Three Views of the Future: The Church in A.D. 2109

The following “documents” present scenarios for the Church as it might become a hundred years from now. The author wishes to point out to the reader that, given the complexity of factors in the present world, many other situations could develop. But the following suggest three which are not beyond the realm of possibility.

The first: The Church is undergoing a world-wide persecution, during which the strengths of the Body of Christ are in full flower under conditions of extreme suffering.

The second: A worst-case scenario, in which the Church, especially in North America and Europe, has been largely compromised, has grown lukewarm and made a false peace with the spiritus mundi.

The third: After a delay of a century, a grace period brought about by the “New Evangelization” of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church has succeeded in bringing the Gospel to the entire world. However, once again the secular order has begun to degenerate into universal materialism. The Church, having made many gains and suffered some losses, now faces a situation strikingly similar to that of the late twentieth century.

Each of the following, the author reminds us, are pure fiction.

Document 1
A Letter from “Bishop X” to the Vicar of Christ

Feast of All Souls, 2 November, 2109.

Your Holiness,

In these most difficult times, I rely on your constant prayers for me, and for the successful completion of my mission. There are many souls throughout the Church in North America who are praying that this report reaches you safely. If you are indeed reading it, our prayers will have been answered by the God of all Consolations, and by his Blessed Mother, the Queen of Apostles.

The enclosed dossier of 148 pages is the completed report on the condition of the Church in the Americas. Considering your own situation I do not know if you still have access to laser-text or light-mail, or even to the crudity of an old micro-computer. In case of the latter I have included a chip-file. In addition, I have resorted to the antiquated medium you now hold in your hand—actual paper.

Its contents have been purchased by the sacrifices of countless lay people and clerics here, and also by the shedding of the blood of many faithful Catholics. It grieves me to say that the rumors are true—there are new martyrs, and though there is no way of obtaining accurate figures, it is certain that their numbers are growing daily. It is my hope that the madness will soon cease, but this may be optimistic in light of the new federal statutes. The current president of the United States has once again invoked the concept of separation of Church and State in an entirely questionable manner, declaring that the Christian churches represent a “necrotic tumor” on the body politic, and that it must be excised for the good of the Republic. This, irony of ironies, is accompanied by a flood of government and media rhetoric about freedom and democracy. Only one of the twelve American cardinals has capitulated to this reasoning, arguing that the Church must cooperate with the State in the interest of preservation of the “Catholic Voice” in the democratic experiment. His archdiocese, and his alone, continues to function without harassment by government agencies, but I was able to experience first-hand the many compromises, errors, and sins which now dominate that once great see. The three cardinals who publicly denounced the new statutes are in prison, the remaining eight are in hiding (cf. Pgs. 58 through 73 of dossier, Section G, “On the Status of American and Canadian Prelates”).

I was able to visit no more than a third of the dioceses in the course of the previous year, but through a network of contacts I have obtained a fairly clear picture of the general situation. A majority of bishops and priests are underground, fully 1/5 of the registered pastors have been arrested. Consecrated religious have suffered also: all houses owned by Catholic congregations have been closed and the communities scattered; many superiors imprisoned. Shortly before her arrest the Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity in the U.S. issued instructions to members of the congregation that they must leave aside their distinctive white and blue sari and blend into the larger population until the situation normalizes. Even so, the government acted quickly; the foreign members of the order were deported, and a large number (possibly a majority) of the 2200 American-born sisters have been apprehended by federal security agents. Their whereabouts is unknown.

And what of our Catholic lay people? It is impossible to measure the suffering of these brave families. For more than a generation they have managed to survive under the punitive measures of the taxation system and the hostility of the health care industry. However, new terrors are pressing down on them through the government’s “one-child policy”, the forced sterilization of people whose incomes are under the poverty line, the abduction of newborns from families with more than a single child (one can only conclude that these children are marked for immediate destruction, or will be used as sources for organ transplants or for experimentation in government scientific institutes). Add to this the recent introduction of mandatory euthanasia of the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill, the chronically infirm, and those aged seventy-five and older. The Martyrs of Chicago—the 140 lay Catholics crucified to the surveillance poles outside of Metro Stadium—were arrested for protesting the crimes at the city’s “Compassion Center”, a joint state-federal institution where enforced abortions and euthanasia killings have occurred for the past three years. The martyrs were detained under the provisions of a federal emergency measures statute, convicted of “hate crimes” and “incitement to violence” (by which is meant the seditious act of referring to abortion and euthanasia as murder), and summarily executed in public within twenty-four hours. It should be noted, however, that this was an unusually dramatic incident, for in most cities the government strives to maintain a veneer of due process of law and the maintenance of civil liberties.

