Editor’s note: The following address was given at St. Francis De Sales Seminary, Milwaukee, on April 4, 2022.
Our theme tonight is “things worth dying for,” and I want to talk about what those words mean for us, here and now. But I hope you’ll bear with me for a few preliminary thoughts. I think they’ll make sense in the end.
A month before I retired in 2020 I had a conversation with a friend. I told him how I was looking forward to retiring but that I also had mixed feelings about stepping down from active ministry. I was, and I am, very grateful to Pope Francis for his choice of my successor in Philadelphia: Archbishop Perez is an excellent priest and bishop, a man of personal warmth and great skill as a pastor. But I spent more than 40 years in leadership roles in the Church; first as a provincial minister in the Capuchins, and then as a bishop in three different dioceses. I loved the work. The burdens never outweighed the joys. So the idea of having nothing to do each day, of having a blank agenda, struck me as a new kind of adventure I would have to learn to live with.
Three weeks after I retired, COVID hit. And for the next 15 months I really did have nothing to do each day but pray, and think, and Zoom with a few friends. Which I did. Quite a lot. And here’s what I learned.
Retiring forces a man to focus on his most pressing personal duty: preparing for death and accepting the promise of eternal life. It returns a bishop to his most basic identity: being a baptized child of God. It teaches us that none of us is very important, although the work we do is. But even then, it’s God who really does the work. We’re his instruments and cooperators. Retiring is an act of trust in God’s providential care for the Church. And the Church is finally ecclesia sua; his Church, God’s Church. She’s our mother, but she’s his bride. We don’t own the Church, and we have no right to treat her as a lab for theological experiments, or a fortress against changing pastoral needs.
All of us have a limit to what we can see and understand, and the energy we can bring to a task. Letting go of authority to another person opens the way to new and more creative ideas from younger and sharper minds. And there’s still vital work to do in retirement: praying for the Church and the world, and sharing the wisdom we learned so that others don’t make the same stupid mistakes.
Now why am I telling you this? February 28 marked the ninth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement. Joseph Ratzinger is one of the greatest minds the Christian faith has produced in the last 100 years. I remember admiring him for resigning the papacy. At the same time I feared that his retirement could lead to a lot of unhealthy confusion in the Church, and in some ways it has. But I understand why Benedict did it. You come to a point in your ministry where age weakens your ability to do what needs to be done, even if you refuse to acknowledge your weakness; even if you have an iron will.
Old age has enormous value for its experience and prudent counsel — but not for command. The final years of the John Paul II pontificate were painful to watch. There’s no reason why even the papacy should be a life sentence. And likewise in the secular world — quite apart from all of their other deficiencies — the very last thing we need as a nation is another four years of Joe Biden or Donald Trump. They’re simply too old. And that’s dangerous.
The world has always been a dangerous place. But it’s especially so now. We’re living through a kind of global, cultural re-formation that hasn’t been seen, at least here in the civilization we call “the West,” since Luther and moveable type, the Wars of Religion, and the Enlightenment. We can’t afford sclerotic leaders — and that applies to every form of public leadership, both political and religious. Age diminishes the willingness to sacrifice, to risk, to see things clearly, and to face conflict. And in a time of unavoidable conflict, ambiguity and feebleness are toxic.
Because there are, in fact, “things worth dying for.”
Here’s an example. There’s a reason that military service has always fallen most heavily on young people, and especially on young men. They have the strength, the passion, and the willingness to risk their lives for something greater than themselves. In the real world, the world where bad ideas and grand ideologies can have lethal consequences, very few things are actually worth dying for. The list is short: our families, the friends we love, our personal honor and integrity, and most obviously our faith in Jesus Christ.
But we also need to add one more entry to the list: the nation.
Life is a precious gift. It’s not meant to be wasted on foolish and idolatrous things. But the nation, expressed in its best ideals, does have a right to our service — including, when necessary, the risk of our lives. That right is not absolute. Some terrible things have been done over time in the name of national prestige. As Chesterton said, “My country right or wrong” makes as much sense as “My mother, drunk or sober.” We love our mother even if she has a drinking problem, but that doesn’t license us to ignore or enable or join in her drinking — quite the opposite.
And yet our duty to the nation is nonetheless very real, and it informs the Christian understanding of patriotism. John Paul II stressed that “the family and the nation are both natural societies, not the product of mere convention. Therefore in human history, they cannot be replaced by anything else.” The reason is simple. The nation is, in a tangible sense, our home, our grounding in the world. We don’t live in a globalist fairyland. We’re creatures of place — beginning with the place and the people that give us life and nourish us into adulthood. That’s what the word “nation” means. It comes from the Latin words natus, meaning “born,” and natio, meaning “race of people, or tribe.” Again, to quote John Paul:
Patriotism is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features. It is a love that extends also to the works of our compatriots and the fruits of their genius. Every danger that threatens the overall good of our native land becomes an occasion to demonstrate this love…
And thus, rightly understood and lived, patriotism “leads to properly ordered social love.”
