“Do we believe in God or not?”
“Are we on fire with a love for Jesus Christ or not?”
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput asks these questions in his new book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World.
“[I]f we’re not,” the Philadelphia archbishop explains, “none of our good intentions matter. And if we are, then everything we need in doing God’s work will naturally follow, because he never abandons his people.”
Not on his prescription list is scheduling meetings to develop strategies when the Gospel and the Sacraments already exist to reorder our days and set our lives on the right path. He pauses at one point deep into the book to say: “readers may have noticed that, in a chapter on ‘repairing God’s house,’ they’ll find no new ideas for projects, programs, studies, procedures for nominating bishops, committees, structures, offices, synods, councils, pastoral plans, changed teaching, new teaching, budget realignments, sweeping reforms or reshuffled personnel.” Perhaps shocking to read from someone who has no doubt had to oversee some of these in his time, Chaput writes: “None of those things matter.”
“Or rather,” he continues, “none of them is essential. The only thing essential, to borrow a thought from the great Leon Bloy, is to be a saint. And we do that, as a Church and as individuals, by actually living what we claim to believe, and believing the faith that generations of Christians have suffered and died to sustain.”
At which point it’s hard for a Christian reader not to stop and ask: Where am I on the road to sanctity?
Chaput, in his book, wants to see you on your way to sainthood, by living the Christian life, the life of the Beatitudes.
“God,” Philadelphia’s archbishop continues, “calls us to set the world on fire with his Word. But he calls us first to love him.”
In awe, he writes, Archbishop Chaput also quotes from Dante Alighleri's “stunning” Divine Comedy and its closing line about “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”
“That Love is the nature of the God we preach,” he writes. “A God so great in glory, light, and majesty that he can emblazon the heavens with a carpet of stars and call life out of dead space; yet so intimate that he became one of us; so humble that he entered our world on dirt and straw to redeem us. We can be forgiven for sometimes running away from that kind of love, like a child who runs away from a parent, because we simply can’t understand or compete with that ocean of unselfishness. It’s only when we give ourselves fully to God that we grasp, finally, that we were made to do exactly that. Our hearts are restless until they rest in him. And so we should never be afraid to believe in God’s love and to make it the basis for our lives; it took even a great Saint like Augustine half a lifetime to finally admit that ‘late have I lived thee, Beauty so old and do new; late have I loved thee.’”
Jesus, Archbishop Chaput writes, “came to build a family that would set the world on fire with God’s love.”
And yet, “we put up fences around our hearts.”
“Instead of helping the poor,” he writes, as if leading a retreat, guiding the people of God in an examination of conscience, “we go shopping. Instead of spending meaningful time with our families and friends, we look for videos on the Internet. We cocoon ourselves in a web of narcotics, from entertainment to self-help gurus to chemicals. We rap ourselves in cheap comforts and empty slogans, and because there are never enough of them, we constantly look for more. We enjoy getting angry about problems that we can’t solve, and we overlook the child who wants us to watch her dance, or the woman on the street corner asking for food.”
“The reason,” he writes, “the Christian faith doesn’t matter to so many of our young people is that—too often—it didn’t really matter to us. Not enough to shape our lives. Not enough for us to suffer for it.”
Playing off the title of the book, he continues:
As Catholic Christians, we may have come to a point today where we feel like foreigners in our own country—“strangers in a strange land,” in the beautiful English of the King James Bible (Ex 2:22). But the deeper problem in America isn’t that we believers are “foreigners.” It’s that our children and grandchildren aren’t.
If he sounds a lot like Pope Francis during his weekday morning homilies, it is because they have the same goal: Getting hearts converted to the Gospel. As Chaput puts it:
There are no unhappy saints, and joy and hope are constant themes in the work of Pope Francis. Like Saint Paul, he sees the source of Christian joy in the act of preaching the Gospel, in a passion for living the Good News and actively sharing the passion for living the Good News and actively sharing the person of Jesus Christ with others. This is why he has such urgent words for tepid Christians. This is why he can never seem so impatient with believers who let their hearts grow numb. If we don’t share the faith, we lose it. Without a well-grounded faith, we cant experience hope, because we have no reason to trust in the future. And without hope, we turn more and more inward and lose the capacity to trust.
Not shy about pointing out the stakes, Archbishop Chaput points, too, to Pope Francis’s habit of mentioning the dangers of the Devil and his active presence in the world.
Jesus calls Catholics today to the same call he issued to Saint Francis, to repair His house. Chaput writes:
We need to cultivat[e] in our clergy and laypeople a better sense of who and what the Church is, separate and distinct from the culture around us – a family of families; an intimate community of Christian friendship with a shared vocation to sanctify the world; a mother, teacher, and advocate; the path to eternal joy; and an antidote to the isolation and radical individualism of modern democratic life. It means recovering a sense of Catholic history and identity; a deepened habit of prayer and adoration; a memory of the bitter struggles the Church endured in this country; a distaste for privilege; and a love for personal and institutional asceticism.
It might do us all a world of good if we reread that and meditate on that.
How much are we praying, sacrificing, doing reparation for evil and indifference in the world?
If we spent our time in constant critique of others – including others in the Church – we’re probably not doing this Christian life right.
If we’re living as constant commentators and spectators, how is that the life of a Christian?
Repairing and renewing God’s house means reforming our own hearts, “with an unflinchingly honest look at ourselves.” Things are going to get harder before they get easier in your life, in the country, and in the world. Or as the archbishop puts it: “We can count on demanding times ahead. “However we manage it, we need to be bolder and more loving in our Catholic witness, both personally and as a family of faith.”
“[A]nything else,” Chaput emphasizes, “now matter how pious its veneer, is dead weight.”
The call of the Christian is, instead, to live “white-hot with the Holy Spirit.”
If words have meaning, this is what we will try, with God’s grace, encouraging one another today, with the commitment of our whole lives.
“We are born for the City of God, Archbishop Chaput writes, “The road home leads through the City of Man. So we are strangers in a strange land, yes.”
“But what we do here makes all the difference.”
So, too, what we don’t do.