Our country is spiritually sick. I've especially noticed it since I assumed leadership of a parish in West Philadelphia last year. Back then, the embers were not yet cool following the riots that had engulfed the city in the summer. Since that time, I've seen political polarization and pathetic feuds continue to isolate us and affect our national mood.
We are no longer formed in basic virtues. Two recent experiences made this clear to me. The first happened recently. As I was taking an afternoon walk through the neighborhood, I overheard two people conversing. One said gleefully, “Lindsey Graham has the virus.” The other looked around to see if anyone was watching, then pumped her fist in the air.
In the middle of supposedly progressive and tolerant West Philadelphia, two people were celebrating the news that a sitting U.S. senator had contracted a virus. One cannot help but think of Seamus Heaney’s poem about “open minds as open as a trap.”
The second experience happened on the Fourth of July. I had gone to the Jersey Shore to see family after the morning Masses. As night descended, I started walking to my car to head home. Others were on their way to the boardwalk to watch fireworks. At one point, I noticed a group of young girls—probably in middle school—cursing the name “Trump.” As I looked up, I saw the stimulus: a large blue “Trump 2024” banner hanging from a third-floor porch. On the porch stood a middle-aged man and his sons, who began yelling back at the young girls. The girls proceeded to yell even louder as they walked past the house. It was the kind of moment that makes one feel dirty.
These are not interactions characteristic of a healthy society. They are the result of a failure of human ecology.
In the face of this reality, the words of our Lord take on fresh urgency: “I have come to cast a fire upon the earth.” Jesus was well aware of the explosive power of the gospel. He also knew that it could and would divide people: spouses, families, groups of friends. That division was based on a critical question: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus would not allow people to be indecisive. “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no,” he instructed his disciples. The Revelation of Saint John conveys the same message even more vividly: “Be hot or be cold, or I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Pope St. John Paul II loved to refer to the Church as an “expert in humanity.” She assumes this role because of her intimate relationship to her Divine founder, and because of her ability to sift through the mire in human societies over the years in order to integrate what is good and true.
The antidote to our spiritual malaise, therefore, is to embrace the gospel in all its fullness. Faithful Christians have an obligation to show by their words and actions what Jesus meant when he said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” Just as we have to remind our culture about history, civility, and basic principles of natural law, so we also have to remind our brothers and sisters what a flourishing and happy life consists of. The Church’s liturgy overflows into prayer, robust family life, and friendships based in pursuing the good of all.
The preservation of the earthly city depends upon the creative fidelity of Christians. We must begin to pick up the pieces of our broken civilization. This is not the first time this has happened. The solution is the same now as it was then: saints. Some names we know: Paul, Benedict, Catherine of Siena. Many others we don’t. Future generations may not know our names. They will want to know only one thing: Did they fan the flames of that blessed conflagration sparked by Jesus Christ? It is for us to write the answer with our lives.
Rev. Eric Banecker is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
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