In April, when Pope Benedict XVI came to the United States, he met with the American bishops to give a talk and answer some questions.
One question in particular concerned the drifting away of many Catholics from Mass and from identifying with the Church. In his response, the Pope stated the importance of a faith based not on externals, but on “a way of thinking and acting grounded in the Gospel and enriched by the Church’s living tradition.”
It seems he believes that in many cases, people have not consciously rejected the faith, but have quietly distanced themselves from the Church because their faith never developed to maturity.
We can all agree that if we learned our faith when we were in grade school and then stopped learning anything about it, our faith will have stayed at a grade-school level. When confronted with the issues of the adult world, that grade-school version of our faith could seem rather ridiculous.
Maybe a lot of people had a grade-school version of their faith years ago. They may have kept their faith intact because they lived in a Catholic culture with the guardrails up, as the expression goes.
There is no strong Catholic culture to provide protection today. That is why it is necessary for each Catholic to develop his or her faith to maturity through a living connection to the community of the Church. Without that mature faith among the people, the Pope says, “the result can be a quiet apostasy.”
He had two observations to make: “First, as you know, it is becoming more and more difficult, in our Western societies, to speak in a meaningful way of ‘salvation.’ Yet salvation deliverance from the reality of evil, and the gift of new life and freedom in Christ is at the heart of the Gospel.
“We need to discover, as I have suggested, new and engaging ways of proclaiming this message and awakening a thirst for the fulfillment which only Christ can bring. It is in the Church’s liturgy, and above all in the sacrament of the Eucharist, that these realities are most powerfully expressed and lived in the life of believers; perhaps we still have much to do in realizing the Council’s vision of the liturgy as the exercise of the common priesthood and the impetus for a fruitful apostolate in the world.”
Later, he made his second observation: “Second, we need to acknowledge with concern the almost complete eclipse of an eschatological sense [the sense of the ‘last things:’ death, judgment, heaven, hell, purgatory, and the immortality of the soul] in many of our traditionally Christian societies . . . Faith and hope are the inspiration and basis of our efforts to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
“In Christianity, there can be no room for purely private religion: Christ is the Savior of the world, and, as members of his Body and sharers in his prophetic, priestly and royal ‘munera’ [that is, prophetic, priestly, and royal offices], we cannot separate our love for him from our commitment to the building up of the Church and the extension of his Kingdom. To the extent that religion becomes a purely private affair, it loses its very soul.”
Doesn’t that just explode your everyday concerns, and help you to realize the importance of the things that have lasting value? The Pope says there has been an “almost complete eclipse” of thought about eternal things, and he is correct. Even our society, which despite the protestations of many who prefer not to think that it was founded on Christian principles, usually overlooks questions of eternal life. Usually, people prefer to think about things they can buy or experience now.
“Eternal life?” many say, “Who cares!” They have games to play. They have cabins to visit. They have shopping to do. They have lawns to mow. But Christian hope is hope in eternal life.
We must all raise our thoughts so that they are not focused solely on the cares of this world. And if we consider heaven, hell, purgatory, death, and judgment, we have to be interested in extending the kingdom of Christ. Then, we can see clearly that religion is not a private affair.
A strong desire (the Pope calls it “apostolic zeal”) must fill the hearts of bishops to bring people to Christ, and that same desire should fill the hearts of all people, since all baptized people share in Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and royal offices.