The following essay is adapted from the opening remarks delivered before the graduates of the Séminaire Saint-Charles Borromée 185and Competetion.
I‘ve been retired now for two years. Retirement gives you plenty of time to reflect. And lately I’ve been thinking that if an Oscar was given every year for “Best Catholic Performance as a Reformation Protestant,” half the Catholics in Congress, let alone the White House, would qualify.
I exaggerate things, of course. But maybe not a lot. And even if it were true, it would be frankly good news. The Reformation Protestants actually submitted their lives to their Christian beliefs. They often died for these beliefs. Early Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists, each in their own way, viewed their baptism as the cornerstone of a godly life. And of course, Catholics serious about their faith felt the same way.
What we have today in Washington – and not just there, but in so many of our individual lives – is a kind of malleable, vanilla religion that can be used to justify almost any ugly idea or behavior that has need a moral veneer. This is happening right now, very publicly, with a President and Speaker of the House claiming to be Catholic, but then zealously supporting the right to kill an unwanted unborn child. This is happening with a Catholic White House that is very slow to enforce federal law protecting the homes of Supreme Court justices, simply because those justices can overrule Roe vs. Wade and the abortion regime that depends on it.
It is in this world that you enter, or that you will enter one day, by leaving this institution. This is the world you are called to reclaim and remake. Those of you who are seminarians will move on to ordination and priesthood. It is a huge blessing for each of you, as it has been for me; a blessing, and over the decades a source of deep joy. Your lives are a gift for the whole Church. The same goes for the families and the teachers who have trained you so generously and so well. But let us never forget that the foundation of every other sacrament is baptism. It seals us all together – clergy, religious and laity – as one believing people. It commits each of us to a missionary life, whatever our vocation and wherever God leads us.
When Augustine says:For you I am a bishop; with you, I am a Christian”, he spoke directly of the common Christian identity that baptism marks on each of our souls. No one in the Church has second-rate status or an unimportant task for the Lord to perform. When Jesus said, “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he was speaking to us all. Each of us. No exceptions. Yet these words spoken so forcefully by the God who loves us and has redeemed us seem so easily forgotten by many of us.
The central issue in American Catholic life today is the temptation to accommodate, to compromise, to get along and fit in, and then to feel good. We place diversity above truth because it feels more comfortable to do so. We place the individual above the common good, because then we can do what we want. We place ‘tolerance’ above genuine love, justice and charity, because it seems so much more peaceful to deal with differences that way. And none of this converts anyone. He does the opposite. It provides people with alibis and undermines their faith. When people really believe in something, they act on it. And when they don’t act, they don’t really believe. For all of us as American Catholics, the issue of faith is at the heart of the matter. True faith changes us. It hammers us into a new and different shape.
To the extent that we Catholics have aspired to join the mainstream of American life, to become like everyone else rather than being “other than” and holy, we have given up on who we really are. This is what the word “holy” literally means: it means “other than” or “different from” the world around us. So I think that’s the lesson of this graduation day for all of us. We need a Church rooted in holiness. We need parishes fired with faith. And we will only get them when we give ourselves fully and generously to God; when we center our lives on God; when we seek to become holy ourselves, as God is holy. And that is what your stay in this seminary has been: a formation community that teaches us to be holy and to embrace what holiness truly requires.
The Church needs faithful scholars and liturgists. She needs good managers, educators, social workers and other committed lay people to advise and help guide her. And it needs pastors who know how to lead with humility, courage and love. But what she needs more than anything is holiness. The renewal of the Church is ultimately not a question of structures. It is a question of faith. We must be people of prayer, courage and zeal. We need men and women for others, anchored in the sacramental life of the Church. And we need priests who will kindle new Pentecostal fire from every vocation and form of discipleship in the Church.
I will end with a simple story.
A few years ago there were a number of high profile public campaigns to invite fallen Catholics to return to their Church and rediscover its beauty and wisdom. The goal was a very good idea. The effort had strong leadership, good staff, a smart business plan, and skillful execution. And many Catholics have gone home. And many of those same Catholics then said, “Thank you very much; now I remember why I left” – and I evaporated again. They disappeared for a good reason. What many, too often found in their churches was mediocrity, and they could find that anywhere.
We need a new Pentecost. Remember that. Give your life to this. God is calling each of you to be what he saw in you when he first spoke your name in all eternity and then spoke it into the silence and yearnings of your heart.
The prayer that we must keep on our lips, as we look back today, and look forward to the hopes and difficulties that lie ahead, is “thank you” – thank you, God, for calling me into your service. ; thank you, God, for asking me to lead a life of holiness; thank you God for giving me the parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, teachers, classmates and friends who surround me here and who support me on the way.
Charles J. Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan, is the Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia.
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