The lay people who are in prison number in the millions—a conservative estimate. It is impossible at this time to determine their whereabouts, due primarily to a policy of total media blackout regarding the more extreme government activities (illegal arrests, incarceration without due process of law, torture and grotesque executions—most of which are carried out in secret). Add to this the media disinformation about the more visible government activities which the public can hardly fail to notice (forced closure of churches and schools, arrests on unsubstantiated charges of treason, and the more socially acceptable forms of execution — all of which are apparently “legal” under the new statutes). It is widely believed that our people are being held in “civilian internment camps”, the euphemistic term for concentration camps used in the president’s Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act of March, 2108.

How has this come to pass? How has the unthinkable become the ordinary? Although Americans are very different from us, they are human after all, and thus quite susceptible to the psychology of perception. The average citizen strolling down an average street in a totalitarian state does not experience his world in terms of continuous absolute madness. However distressed it may be, the passage of months and years gives to even the most extreme of situations a certain semblance of normality. The image Americans once had of their society was a mental construct. And when more than a century ago it began to mutate, they found it extremely difficult to believe that the land of the brave and the home of the free was becoming a landscape of secret nightmare where millions of children were murdered annually, discreetly, hygienically in the clinics and hospitals of their land. Legalized murder, loss of the transcendent vision, and the death of authentic culture should have been sufficient warning to them, for each is a key symptom of a society’s collapse into totalitarianism. But democracies are not immune from self-delusion, although they tend to forms of oppression which are not overtly violent. Democracies in the final stages of decline, however, will degenerate into overt oppression, but they will do so in the name of freedom. That Americans began to realize this fact only when it was far too late, played no small part in the development of outright tyranny.

I have, to date, sent three copies of this dossier to you by clandestine means. However, due to the uncertainties of ordinary communication channels, there is no way of knowing if any have reached you. As you advised me at our meeting last year at Monte Cassino, I have avoided mention of certain details, names, places, contingency plans, et cetera—in short, anything which pertains to the organization and movements of the underground Church. There would be grave consequences if this should fall into unsympathetic hands. As you will see, I restrict myself, according to your instructions, primarily to a general survey of the spiritual condition of the flock in the West. Nevertheless, I do not think it amiss if I recommend to you by name the young man who bears this document.

This, the fourth copy, is carried to you by Father Joseph Nguyen, a holy priest, a third generation Vietnamese-American who has been ministering for the past eighteen months in underground communities in the Los Angeles area. His work as a migrant agricultural laborer enables him to move about the state with some freedom. He has been instrumental in rallying the Catholic people of southern California, calling them to devotion to the Sacraments and the Mother of God. Although he is much needed here, I ask that you find pastoral work for him in Europe, where for the moment the situation is not quite as extreme. He will, of course, beg you for permission to return to America, where the immediate dangers are growing, and the need is great, due to the arrests of so many priests. But we cannot assume that he will escape detection here forever, because there is considerable evidence that apostates, though surprisingly small in number, have been induced by the political police to infiltrate the provisional parishes of the southwest.

With your permission, Holiness, I have a request to make of you. I am a sojourner from an older culture, a wayfarer and a pilgrim, burdened by the long list of my accomplishments—honors and dignities which have now become meaningless to me. Too late did I see what a source of pride they were. Yet perhaps not so late. I have been moved by this experience as by no other. During this mission I have seen miracles which equal those of the New Testament. I have met living saints. There are a great many conversions; their numbers are growing at an accelerating rate, and this in circumstances of utmost confusion and distress. Many of the converts lack proper catechesis and formation and have no access to priestly ministry, yet their faith is impressive. Everywhere I see much evidence that the Holy Spirit is infusing His people with direct knowledge of the mysteries of God. The Lord is alive! Christ is with us! Where evil abounds, there grace also abounds. Even so, possibly two score American dioceses are without bishops. Will you let me take the place of one? I am old, but not without certain strengths. Will you permit me to remain?