Here’s why I mention it: For the past century, the people of Ukraine have undergone an extraordinary series of crucifixions: a Soviet invasion in 1917 followed by a civil war; a genocidal starvation campaign by Josef Stalin; ferocious repression of their churches; mass deportations; a German invasion during World War II; more repression by the Soviets; a bitter guerrilla war against the Soviets that stretched into the 1950s; the 2014 seizure of the Crimea by Russia; and now another a full-scale and unprovoked Russian invasion.
What we’ve been witnessing in Ukraine over the past six weeks is a people defending their heritage and homeland who are willing to die in the process; a people with a long record of dispossession and suffering on a scale never experienced by our own country. No war is ever entirely pure or good in its execution. But a people fighting for their national survival; dying if necessary for the things they love about the land they call home — those people are worthy of our admiration and support.
They also offer us the kind of witness that forces us to examine our own nation, and ourselves. And in some ways, the comparison isn’t a happy one.
We Americans take great pride in the framework of our founding. And rightly so. The Founders created a culture of law, liberty, and hope for a better future, unique in history, grounded in personal responsibility, and shaped by the marriage of biblical morality and Enlightenment thought. The Founding was far from perfect. Tolerance for slavery was its worst stain. And the treatment of Native peoples — people like my Potawatomi ancestors, originally from here in Wisconsin — was anything but kind. But on the balance, the success of the American experiment speaks to the basic goodness of its origins.
That’s our national creation myth. But it’s a true myth; a myth made real by the work and sacrifices of generations of Americans. The question is whether we can sustain it; whether the myth can remain true. And that leads to two other questions: If human lives are precious — and of course, they are — is it worth risking them for a nation increasingly defined by sexual dysfunction, compulsive consumerism, indifference or hostility to religious faith, and corporations that interfere with a people’s legitimate public discourse? When, if ever, is a cancel culture worth dying for? At what point does it deserve a prompt and ill-attended funeral?
One of the things wrong with our country right now is the hollowing out and retooling of all the key words in our country’s public lexicon; words like democracy, representative government, freedom, justice, due process, religious liberty and constitutional protections. The language of our politics sounds familiar. But the content of the words is different. Voting still matters. Public protest and letters to members of Congress can still have an effect. But more and more of our nation’s life is governed by executive order, judicial overreach, media and corporate interference, and administrative agencies with little accountability to Congress.
People are angry. They’re angry because they feel powerless. And they feel powerless because in many ways they are. America’s cultural and political elites talk a lot about equality, opportunity and justice. But they behave like a privileged class with an authority based on their connections and skills. And then they’re shocked when frustrated citizens support the bombast of a man like Donald Trump.
We Catholics helped to create this moment. Catholics came to this country to build a new life. We did exceptionally well here. We’ve done so well that, by now, Catholics are largely swallowed and digested by a culture that bleaches out strong religious convictions in the name of tolerance, and dulls our longings for the supernatural with a river of consumer goods.
To put it another way, we were meant to be leaven. That’s our purpose in the world. Instead, quite a few of us American Catholics worked our way into that same leadership class that the rest of the country both envies and resents. And the price of our entry has been the transfer of our real loyalties and convictions from the Church of our baptism to the new “Church” of our ambitions and appetites. People like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden are not anomalies. They’re part of a very large crowd that cuts across all professions and both major political parties.
During his years as bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI had a talent for being very frank about naming sin and calling people back to fidelity. Yet, at the same time, he modeled that fidelity with a personal warmth that revealed its beauty, and disarmed the people who heard him. He spoke several times about the “silent apostasy” of so many Catholic laypeople today and even many priests. And his words have stayed with me over the years because he said them in a spirit of compassion and love, not rebuke.
Apostasy is an interesting word. It comes from the Greek verb apostanai – which means to revolt or desert; literally “to stand away from.” For Benedict, laypeople and priests don’t need to publicly renounce their baptism to be apostates. They simply need to be silent when their Catholic faith demands that they speak out; to be cowards when Jesus asks them to have courage; to “stand away” from the truth when they really need to live for it, work for it, and if necessary, die for it.
