World Youth Day 2008: Theology on Tap
"Mission Possible: This double-life will self-destruct"
P.J. Gallagher's Irish Pub, Sydney, Australia, July 16, 2008
You hear a lot of stories when you're in a pub having a pint. So I thought I'd start our time together tonight with a story. Now, some of the tales you hear when you're sitting with friends over a beer might stretch the truth a little. But I promise: the one I'm about to tell you is true.
It's about a young man named Franz who lived about 60 years ago in a small village in Austria. Franz was the illegitimate son of a farmer who later died in World War I. He was a wild kid. Everyone recalls he was the first one in the village to drive a motorcycle. And I don't think that's because he drove safely or kept to the posted speed limits.
Franz was the leader of a gang that used to fight rival gangs in neighboring villages with knives and chains. He was something of a cad, too, and a womanizer. He got a girl pregnant and was forced to leave town. People said he went to work for a while in an iron mine. For reasons nobody knows, Franz came back a changed man. He had always gone to church, even during his wildest days. But when he returned, he was a serious Catholic, not just a Sunday-Catholic. He started making payments to support the child he had fathered out of wedlock. He married a good Catholic woman and settled down to become a good farmer, husband and father, raising three children and serving as a lay leader in his local parish.
I'll tell you the rest of the story later. But I want to quote something Franz wrote in a letter to his godson. He wrote: "I can say from my own experience how painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian. It is more like vegetating than living."
I remembered Franz and those words when I started thinking about tonight's topic: "Mission Possible: This Double-Life Will Self-Destruct." Most of you aren't Americans, and you're all too young to remember the original "Mission Impossible" TV series that aired in the States in the '60s and '70s. But I suppose the organizers of my talk figured you'd all seen the Tom Cruise movies that came out a few years back.
In any event, it's a clever image. Believers today are relentlessly tempted to lead a "double life" – to be one person when we're in church or at prayer and somebody different when we're with our friends or family, or at work, or when we talk about politics.
Part of this temptation comes from normal peer pressure. We don't want to stand out. We don't want to appear different, so we keep our religious beliefs to ourselves. It's as if we've internalized the old adage: "Never talk about religion or politics in polite company." I've never bought that line of thinking, myself. Religion, politics, social justice - these are precisely the things we should be talking about. Nothing else really matters. What could be more important than religious faith, which deals with the ultimate meaning of life, and politics, which deals with how we should organize our lives together for the common good?
So those are the things we want to talk about tonight. I think it's important, though, that we start with a kind of "diagnosis" of the culture we're living in. The reason is simple. We're living in the first age in human history where entire societies are organized according to this principle of "the double life."
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls our period the "secular age." How we got to this moment is far too big a subject for us tonight. The point is that in just a few centuries we've gone from living in a world where it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to living in a world where belief in God doesn't seem to be necessary or to make any difference.
Most men and women today can live their whole lives as if God didn't exist. Of course in the West – and by "the West" I mean developed, Western-style democracies like Australia -- we're allowed to believe in God, and even to pray and worship together. But we're constantly lectured by the mass media to never "impose" our religious viewpoints on our neighbors. This curious idea is always framed as a very reasonable and enlightened way to live. You're free to believe what you want to believe; I'm free to believe what I want to believe; and the government agrees not to tell either of us what to believe or not to believe.
But things aren't as reasonable and enlightened as they seem. For example, the last time I was in Australia, your parliament was considering legislation to allow the cloning of embryonic stem-cells. This cloning would translate into an attack on the fundamental dignity of human life. And Cardinal Pell and your bishops had the courage to stand up and say so. What astounded me was the backlash their statements provoked. There was talk of charging Church leaders with intimidating MPs and tampering with the legislative process. All because they had the audacity to voice a political opinion that was based on their religious convictions.
Cases like this are cropping up more and more in the developed world. Just last month a court in Belgium dismissed charges filed against a Catholic bishop. The allegation was that this bishop was fomenting hatred of homosexuals. Of course he did nothing of the sort. All he did was articulate the Church's ancient teaching that homosexual activity is a sin and that it's detrimental to an individual's spiritual health and well-being.
In a secular age, however, this kind of opinion becomes grounds for prosecution. And these cases have a very calculated "chilling effect." They reinforce, with the threat of jail and fines, the pressures that we Catholics already feel to keep our mouths shut. To obey the "double life" rule. To define our faith as simply private prayer and personal piety.