Two weeks ago I was able to locate the cardinal archbishop of Saint Louis, Missouri, at a refuge in the Appalachian Mountains, and he asked me to beseech your prayers for the suffering Church in America. He spoke of the urgent need for bishops and priests to be sent here as soon as possible, and reminded me of the extraordinary fruitfulness of the seminaries in China, Korea, and West Africa. It is the cardinal’s belief that when the persecution has run its course, the blood of the martyrs will bring forth an unprecedented harvest of souls in the coming generations. There will be a tremendous need for missionaries to “darkest North America”, as he so poignantly expressed it.

The cardinal has not lost his sense of humor, and indeed appears to be somewhat more relaxed since the collapse of external structures. In a candid moment he confessed to an immoderate delight in the “demise of paperwork and committees.” Yet, for all that, he is grieving very much over “the blood of the lambs”, as he calls it. I know that you feel everything he feels and more, for you are our chief shepherd, and the crucifixion of the flock of Christ must strike at your heart in a way that it does no other man, save the Good Shepherd himself.

How to articulate the mysterious mixture of grief, awe and joy which we feel! How to express the inexpressible? Our anguish over the suffering of so many martyrs is inseparable from our gratitude for their witness. Who could have foreseen the depth and the strength of the Catholic people of the New World? We of Europe considered them dangerously weakened by two centuries of activism; we thought of them as seduced by an immigrants’ desire to prove themselves model citizens first, Catholics second; complacent in their power; addicted to their possessions and entertainments, too easily manipulated by the secular media; and indifferent to the many prophets, visionaries, and papal exhortations that were sent to them. Yet they have surprised us! Indeed they have shamed us! Never, never, must we underestimate the power of grace. The Church is ever leaping out of the tomb, as she always has, just when the world pronounces her dead.

In anticipation of your Apostolic Blessing,

I remain, your obedient son in Christ,

Bishop —
in transit, Antelope, Wyoming.

Document 2

Letter from the Chairwoman of the President’s Commission on Religion in America, to The Secretary, Department of Internal Affairs, Washington.

August 15, 2109 C.E.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Dear Charles,

At last! A moment to catch my breath!

I am writing informally here, strictly off the record.

We have finally arrived at wording and nuances congenial to all the commissioners. This was no easy task, considering the sheer volume of material under consideration, and the enormous amount of supplementary items, not the least of which were the submissions made by the various churches. Can you believe it? Three hundred denominations in this country! Ten times that number if you include the microscopic autonomous Protestant sects.

Would you pass on to the President my personal apologies for the many delays? I will be attending the dinner for social scientists at the White House next week, and will tell him myself, but duplication never hurts, does it? Form A (for apology), in triplicate, please! Your good wife has guaranteed me five full minutes with him before the concert. She’s so good at that!

The official report is at the printer and should be delivered to my office by Tuesday. Volume one of the document—a mere 3000 pages long—is basically a summary of the present situation, and Volume 2— approximately 800 pages—contains the recommendations. The report will include, of course, my introduction and a formal letter to the President. I’ll courier an advance copy to you and another to him. Media releases will go out on Friday. Would you ask the press secretary at the W.H. if there is to be a televised press conference with the Chief?

Leaving all formalities aside, I want to tell you, just between you and me, that there is a consensus among the commissioners about certain questions which are inappropriate to the public forum. Three years of intensive research have convinced us that religion in America is precisely where we want it to be. This, as you know, is something we would rather not be circulated in public. Hence, confidentiality, please.

A hundred years ago, the social contract of the secular order was so unstable that many thoughtful observers realized the potential power of the religious sects. They knew that, united, the large voting blocks of citizens who adhered to the lingering attractions of the old religions, could easily set up barriers to the establishment of the evolving world order. Early on, social scientists of various sorts understood that if humankind were to make a quantum leap from the era of warring nation states and economic injustice, into an era of peace, then the churches must be invited to participate in the process, and if they dragged their heels they must be rendered powerless.

