I enjoy studying Catholic Church history. The emergence of saintly personalities – and not so saintly, the explosion of new ideas, the birth of spiritual movements, the interaction of faith and culture, the expansion and contraction of the church all speak to the power of the Holy Spirit, moving and guiding the Body of Christ through the course of human events.
The Catholic Church was instrumental in the creation of hospitals and universities, the preservation of the knowledge of ancient cultures, the philosophical understanding of the dignity of the human person, the creation of the world’s most amazing art and the service of the poor and marginalized.
Over the course of the last 20 centuries of Christianity, certain key moments of decision stand out, where the church could have gone several different ways. Think of the Roman persecution of the faith, the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, the World Wars. These are all historical points that served as hinges to the future.
The early persecutions paradoxically strengthened the church through the radical decisions of the martyrs to suffer death rather than renounce the integrity of faith. The collapse of the Roman Empire pushed the church into the central position of leading and forming Western culture toward a new Christian humanism.
The Protestant Reformation triggered a whole movement of reform within the Catholic Church which culminated in the Council of Trent. A whole new blossoming of spirituality occurred in France after its bloody revolution, as people stepped forward to rebuild church and society.
In all of these pivotal moments in the history of the church, God raised up great saints to lead others in the right moral direction, to found new religious orders and movements, to imagine the church in a different way for the contemporary age. Figures as temperamentally different and historically distant as Stephen the Martyr, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, John Vianney and Edith Stein all served as inspirational figures who gave purpose, confidence and direction to the church and the world amidst the upheavals of their age.
Could it be that we are living in such a hinge moment of Catholic history right now?
The world’s ways of understanding and practicing religion, politics, communication, family, sexuality and economy are in flux and ferment. The startling revolution of social media technology seems to be changing everything.
While people are reaching out to each other in love, respect and service in so many ways, violence, poverty and disrespect also are on the rise. Tribalism is replacing nationalism as people hunker down with those whom they have the most in common.
In the midst of so much rapid change, we Catholics are well poised to be salt and light to the contemporary world. People still long for connection, purpose, community, spirituality, meaning and order.
The combination of our mystical prayer tradition, the ritualized communion of the sacraments, logical and ordered personal ethics, a social teaching that speaks of the absolute value of the human person in the web of politics, economy and culture can all contribute mightily to folks looking to find their place in an increasingly confusing, lonely and even violent social landscape.
Can people look at us and see how the practice of our Catholic faith fills us with joy, purpose, peace, perseverance, generosity and fidelity? Can they see how our faith makes us better citizens and holier people?
Catholicism shows us who we are – children of God; where we are going – the Kingdom of Heaven; how to get there – by living our faith fully and passionately; and how to organize society best – by living out the fundamental principles of love, justice and peace.
Will the world continue to slide into the darkness of materialism, poverty, violence, relativism and agnosticism or will great saints emerge in a new and dramatic fashion to lead humanity to a fuller vision of God’s love and salvation? Will this historical occurrence be one of those pivots that move the church and the world to a rediscovery of the freshness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Such an enterprise will require a great multitude of disciples who love the Lord and the world enough to offer their lives to heal the chaos and darkness that swirl in and around us. This great fundamental task is the work of the new evangelization and it has been given to us!