The Year of Faith is almost right on top of us. Don’t you just love these goofy “years” we celebrate and observe together, on the somewhat arbitrary declarations of our popes? I sure do. There is nothing more serious than doing something arbitrarily, which begins to unlock the mad, Augustinian genius of faith: we know because we believe, not the other way around. In the days and months to come, expect lots from me on this Year of Faith stuff.
But first, nostalgia:
I recall John Paul II’s Year of the Family. It was the mid nineties. I was twelve or thirteen at the time, living in Reynosa, Mexico. (I grew up in a self-appointed, lay Catholic missionary family, rooted in the charismatic renewal movement of the Catholic Church. Remember the crazy charismatics? Yep. That was us; that’s me. I have lots to say about this too, but not here. I’ll save that for later.)
One of the more common refrains back then was a call to “evangelize the baptized.” The idea was timely: evangelization was no longer just for people “out there.” The Gospel was desperately needed “in here,” at the local, parochial level and at all internals levels of the Catholic Church. The movements and ministries that grew and separated and coalesced is a complicated knot to untie, but this call to “evangelize the baptized” was consistently present throughout, so I claim.
I never questioned the truth of that dictum, and for good reason. But it also got political and sometimes became divisive: dividing the Church between the truly evangelized (the Enlightened spirit-filled) and the one’s in need of remedial evangelization. Don’t get me wrong: there’s lots of remediation needed, then and now. But this evangelical focus created more than a healthy, Catholic sense of hierarchy: it grew from a simple, intuitive apostolate into an artificial hierarchy of ministry based upon a false, Protestant theology. (“Once saved/baptized in the Holy Spirit/whatever, always…”)
You can see it today. Especially in the remnants of the charismatic movement, alive and (mostly) well in youth ministry and other popular forms of ministry and catechesis. (Read: Life Teen.)
More alarmingly, this artificial sense of hierarchy is at work in the sick, sycophantic phenomenon of “Catholic celebrities.” The slow, poisonous inculuration of the American cult of celebrity into the American Catholic Church. You know what I mean. And no, I won’t name names. I’m not trying to humiliate people, I’m simply naming a circumstance we should all be quite familiar with.
There’s nothing wrong with Saints, precisely because we celebrate their holiness through their brokenness. Take St. Francis: the guy was a total lunatic! A person to be celebrated indeed. I like to think that madness is an unspoken criteria for canonization. Never a sane Saint, methinks.
I feel bad for today’s Catholic celebrities. Some of them are my friends. (Itself a reason to feel bad for someone.) Many of them have real, special gifts and never imagined their present popularity. For others, I cannot say as much: there are some bonafide, giant Catholic assholes out there. Some venture capitalists too. But we’re the exception to the rule, I hope. (Oh, and by the way: the whole “I’m a sinner too, I struggle everyday just like you, pray for me and Ill pray for you” bit is a tired-out line that often belies a darker reality. At least when I use it.)
The result then and now — of evangelizing the baptized — has been the development of a blind spot to a complimentary and deeper evangelical truth: the need to evangelize the evangelized, the need for constant conversion for those who preach the Gospel. For everyone. The Church, of course, has always understood this well. Clergy and religious are, ideally, guarded by structural ecclesial authority to protect against inner blindness. When they are not, we’ve all seen the disastrous
Black Sheep Dog results.
We all need evangelization. In every direction and combination. I think the New Evangelization is all about this comprehensive, joyful turn, recognizing the comprehensive need for re-formation and conversion and critique.
Especially critique. The Early Church, for instance, was not what we would call a “consensus.” There were wide and serious and well-known disagreements. There was dissensus. But it was still faithful, radically so. The scandal of 1054, the great Catholic wound between East and West, was a failure to remain faithful through dissent. A sin against hope.
As a boy who grew up surrounded by evangelists of all stripes, it was jarring to realize my own blindness to what had always been abundant: sin, vice, humanity, beauty, hypocrisy, love. Our sense of being spiritually rich had made us poor. My inherited place in the artificial hierarchy of evangelization became even more questionable as I looked beyond them “out there” and saw myself “in here”: when I faced the abyss of my own heart.
Strangely enough, I found God there. A God more real and less defensive that the images and idols I had created and followed before. This was an iconic, excessive, surprising—and arbitrary!—God to whom I could show fidelity, even throughout my constant infidelity. Even in the ugliest sins and the honest grips of serious doubt. Even as an asshole who writes for money.
That jarring realization was a menacing blessing. It helped me grow from one truth of evangelization to a more full manifestation of that truth in beauty. It revealed the heart of the Gospel: the good news of the kerygma is love. As John taught us: the gift who is God is love. And love–which to say God—is beyond goodness and even truth. Love reveals itself through the radical presence of the Incarnation, revealed first to the human heart, to the cor of the person, as an aesthetic gift, a gift whose giveness is universally recognized as beautiful. The tragic beauty of the Incarnation. What the shepherds saw and sang about. What the Magi adored. To that mystery we must always be faithful. The rest is worth arguing about, sometimes.
Today’s Gospel taught about the family through the fidelity of marriage. In a way, it sews a seamless seam between John Paul II’s Year of the Family and Benedict XVI’s upcoming Year of Faith. The thread of love does not bind without cutting: it cannot hide the fact that, in our homes and families, faith is not as shiny and sterile as it looks in the pews or at the pulpit. May we see these bruised fruits of faith as reasons to take a rich and deep inward turn and begin to evangelize ourselves and, doing so, the world. Even when it means allowing the world to evangelize us, accepting the embrace of Christ the leper.