How very close we came to total disaster. Too close for comfort. As you may recall, my doctoral thesis was on the sociopathic elements in the teachings of late nineteenth century and twentieth century fundamentalists, by which I mean orthodox Roman Catholics and some of the Evangelical Protestants. Conservative Jews were problematic as well, though their numbers were much smaller. At the turn of the century, despite their internal divisions, despite their doctrinal differences and internecine battles, these groups had collected their wits sufficiently to grasp an ominous point: if they so wished they could have stopped the massing configuration of worldpower. By which I mean they could have stopped us, Charles.

I do not believe that even their own historians understand how weak we were, how readily we would have backed down if they had offered some concerted resistance. Of course their popes and their so-called “prophets” made a little stir for a while, but in the end their people were overwhelmed by the sheer mass of fronts on which they were forced to resist. Although external pressures were partly successful, these tended to stiffen the Christians’ resolve. It was the internal pressures which succeeded in liquidating any sizable resistance. The two key pressure points which ensured the turning of the tide in our favor were found in education and culture. We took university after university, and all within the parameters of the democratic process. The Catholic universities, with few exceptions, seemed only a little less resistant to the pressures. How exquisitely delicious it must have been for our predecessors to have succeeded in turning the bastion of Catholic thought into an instrument of its own destruction! We dangled immense carrots in the form of grants from the foundations, and of course the Catholics bit. We flattered and befriended, and they trusted. And wherever persuasion failed, we did a thorough, I might say ingenious, job of characterizing the ensuing “counter-reformation” as hidebound and reactionary, as vicious repression. We exalted heretics (their term for independent thinkers) as heroes. Against their teachers we raised our teachers. Against their “prophets” we positioned ours. Ideological seduction, money, influence, old-boy networks, and later old-girl networks—it all helped. But above all, pride and ambition worked for us. That is the engine which did the job. Of course they saw it differently: inevitably theyjustified their compromises as a strategy for achieving their concept of good.They had finally accepted the truth that the end justifies the means—but theydid not foresee how we would turn it against them.

Each succeeding generation was that much more imbued with the absolute necessity of our cause, of our vision, of our redefinition of the meaning of human life. The entertainment industry, particularly Hollywood and the television networks, confirmed us all the way. As the process gathered momentum it gradually became so easy that we merely sat back and watched it unfold.

I must emphasize the fact that the sociopathic forces of organized religion were the antithesis of the new order that was absolutely essential to the preservation of civilization. From the vantage point of a century later it is difficult for us to imagine how powerful they once were. They were the single greatest stumbling block to the creation of a harmonious global consciousness. We cannot underestimate the role played by their age-old practice of conditioning children, victimizing the young by the early implantation of moralism, guilt, and the deformed thought-processes of Christocentric theologies—especially the Catholic version. Our predecessors gradually came to see that merely tearing down the exterior structures of their organization would accomplish little, and indeed had so often in the past proved to be counterproductive. Far better to strike at the foundation itself. Better still, we involved influential Catholics in the process of self-demolition. They would dismantle their own house brick by brick, cornerstone by cornerstone, and call it liberation, call it creativity. This was our master stroke!

There was a period during the last decade of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first when they awakened to what they were doing to themselves. At that point we came very close to losing everything we had gained since the Enlightenment, because the pontiff of the time pursued a policy of calling all Catholics to reflection on the fundamentals of their religion. Of course we countered that quickly by characterizing him as a fundamentalist. Then he inaugurated his so-called “new evangelization”, and we found ourselves confronted suddenly by the most formidable marshaling of their powers since the evangelization movements spawned by the aboriginal church of the first centuries.

How very fortunate for us that they were so internally divided. Why, even their own media treated their leader as merely one of many equal voices in the democratic cosmos. A flood of Catholic publications advised the faithful that it was not necessary to take the old pontiff literally on this or that controversial issue, because he was, after all, the product of his tragic origins. He had suffered under Fascists and Marxists, and thus he was projecting his pessimism upon the post-totalitarian world. It did not really make much difference to these churchmen that he was neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a brilliant realist (we must grant him that). Thankfully, his realism was shunted aside by the realpolitik of his fellow prelates in Europe and America. His message was weakened by the babble of commentary from their own camp. Smothered, interpreted to death, or simply ignored—by whatever means, his words were blown away on the winds of progress. Neutered might be a more accurate term. Eventually he and his successors were forgotten.

