ARCHBISHOP JEROME E. LISTECKI
I am proud to be a John Paul II bishop. His 26 years as a pope left a legacy that cannot be easily matched in the history of the Church. His intellectual output in the numerous encyclicals and apostolic exhortations draws admiration from even the most dedicated scholars. He pastored the world and seemed to visit every country on the globe witnessing “solidarity” with the people. Secular and religious leaders throughout the world sought his advice. I have said this before and will hold to my position that I believe that St. John Paul is the greatest figure of the 20th Century and his writings will be the fodder for licentiates (ecclesiastical masters) and doctoral dissertations for the next 200 years.
St. John Paul was especially concerned with culture. Culture can be defined “as the personality of a society. As understood in Catholic social philosophy, it is the totality of a people’s traditions (what they believe), attitudes (what they desire), customs (what they do) and institutions (how they live).” (John A. Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary)
I have often thought that today’s cultural “givens” (language, attitudes, etc.) would shock my grandparents and even my parents. We have drifted away from an incorporation of Catholic vision into who we are and what we do in exchange for an acceptance of whatever is the current interpretation of social situations. The rationale is often proposed as a progression in thought and action. But is it?
Certainly, St. John Paul can be characterized as an intellectual and I would offer that he was certainly a mystic but, for our purpose in dealing with the culture, he really was a prophet. Remember, he had to confront not one but two totalitarian governments in the political reality of Poland, which was Nazism and Communism. Yet, he was armed only with the Scriptures and Church teachings. He stood tall against both of these ideologies and some infer that he was the source for the downfall of Soviet world domination.
Now we face an ideology that is much more subtle and deceptive than either Communism or Nazism, and that is Secularism. It doesn’t reject religion directly but embedded in this mode of thinking there is a suppression of the sacred, especially in the life to come. It is the here and now that counts with little concern for the afterlife. When the spiritual aspect of life is eliminated, then the only concern for human beings becomes what is either gained or lost in the present world. In fact, religious people are seen as an obstacle because they depend upon a God who is the ultimate judge, not the secular world.
I have experienced the continued isolation of religious leadership and vision from the various conversations in our society, which for a longtime occupied a prominent role in societal discussions. Perhaps we as Catholics have allowed that isolation for the sake of social acceptance. Perhaps our failure in the area of clergy sexual abuse has muffled our ability to teach clearly and with authority. Perhaps there is timidity in presenting the Church’s teachings, accepting the cultural notion that the Church is outdated and out of touch with the current thought.
I am an American. I respect and admire the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights of the United States of America. As a member of the military and a civil lawyer, I have taken oaths swearing my allegiance to uphold those documents and the legitimate authority of the government. There might be those who do not want to hear this, but religious freedom is one of the most cherished rights of all citizens. For, in many ways, it helps us understand that there is an authority that surpasses even the determinations made by the government.
The prophetic voice of St. John Paul holds (Centesimus Annus) that the source and synthesis of rights (right to life, to seeking and knowing the truth, establish family, etc.) is found in religious freedom understood as the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person. But St. John Paul warns that even in democratic forms of government, these rights are not always respected. I have observed the extraordinary attacks on those of the pro-life movement merely for presenting (scientific) facts about life. I have seen the reported lies and manipulation of aborted fetal tissue for scientific experimentation and potential economic gain. The arguments have been offered pursuing a legalization of euthanasia as a means to conserve medical resources or medical insurance claims. The support some will give for population control in order to preserve natural resources for future generations. St. John Paul warned us about the culture of death (Evangelium Vitae) that is fostered by the legitimization of laws that deny personal dignity. It is the voice of the Church that speaks to the culture of life and will continue to do so.
It is also in the expression of religious freedom that speaks to the dignity of the human person in their participation in the society: the recognition of equal rights of all people under the law and the legitimate authority necessary to hold all accountable under the law and to protect the citizens in their rightful pursuit of educational and economic goals. It is the Church that forms the argument not in terms of political interest but in support of the embedded rights whose foundation is based on God and the natural order.
We have slowly watched over the past decades the acceptance of social cultural behaviors, which surrenders the important role of God within our society. This has taken place in our educational institutions (both Catholic and non-Catholic, which rarely supports religious practices or presents religious arguments), in our media (religion and faith rarely depicted as a value), and in our social practices (which presents Sunday as just another day). I have heard the lament of parents and grandparents that their children and grandchildren rarely attend Mass, and see no need to be married in the Church or have their children baptized. Why should they if there is no God, or if God is whatever you make him (her) to be or that everyone is going to heaven no matter what their actions in this life.
In this vast secular desert, where do we find our hope? It is, as it has always been, in the person of Jesus Christ in His Church. We must become the witnesses and signs of God’s love for our family, friends and our communities. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Our society needs faithful followers more than ever.