But we know we can't do that. We can't live a half-way Christianity. The organizers of tonight's event were right. Every double life will inevitably self-destruct. The question then becomes: How are we going to live in this world? How can we lead a Christian life in a secular age?
We can't really answer that question until we get some things straight about what it means to be a Christian. And that means first getting some things straight about Jesus Christ. This is another one of the by-products of our secular age: we don't really quite know what to think about Jesus anymore. A few years before he became Pope Benedict XVI, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote something that is unfortunately very true. He wrote: "Today in broad circles, even among believers, an image has prevailed of a Jesus who demands nothing, never scolds, who accepts everyone and everything, who no longer does anything but affirm us. . . . The figure is transformed from the 'Lord' (a word that is avoided) into a man who is nothing more than the advocate of all men."
We all know people -- friends or family members or both -- who think about Jesus in these terms. It's hard to avoid. Our culture has given Jesus a make-over. We've remade him in the image and likeness of secular compassion. Today he's not the Lord, the Son of God, but more like an enlightened humanist nice guy.
The problem is this: If Jesus isn't Lord, if he isn't the Son of God, then he can't do anything for us. Then the Gospel is just one more or less interesting philosophy of life. And that's my first point about how we need to live in a secular age: We have to trust the Gospels and we have to trust the Church that gives us the Gospels. We have to truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the son of Mary. True God and true man. The One who holds the words of eternal life. If we aren't committed to that truth, then nothing else I say tonight can make any sense.
Second point: Jesus didn't come down from heaven to tell us to go to church on Sunday. He didn't die on the cross and rise from the dead so that we would pray more at home and be a little nicer to our next-door neighbors. The fact that you smile when I say these things means we know intuitively how absurd it is to imagine a privatized, part-time Christianity.
The one thing even non-believers can see is that the Gospels aren't compromise documents. Jesus wants all of us. And not just on Sundays. He wants us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our mind. He wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is, with a love that's total.
We need to take Christ at his word. We need to love him like our lives depend on it. Right now. And without excuses. Remember that man who told Jesus: I'm ready to be your disciple, but first I need to plan my father's funeral? The way Jesus responds is so blunt, so disturbing: "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. Follow me and proclaim the kingdom of God." Of course, he's not commanding disrespect for our parents. What he's saying is that there can be no more urgent priority in our lives than following him and proclaiming his kingdom.
My third point flows from the first two: Being a follower of Christ is not just one among many aspects of your daily life. Being a Christian is who you are. Period. And being a Christian means your life has a mission. It means striving every day to be a better follower, to become more like Jesus in your thoughts and actions.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld once said that, "God calls all the souls he has created to love him with their whole being. . . . But he does not ask all souls to show their love by the same works, to climb to heaven by the same ladder, to achieve goodness in the same way. What sort of work, then must I do? Which is my road to heaven?"
God expects big things from each of you. That's why he made us. To love him and to serve one another, and to play our personal part in bringing about the kingdom of love. So you have to ask yourselves the same questions that Blessed Charles asked himself. What does God want you to be doing? How does he want you to follow Christ?
Now, how do you go about finding the answers to these questions? By talking to God, humbly and honestly, in prayer. By getting to know Christ better through daily reading and praying over the Gospels. By opening yourself up to the graces he gives us in the sacraments. "Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you." It's not about you choosing what you want to do with your life. It's about discovering how God wants to use your life to spread the good news of his love and his kingdom.
Blessed Charles, by the way, is one of the great stories of the 20th century. He was a Frenchman who lived most of his life like the prodigal son, squandering his inheritance on alcohol, women, and dead-end pleasures. But when he came to know Jesus Christ, his life changed forever. He felt called to follow Christ literally, setting off on foot to Nazareth to devote himself to a humble life of manual labor, prayer, and charity. Some years later, his imitation of Christ led him to the Sahara Desert, where he lived as a hermit and eventually died a martyr's death.
I want to suggest tonight that most of you will find your road to heaven starting a little closer to home. To illustrate that point, let's recall a story about another holy person of the 20th century, Blessed Mother Teresa.
Maybe you've heard of Celestial Seasonings, the herbal tea company. The company was founded by a man named "Mo" Siegel in the 1960s. "Mo" was very much a child of his age -- idealistic, with a generous heart. "Mo" made millions with his brand of herbal teas. And he gave a lot of his money to worthy causes. Yet he still wasn't satisfied. So he went to India to volunteer with Mother Teresa among the poor and dying. But when she met him, she told him to go home. The little nun poked this multi-millionaire entrepreneur in the chest and told him: "Grow where you're planted."