With the erosion of the tragically stunted Judaeo-Christian “morality” the grip which their authorities had on personal conscience declined steadily, until the resulting social chaos forced everyone to turn to the State for the maintenance of order. We reaped the harvest of the disintegration of the old order. We were artists of critical instability, masters of management by crisis. The vast majority, unable to defend themselves against criminals and terrorists, hunger and disease, became disillusioned with Christianity, for their god hadn’t come to rescue them, you see. As the world collapsed into chaos, they finally realized that he never would come. The leaders of the churches, those who remained after the heresies and schisms, were without credibility or direction. The multitude, restless for a solution to the chaos, longed for an ideal to cling to and were ready to receive the vision.

In the resulting moral vacuum many a gifted writer and speaker raised the bold, courageous cry for definitive action, for a cleansing of the planet of all those forces that blocked the path to global harmony, declaring that out of the full spectrum of human personality, one fourth was fully aware of the need for total reconstruction. At the opposite end of the spectrum, they maintained, lived the destructive one fourth who clung to their ignorant faiths and endangered the common good. As the twenty-first century progressed we made it more than clear to the churches that resistance was futile, and indeed would bring destruction upon their own heads. As mankind approached the quantum shift from the creature-human to the co-creative human, from homo sapiens to homo sapiens universalis—the human who is an inheritor of god-like powers—nothing could be permitted to stand in the way. This concept soon entered the mainstream of public thinking with relative ease.

Their leaders understood. Indeed, many of their theologians were saying much the same thing: A higher form of man was coming into being, but the emergence of this new proto-human could no longer be delayed without risking the loss of everything. Old Western Man must go the way of the Neanderthal, who had enjoyed his place in the sun, his moment in time, and then was swept away by the superior Cro-Magnon, who in turn was replaced by early civilized homo sapiens. Followed by industrial h-s, then technological h-s, who in turn must surge forward to the next stage of evolution with the assistance of everything learned from the past. There now opened before humanity a window in time, and all thinking people knew that the power which had been slowly maturing through millennia must be seized, or be lost for untold generations to come. If decisive action were not taken, then all that had been won would slowly collapse back into chaos, and the cycle of development and destruction, rise and fall, complexification and regression, would repeat itself endlessly through the ages.

Thankfully, the organs of religion in America understood the reasonableness of our proposition. No direct interventions were necessary. Predictably, there was a little peripheral resistance, but the number of protesters was never large, and those who persevered became increasingly hysterical, apocalyptic, discouraged, and in the end completely marginalized. As you will see in chapter thirty-six of the report, “Dysfunctional Christian Sub-Cults,” there remain to this day a small number of such cults, notably in what was once known as the “Bible Belt” of the Southern states. I have included in this chapter the scattered groups which call themselves “The Remnant”, the last traces of the so-called “orthodox” Roman Catholicism on this continent. Strictly speaking they are not a cult in the classical definition of the term, but their fiercely antisocial nature, and their irrational loyalty to that senile Australian who sits on the throne of Peter, are clearly dysfunctional.

I do not like to think what might have happened if the American and Canadian bishops had not opted for autonomy. That they waited so long, well into the first decade of this century, to declare their intention to create an “autocephalous church”, is something that should give us pause for reflection. Clearly, the prelates of the time were not entirely at peace about the move. Now, two, nearly three, generations later there is no longer any danger from that direction. However, as an historical footnote, it is interesting to observe their reluctance to sever a bond that was 2000 years old but which had outlived its usefulness. Obviously this was symptomatic of profound defects in their thinking, or perhaps more accurately, in their emotional makeup. But in the end they made the right choice. The Church of America came into being, as did similar churches throughout the West. And a new era of cooperation began.

After this long preamble, you must be asking yourself why on earth am I writing to you. To put it simply, the commissioners and I have been asking ourselves if there is any point in preserving the remaining churches. When you read Volume 2, Recommendations, you will see that this question does not appear in the text. Ostensibly, the country is still built upon the concept of the “melting pot,” the valuing of diversity, the guiding principle of pluralism. Thus, the churches have found their proper role as “contributors” to the ongoing dialogue which is the strength of a democracy such as ours. Members of the Catholic Church of America (alternatively titled the American Catholic Church), number 12 million, a figure which indicates significant decline since the last census. Membership in Protestant mainline churches numbers just under seven million, and here the graph indicates even sharper decline. Membership in the dysfunctional sects numbers upward of 800,000 individuals, including the Roman Catholic “Remnant”, which numbers just under one hundred thousand. In summation: there are 19 million practicing Christians remaining in America, representing no more than 5% of the country’s population. Practically all of them are sympathetic to the American way of life. The hostile “Remnant” groups represent less than 1/3 of one percent of the population.

