Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, the twentieth year since the publication of the Catechism, and the first-ever Synod on the New Evangelization, 2012 has been declared the “Year of Faith.” As Benedict underscored in his 2011 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, the Year of Faith is meant to incite more than lively belief; its celebration is also a call to glance backward and to look forward.
The Year of Faith provides a chance to remember both the fruits and the failures of the Second Vatican Council’s implementation, with honest clarity. The failure to transmit the habits of piety coupled with the advance of an aggressive secularism led many young people, often after years of sitting at the desks of parochial classrooms, simply to abandon the Church. Such baptized but unformed souls never have nor ever will attend the fraternities, Catechism classes, or processions that their parents took for granted.
An alternative response has been the revival of energetic orthodoxy. The cultural conditions that alienated some young people and their parents have galvanized others. These youth are the fruit of Blessed John Paul II’s call for the New Evangelization and have been emboldened by the courage of Benedict XVI. Increasingly, seminaries and monasteries are filled with young men and women such as these.
With the 2012 worldwide Synod on the New Evangelization, we must consider anew what strategies are congruent with the task of preaching in our time. Of course, we should be leery of grand plans that would propose to remake the Church in the name of relevance. Even so, as Cardinal Newman once said in relation to the development of doctrine, since the Church militant needs to march through time, she must in a certain sense constantly be on the move.
If in this generation the Church is to advance her world-transforming mission we can aim for no less than these four practical objectives: the ending of abortion; the return of large families; the renewal of classical education; and the building of better churches. These correspond, so it seems, to the most pressing political, social, educational, and liturgical needs of the Church in the West.
As grace builds upon nature, so Catholic culture builds upon certain goods, like society. If low birth rates are both a symptom and cause of cultural decline, then killing your children is an act of cultural suicide. (Christians cannot be fooled by those who would reduce abortion to an evil equal to, say, unfair immigration rules. They are not equivalent. The good of life is more basic than the good of mobility.) Next, besides defending children, Christians need to have more of them. Even the UN now admits that demographic meltdown chills the economy. The Church, for her part, has never abrogated its longstanding commendation of large families. As from the Catechism: “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity.” (The italics are in the original.)
Third, we must take control of our own children’s education. Since John Dewey the professional guild of educators have been trained according to a progressive philosophy that destroys memory. Teaching Latin conveniently forges a link to the history, art, literature, and philosophy of the West that has been largely shaped by the Catholic Church. Catholic parents feel a need to introduce their children to what is noble and fine in the Christian intellectual tradition, which explains, at least in part, the rise of independent Christian academies and of home-schooling (which grows at a rate of 7 percent per year).
A final objective: let us build better churches. Culture follows cult. If Christian culture depends upon learning, it presupposes piety. Activism and education—necessary as these are—will lose their way if not nourished by a rich liturgical experience. So, alongside this Year of Faith, believers need to remember again what it means to celebrate that faith with solemnity. Given the often reckless liturgical experimentation of the last fifty years, any effort at re-evangelizing the West will depend on a renewal of liturgical piety. With the new translation of the Novus Ordo and a new lease on life given to the old form of the Mass, this renewal is now well underway.
Pope Benedict’s call for the Year of Faith is a call, at the least, for the defense of life, for the flourishing of the family, for the renewal of education, and for the revival of cult. But all programs for reform must be taken in the right spirit. It is not committees or conferences that will ultimately bring about the New Evangelization. It will be our Lord himself. Who knows under which florescent bulb the next great saint is studying, or serving? In one very real sense, the Year of Faith should teach us that there is nothing for us to do. As the Russian monastic Seraph of Serov memorably said, “Acquire a peaceful spirit and then thousands of others round you will be saved.”
Ryan N. S. Topping, is the Visiting Chair in Studies in Catholic Theology at the John XXIII Centre for Catholic Thought at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, Canada. These reflections are adapted from a manuscript which he is completing titled “Lazarus Rising: The Catechism and the Renewal of Catholic Culture”.
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