That's my advice to you, too. Grow where you're planted. Preach the gospel with your lives no matter where you are or whatever you find yourself doing -- going to school, working, making a home. St. John of the Cross said: "Where there is no love, put love and you will draw out love." Those are good words to live by. Put real love into everything you do. Not a vague, sentimental warm feeling. That kind of love doesn't mean anything because it doesn't cost you anything. No. Jesus wants a love that comes from the heart, a love that sacrifices for others as he sacrificed for us.
One final point before we begin our questions and discussion tonight. And it's this: Love the Church; love her as your mother and teacher. Help to build her up, to purify her life and work. We all get angry when we see human weakness and sin in the Church. But we have to remember always that the Church is much, much more than the sum of her human parts.
The Church is the Bride of Christ. The Spirit that worked in Jesus Christ and in his apostles is still at work in the Church. Jesus promised his apostles that when they teach, it will be he who is teaching. That when they forgive sins, it will be he who forgives. That when they say his words, "This is my body," the bread and wine will become his body and blood. Jesus doesn't forget his promises. Where the Church is, Jesus Christ is. Until the end of the age. And we always want to be where Christ is, because there is no way home to God except through him.
So love the Church. And this is crucial: Know what the Church teaches. What the Church teaches is what Christ wants you and everyone else to know -- for our own good and for our salvation. Know what the Church teaches so you can live those teachings and share those teachings with others.
The leaders of today's secularized societies like to fancy themselves as true humanists and humanitarians. But these same societies justify killing millions of babies in the womb and dismembering embryos in the laboratory. We dispatch the handicapped and the elderly and call it "death with dignity." Our very language has become distorted. The family is no longer the covenant communion of man and woman that leads to new life and hence the future of society. In fact, there are so few babies being born now in developed, Western-style countries that we have to wonder whether our civilization has lost its will to survive.
Only the Church stands up against these inhuman trends in our societies. It's your mission, as lay men and lay women, to ensure that Christ's teaching is preached and explained and defended at every level of our society -- in politics, in the workplace, in the culture. This takes real courage. There are all sorts of pressures, subtle and not so subtle, to sell out Jesus. To water down or diminish his Gospel. To pick and choose among his teachings. But we can't do that. Make a promise to Jesus Christ never to contradict the Church's teachings by your words or actions.
The Gospel is not just rules and "thou-shalt nots." It's the path to leading a heavenly life on earth. The way of life that alone brings true happiness and lasting joy. This age encourages us to seek a fool's paradise. To imagine that happiness is found in doing whatever we want to do. That's a snare. And many of our brothers and sisters are caught in that trap.
Only the truth can set people free. That truth is Jesus Christ. So if we truly love our neighbors we will want them to know the truth. The whole truth. Not just the parts of it that make them feel good, the parts that don't challenge them to change.
It's not possible for real Christians to lead a double life. We'll self-destruct. Or worse still, we'll just waste away. It will be like what Franz said. Being a half-way Christian is like being a vegetable. It's not a life. It's barely an existence.
I guess it's time for me to tell you the rest of the story about Franz.
The Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. Unlike most of his neighbors, Franz refused to cooperate in any way with the regime because he considered Hitler to be an enemy of Christ and the Church. For five years he waged a lonely campaign of resistance. Finally, he was arrested for refusing an order to enlist in the Nazi army.
While awaiting his sentence, many people, including his family and his local priest, urged him to pay lip-service to the regime and thereby spare his life. Franz wouldn't do it.
So 65 years ago, on August 9, 1943, Franz died on a Nazi guillotine. Today we remember him as Blessed Franz Jägerstätter -- a martyr for the truth that a Catholic can never lead a double-life. That there can be no such thing as a half-way Christian.
Blessed Franz wrote beautiful letters to his wife from prison. In one of them he talked about the great martyrs of the Church. He wrote: "If we hope to reach our goal some day, then we, too, must become heroes of the faith. For as long as we fear men more than God, we will never make the grade." Another time he wrote: "The important thing is that we do not let a single day go by in vain without putting it to good use for eternity."
Let me leave you with those thoughts. May you all strive to be heroes of the faith. And may you put every day to good use for eternity. Thank you.
In Our Lord and Our Lady,