So, you see, Charles, it is almost over. They have done it to themselves. In the interests of preserving themselves, they have effectively destroyed themselves. My question, and that of the other commissioners, is this: should we allow them another generation or two? Should we simply watch the process reach its logical consequence? Or is this the moment for definitive action? Should we let the candle stub burn itself out, or should it be snuffed in a swift and merciful act, thus avoiding a great deal of wasted effort, time and human potential?

I lean toward the former solution. Soon they will be gone by natural process. But if by an accident of fate a few should remain, it might be of some sociological interest to maintain them like an interesting subspecies, like a vanishing tribe in the rain forest, or like those small, harmless historical societies which every now and then attempt to resurrect their lost golden ages.

None of the foregoing, of course, appears in the official report. We must maintain the image. We must allow our little friends a few pathetic scraps of dignity.

I hope you and Marjorie can attend the publication banquet that I am hosting at the end of the month. Please come. The Moderator of the United Church of the Americas will be attending, and the keynote speaker is the new president of the bishops’ conference of the Catholic Church of America. He is a very nice man, and he has some amusing stories to tell.

Until then,

I remain yours, sincerely,

(signed) Maya

Dr. Maya Jefferson-Sinclair,

Dean, Department of Sociology,

Georgetown University, Washington.

Document 3

“Stay awake and watch, for you know not the hour . . . “

an address by Professor Xavier Ukoh to a meeting of the International Society of Catholic Historians, Saint Charles Lwanga University, Lagos, Nigeria, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, A.D. 2109

[Editor’s note: Portions of the following talk have been deleted for the sake of stylistic balance and brevity. Professor Ukoh, a native Nigerian, member of the Ibo tribe, is director of the Pontifical Academy of Catholic Historians, and a resident of Rome. He is professor emeritus of Saint Charles Lwanga University, and adjunct professor at Saint Edith Stein University, Oswiecim, Poland. He is an octogenarian, a married man, father of eight, grandfather of thirty (one of whom is the archbishop of Enugu, Nigeria).

During the talk he frequently departed from his prepared text, which the conference attendees enjoyed immensely, for the professor is a great story-teller and a renowned wit. Moreover, he speaks several languages, and in this address he employed all of them liberally. This presented not a few problems for the editor. Although the text has been augmented by simultaneous translation software, the program was unable to cope with certain obscure quotations in Latin, and some of the Yoruba historical references. At various moments he sang, he wept, and he even at one point closed his eyes, lifted his arms in the orans position and prayed aloud. In addition, his humorous sallies in the Ibo language provided much entertainment for a portion of the audience, translation technology providing only the literal meaning of his jests for the rest of us.

Thus, to avoid confusion for the reader, I felt it best to edit the talk considerably (he spoke without interruption for two and a quarter hours). For the most part, he delivered a highly articulate flow of insight that left no one in the audience unconvinced that we were listening to one of the great thinkers of the twenty-second century. What follows, I must admit, is only the preamble of that day’s memorable address.]

My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, welcome! Praised be Jesus the King of Glory!

You have asked me, an old man in his dotage, to offer some reflections on the events of the past century, and to suggest to you those factors which I consider essential to any analysis of the present situation. You have asked me to do so as an historian, speaking to historians. Let it be said first that I am a Catholic historian, which means that for me the problem of history cannot be considered as a purely linear process. History is an account, as much an art as it is a science, of an unfathomably rich cultural matrix. It is a probing of the mysterious structure of being itself. We do not view the world purely as a playing field of geopolitics or economics or the annals of tribes and nations, but as the place in time and in eternity where we are called to restore all things in Christ.

This is a big order! [laughter]

Perhaps, on this extraordinarily hot afternoon, it would be better if you all returned to your hotels for a sip of ale. Perhaps it would be better if I said no more than this:

God is God! And man is a creature! The human person is beautiful and glorious, but he is also damaged, born into a war zone not of his choosing. And History, our subject today, is essentially a combat journal of a spiritual war that reaches all the way up to the gates of Paradise, and all the way down to the gates of Hell. Between the two lies the realm of man and his societies. We are the archivists of his struggle.

