput spoke to the Catholic Campus Ministry Association’s national convention in Florida yesterday, and his speech was a real barnburner. Here are a few highlights, but you should read it all.

Over the past year America’s bishops have talked a lot about religious freedom.  The reason is simple.  The current White House, and many others in our nation’s leadership classes, have a very different understanding of religious liberty from what our country’s Founders intended.  And that has implications for the future.

Over the past five decades, we’ve moved from a culture permeated by religious faith to a culture that seems increasingly indifferent or cynical toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. Many Americans no longer claim any formal religious affiliation. And as Notre Dame’s distinguished social research scholar Christian Smith has shown, vast numbers of American young adults are, in effect, morally illiterate. They’re not “bad” people — far from it. But they often lack the moral vocabulary and roots in a living religious tradition that would enable them to reason independently through complex ethical problems. They believe in God, but in a generic, feel-good deism sense, with God’s main job reduced to giving them what they want when they want it.

At a minimum, this implies a massive failure of catechesis and young adult ministry, not to mention personal witness, on the part of my own generation. And I don’t think many of the men and women my age in the Church are really willing to admit that yet. But the results aren’t good. The results don’t lie, and now we need to deal with the consequences.

[T]oo often in the Church we’ve held on to the same institutional patterns of organization, the same methods of preaching and teaching that worked in a religion-friendly past, but can’t and don’t work in a “post-Christian” mission culture.

We’re left with a terrain dotted by weakened Catholic forms that not only fail in their mission but also stand – without intending it– as a counter-witness to the faith. Young people in search of meaning won’t choose Jesus Christ if they constantly encounter a faith life of worn-out structures in various stages of decline.

Renewing Catholic life is crucial to convincing young people to open their hearts to the Christian faith.  Young adults themselves need to help carry out this renewal.  The work of bringing new life to the Church and the work of reaching out to young adults can’t be understood separately.  Emerging adults are not merely one constituency among many in the Church.  They’re the future of Catholic life in flesh and blood, the key to triggering a chain reaction of conversion and new zeal.

Vatican II optimistically assumed that the visible Church would serve as a lamp, drawing the modern world out of darkness into God’s light. But the story of the Rich Young Man seems to refute that optimism. The Gospel’s Young Man is a person of obvious good intentions. He encounters the Son of God not through signs or stories or hearsay, but in person, face to face — and yet he still chooses to walk away from the light. Why? How is that possible?

The answer to that question, then and now, is exactly the same. Each of us has free will. We all have different opportunities and carry different burdens, but in the end, rich or poor, we each freely choose the kind of person we become. Selfishness is powerful. Darkness has its own strong appeal. And the world is filled with distractions and addictions.

The Rich Young Man is not evil. On the contrary, he wants the good; he yearns for perfection. That’s what makes his story so moving. But he lacks the courage to give up those final comforts that tie him to the world and keep him from real holiness – and if the Rich Young Man rejects Jesus Christ face to face, how can we flawed disciples ever hope to do better with young people submerged in a modern culture of noise and addiction?

We only fool ourselves if we think that a mere gathering of young people is a sign of good ministry.  Religious groups, like any other group, can be cliquish, self-indulgent, lazy and fruitless, heavy on talk and light on real conversion and mission.  Healthy Catholic life demands excellence, self-denial, love for the Church and her teachings, a disciplined focus on the needs of others, and an ongoing hunger for knowing and doing God’s will.  Our Newman Centers and campus ministries need to be, in effect, boot camps for this kind of vigorous Christianity.

But I do know that we don’t need and can’t afford maintainers of the status quo.  I do know that we need visionaries; missionaries; leaders who will burn up every atom of themselves in the furnace of God’s service, so that nothing remains but the light and warmth of Jesus Christ blazing out to touch  the lives of others. We Catholics – you, me, all of us — need to be and to make a fire on the earth that consumes human hearts with God’s love.  We can’t “teach” that.  It doesn’t come from books or programs.  We need to embody it, witness it, live it.

I’ve come back again and again in recent weeks to those last words of Thomas More to his daughter Meg: “You alone have long known the secrets of my heart.”  That kind of intimate knowledge comes only from love; a love that transforms the people who share it; a love that creates courage and hope; a love that shines down through the centuries into a room like this one today.

Honestly, you need to read the whole thing. He ties many points together in way that excerpts like this can’t convey.

Thanks to Marcel and Brandon for hooking me up with the whole text.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.