I’ve always been a fan of the late Jesuit scholar, John Courtney Murray. Murray is sometimes seen today as being too high on America; too naïve about its flaws; too grand about its possibilities. And he truly did love the best ideals of our country, because those ideals are worthy of honor and deserve our loyalty. But he also said this:
American culture, as it exists, is actually the quintessence of all that is decadent in the culture of the Western Christian world. It would seem to be erected on the triple denial that has corrupted Christian culture at its roots: the denial of metaphysical reality; [of] the primacy of the spiritual over the material; [and] of the social over the individual . . . Its most striking characteristic is its profound materialism . . . It has given citizens everything to live for and nothing to die for. And its achievement may be summed up thus: It has gained a continent and lost its own soul.
For Murray, there is no real “humanism” without the cross of Jesus Christ. And the work of rebuilding, and building a better American culture begins not with violence but with the conversion of our own hearts. This is the only kind of revolution that lasts; the only kind with the power to change everything.
So where am I going with all this?
Data from the Catholic Ieadership Institute suggest that more than 70 percent of U.S. Catholic bishops fall into the “conflict averse” category. That might seem high, but it shouldn’t surprise. Bishops don’t like conflict. And from experience, I understand why. Bishops have the duty to pastor their people in a spirit of charity; and that means all of their people, including the most misguided, annoying, and difficult ones. It requires patience. It demands prudence. And in the public square, bishops also have a biblical duty to honor the emperor, even a bad emperor; in other words, to respect and obey secular authority short of violating the core beliefs of the Christian faith.
But not all conflict is bad. Sometimes it’s the only course open to an honest heart. And sometimes an appeal to patience or prudence is really an excuse for a lack of courage. To the degree we try to fit into a culture that’s more and more hostile to what Catholics have always believed – which is what we’ve been doing for decades now – we repudiate by our actions what we claim to hold sacred with our words. No person, and no Church, can survive for long with divided loyalties. But that’s exactly where we find ourselves. If American Catholics no longer treasure their faith, or their privilege of discipleship, or their call to mission – then we priests and bishops, and parents and teachers, have no one to blame but ourselves. We can’t control changes in technology or demography or the tides of our economy, or the new challenges they create. But we can control where we put the passion and energy of our hearts.
We serve the truth by telling the truth as joyfully and persuasively as we can. We have the proof of a precedent. Christian faith in the Risen Jesus converted the Roman empire. And whatever our nation once was, today it risks becoming more and more obviously a New Rome with all of the inhuman flaws that implies. The Gospel changed the course of history and gave meaning to an entire civilization. God is now calling us, right now, starting with all of us here tonight, to do the same.
Which brings me back, finally, to where we started with these remarks. And I want to close with some thoughts especially for the seminarians present.
A man my age — unless he’s been asleep most of his life — gets very good at naming and explaining problems, and why certain things won’t work in fixing them. But the same experiences that make him good at analysis, can blind him to new ideas and solutions. The Church always needs reform and renewal, pursued with fidelity and trust instead of fear. This is why your vocations are so important. We need to be very careful not to hypnotize ourselves with our worries and anxieties. The “new evangelization” is fundamentally not so different from the “old evangelization.” It begins with the joy of personal conversion, then with witness and action, and nourished by sincere friendships among committed Catholics — not with bureaucratic programs or elegant sounding plans. These latter things can be important. But they’re never the heart of the matter.
When I was ordained a bishop, a wise old friend told me that every bishop must be part radical and part museum curator – a radical in preaching and living the Gospel, but a protector of the Christian memory, faith, heritage and story that weave us into one believing people over the centuries. I try to remember that every day. Americans have never liked history. The reason is simple. The past comes with obligations on the present, and the most cherished illusion of American life is that we can make and remake ourselves at will. But we Christians are different. We’re first and foremost a communion of persons on mission through time – and our meaning as individuals comes from the part we play in that larger communion and story.
If we want to reclaim who we are as a Church, if we want to renew the Catholic imagination and be leaven in the world, we need to begin by unplugging our hearts from the assumptions of a culture that still seems familiar but is no longer really “ours.” It’s a moment for courage and candor, but it’s hardly the first of its kind.
This isn’t a dark time unless we make it so. We’re simply back again in the night before the Resurrection. The night passes. And we already know how the story ends; we just need to imprint it on our hearts. Gratitude is the beginning of joy. This is a moment of privilege and opportunity, not defeat. Reverence for the past is a good thing, but clinging to structures and assumptions that no longer have life is not. We’ve been given the gift of being part of God’s work to rebuild — and build better — the witness of his Church in the world. So let’s pray for each other, and thank God for each other; and lift up our hearts to pursue the mission, and create the future, that God intends.
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