My little grandson, that aging gentleman in the red hat, seated in the first row, once said to me a true thing. [laughter] He was eight years old at the time, and I was much surprised by his wisdom. In a voice full of amazement he said, “Grandfather, original sin is everywhere!”

That is why he is now wearing a red hat and sitting in the first row. [more laughter].

This, my colleagues, is the hidden dynamic of history: sin and grace, human will and divine providence, angels and demons, light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hatred.

Of the latter I have seen a little and heard much, being an elderly man. I remember a story which my own father told to me when I was young. He described that last wave of fratricidal wars which swept across this continent, some of which he witnessed with his own eyes. He was six years old at the time, running with my grandmother into the forest, because soldiers were pouring into our village and shooting people. Many of the villagers fled into the parish church, and there they were killed, clinging to the Cross. He and his mother ran for miles, until the sounds of gunfire were faint behind them. She pushed him beneath a fallen tree, and covered him with her body, and there they lay for three days. Later they returned to the deserted village and found the church filled with heaps of bodies — men, women, children. Most of our family had been murdered. But Christ was with them, and He is still with us. He suffers in his people, and with us and for us. He is in agony until the end of time.

At the height of the darkness, Heaven poured out its astounding grace, never before seen, never to be repeated. When the Sign of the Son of Man appeared in the skies over the entire world all nations and peoples stopped and looked at it. And for an hour each human being on earth saw the sins of his own life, and understood the mercy of God which is poured out continuously upon the world. That was the moment of choice. Each one asked himself, Do I accept this mercy? Do I accept my creaturehood? Do I accept the absolute rights of God and the duties of man? Do I accept finally that I am not, and never can be, God? Will I accept to be a very small creature, but a very beloved one?

Thus, the world chose, and for the most part chose rightly. Then followed the collapse of unjust structures. None of us were born when this occurred. For most of us it has become an incident in history books. I know that you realize full well the enormity of that singular grace. It was the turning point, the hiatus, the source of everything which followed. And I know that you understand its theological implications, and yes, all of you are grateful beneficiaries of that single hour. But I must ask you, as I ask myself, is that shattering moment in the history of the world even now fading into a religious abstraction? (Forgive me, I do not mean to condescend, but the elderly are permitted a little condescension, are we not?)

I recall my father’s eyes when he spoke of that day. Never will I forget the look on his face. His eyes saw it! And I saw his eyes. And you, the young, see my eyes. This is history, my brothers and sisters. And here is the key to our understanding of history: We must see the presentness of the past as part of a living whole which has its roots beyond time, yet is within time. If we do not grasp this, we will slide back into various forms of linear thinking. We will come to see existence, even our religion, as a kind of spiritual flatland. Robbed of the mystery and majesty of the human drama, we will grasp at ideologies, just as our ancestors did in the twentieth century.

Think of that terrible, dark century! Think of its great pride and its unspeakable crimes! If that century was given over to Satan, remember always that this century belongs to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and to the Reign of the Eucharistic Jesus! We have been given a grace period. During this era the Church has made many gains. Who could have foreseen that behind the wall of Communist China, before its fall, there lived vast numbers of underground Christians? Who could have predicted that our greatest saints would emerge from that silenced crucified people? Who could have foreseen that they would spread the faith throughout Asia? Who could have predicted the outpouring of grace which infused the “New Evangelization” begun by the Great Pontiff in the 1990s? What prophet would have singled out this our beloved Africa as the most fruitful of daughters? And who could have anticipated the now well-worn phrase, “Catholic Africa, Evangelizer of the West”? Who could have predicted, at the very darkest moments of the end of the second millennium, that a period of peace was only a breath away? Think of the flood-tide of faith, of family life, of art, of music, of learning, of charity between all peoples, that poured from that single hour.

We must not forget it. And yet, as another century begins, we see signs everywhere that man is once again falling into disremembering and neglect. Have we so soon forgotten our ancient foe, the adversary who wars against us until the end of time? Have we neglected to keep a watchman upon the gates of our hearts?

Erosion, erosion! Little by little sanctity declines. Vigilance declines. Love declines. Truth declines. In Europe and the Americas, and even here, voices are rising again, questioning the wisdom of the Church. “It is not much,” say the reassuring voices. “It is only a minority. Everyone must have his say.” Some now say that even the devil must have his share of the public forum. Catholic intellectual life is once again being infested by small, seemingly innocuous serpents of pride. Ah, but have you noticed how these little reptiles have an appetite that just grows and grows? If you seek to placate them, they will end by swallowing us whole. But that is only one of several fronts, is it not? In many places, unbridled sensuality is beginning to displace the holy, Catholic, sacramental rejoicing in the senses. The young, in their music and their folklore, are yearning backward in time toward the corrupt culture of the last secular age, to those things which are better left unremembered. Consider also that here and there nations are beginning to squabble, and to arm, and to lose their memory of things which should be remembered.

It bears repeating: We were given a grace period of an extra hundred years. How have we used it? For the most part we have used it well, but three generations now separate us from that seminal moment. Has the peace of this time lulled us into a false sense of security? Have we forgotten that Our Lord warns us in the Gospels to stay awake and to watch, for we do not know the hour when our Master will return? Let us turn our hands to the difficult labor of renewing the sanctity of our people, to an awakening of the vigilance of our bishops and teachers, to the restoration of culture, and to the reclamation of the intellectual life.

Let us not be deluded, my brothers and sisters, into thinking that because of our great learning we are blessed with superior vision. Let us not confuse knowledge with wisdom. Neither should we suppose ourselves invulnerable to the perennial weakness of human perceptions. We are all struggling to read the Rosetta stone of history; we are all interpreters, and we are all in danger of becoming impressionists. This problem is never more urgent than in a period of confusion, when the very architecture of reality threatens to collapse under the pressure of subjective thinking. We narrowly escaped total collapse a century ago. But now many of the streams of confusion which nearly destroyed that age are rising again and beginning to converge into powerful rivers, and indeed show many signs of becoming a flood.

What, then, are we to do?

Should we lie down quietly and do nothing as the tide of evil rises? Is it not the sin of presumption to expect yet another divine rescue operation if we refuse to do our part?

Or should we become hysterical and run about shouting, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”?

Alternatively, should we bury our heads in the sands of denial, and say to ourselves, “Ah, yes, there are a few problems, but a century ago it was very bad, worse than this, and you see that the world did not collapse!”?

My friends, answer me this: Which is the worse attitude, which will bring about the greatest harm to the human community: the psychology of denial or the psychology of hysteria? I believe that both are destructive, but I am convinced that denial is definitely worse.

We have a saying in my village:

“Pity the man who goes out alone into the jungle and crouches awake all night in terror of the lion, staring into the dark, jumping at every rustle in the bushes. Such a man will be useless on the morrow.

“Pity more the man who lays down on the earth and sleeps unheeding, for he will not be there on the morrow; he will be a lion’s meal.

“But wise is the man who rests with one eye open, his spear by his side, for he will live to plant his fields.”

How, then, are we to remain calm but alert? How do we find rest, yet guard the household which is entrusted to our care? We must begin where wisdom always begins, by becoming empty in order to be filled. To be silent. To be still. To wait. To listen. To feel in our bones that we are creatures. To raise our hands, childlike, in the orans position, asking for grace.

To rejoice in our powerlessness, for this is the vessel into which God can pour His strength. To find again our simplicity and thereby to discover our true greatness. To know that we are damaged but not destroyed. To learn that within us is a repository for truth and for love, and a potential for forms of creativity that are practically infinite. These are gifts, but they are not our possessions. They are not our power over creation but acts of love made with creation and in honor of He who lives beyond and within creation. He who is perfect beauty, perfect truth, perfect love.

No abiding love is possible without courage. With courage we shall stem the rising tide, we will help to bring about a true renaissance, a second spring. Our perceptions, more accurately our soul, will be restored to divine order when we return to our proper place in the hierarchy of creation. In submission to natural and supernatural law, to the absolutes, in obedience and prayer, by opening our interior life and the intellectual life to the full authority of the Holy Spirit, we will germinate a little seed. From it entire harvests can spring, and may yet cover the earth.

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God. . . .

And the Word became flesh

and dwelt among us.

And that has made all the difference.

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This article was originally published in ENVOY magazine, November, 1997