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The collapse of our country: the antidote

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli

Beneath the soil of every continent lie buried the ruins of fallen civilizations. The Sumerians, Akkadians, Mayans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Minoans, Romans: all of them, faded memories of past grandeur and glory. History records the collapse of at least thirty-two major civilizations that once thrived and prospered before our time. 

No great civilization is built in a day. No great civilization disappears in a single instant. Historians try to explain how these civilizations once so great have slowly vanished into the dustbin of history. Weather, economics, population decline, wars, politics are some of the reasons that they offer. But, ultimately, a civilization disappears when it loses its identity, forfeits its unity and jettisons its commitment to the common good.

Today’s relentless front-page news reports of scandal and sin (many times, stale news served up as current), the incessant discord of our politicians, the unending string of acrimonious tweets, and the rage of angry voices make one wonder whether or not we are facing the decline of our own civilization. Has our unity as a nation become so fragmented that it cannot be repaired?

The TV sitcoms, the talk shows, the din of warring cable news channels do little to promote serious discourse. Rather, they seem at times to make us despair of receiving unbiased reporting. They hardly inspire us to respond to the gospel’s clarion call for truth, justice, compassion and charity. Have we lost our commitment to the common good? Are we in the midst of an unstoppable decline of our nation? 

Some say this is the age of tolerance. As a result, good and evil, right and wrong, vice and virtue, truth and error are accepted as equally valid. But, this is not the age of tolerance. Those who are pro-life are marginalized. Those who cherish and protect the life of the child waiting-to-be-born, the elderly and the terminally ill are branded as bigots, unwilling to show compassion to those suffering. Those who accept the sanctity of marriage and human sexuality as designed by the Creator are vilified. We live at a time when some are not only intolerant to our basic Christian values, but are actively engaged to silence Christians, target the Church and reduce her to ruins. 

In an age of relativism, has it become almost impossible to dialogue rationally on the major issues that face us, such as poverty, migration, and the sanctity of life itself ? “Relativism is the order of the day. Good and evil, right and wrong, innocence and guilt – all these binaries are deliberately confused as antipodal extremes are brought into artificial congruence. Moral clarity is muddled and logical cogency diluted. All inherent preference is suspended out of a misguided attempt to achieve balance where there is none” (Brandon Marlon, “The Decline and Fall of Modern Civilization: 8 Simple Steps to Squandering It All,” The Algemeiner, January 22, 2015).

From the Church, we receive a rich heritage of truth, morality and charity. We have solid and clear moral principles given to us by Jesus. These are the solid building blocks with which to construct a just and peaceful society. Could it be that we ourselves are slowly abandoning these principles? How is it possible that those trained in the Catholic faith assume leadership roles in government and then jettison their Catholic morals? How is it that any one of us can remain complacent to the slow moral deterioration of our country? 

Our country will not collapse if we refuse to hand over our future to those who deny the existence of God and live as if this world is all that there is. Our society will not collapse if we are courageous enough to draw on our moral and spiritual heritage to solve the issues that divide us. Our nation will not collapse if we remain true to our identity given to us by our Founding Fathers as a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Our courage as moral individuals to stand for justice, truth and compassion is the antidote to the collapse of our country.
 

God or Satan: making no room for evil in our world

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli

Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher who lived four centuries before Christ, proposed the scientific theory of horror vacui. Based on his observations, he concluded that nature fills every empty space with something, even if it is only air. In his works Gargantua and Pantagruel, the Renaissance priest, doctor and scientist Rabelais popularized this idea with the phrase Natura abhorret vacuum (“nature abhors a vacuum”). Where there is a void, either mass or energy rushes in to occupy the empty space. In truth, this theory applies not merely to physics, but to life.

For the last thirty years, the secularization of culture and the banishing of God from the public forum have created a great religious void. More and more Americans have been abandoning the practice of religion. Since 1990, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has tripled from eight percent to twenty-two percent. 

Today there are about five million fewer mainline Protestants and three million fewer Catholics than there were ten years ago. For every new convert to Catholicism, six others leave the Church. Young people between the ages of 18 and 30 are much less interested in religion than their parents. As Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research for the Pew Research Center, has observed, “the country is becoming less religious as a whole, and it’s happening across the board.”

Nonetheless, the human person is innately religious. More than just being a material creature on the same level as irrational animals, the human person has reason and is always in search of meaning. “Nature abhors a vacuum.” And, so into the void created by abandoning religion as a source of meaning, other forms of discovering meaning have rushed in. 

In an attempt to respond to the spiritual dimension of human life, some people are turning to New Age beliefs. New Age adherents, now nearly one-fourth of the population, have replaced the personal God of revelation with a spiritual energy that animates the cosmos. They are making use of crystals, tarot cards, astrology, psychics, and even yoga as a spiritual exercise to tap into this impersonal energy in order to manage their lives and find self-fulfillment. 

For New Age adherents, there is no absolute truth. All beliefs are of equal value. And, since they deny the existence of sin, they do not accept the need for a Redeemer. At best, New Age adherents trade the transcendental for the immanent, the spiritual for the physical. At worse, they reject God and unwittingly fall into the hands of the Adversary. 

And, then there are others who reject God and consciously choose to turn to one form or another of the occult. It is astounding to realize that there are almost 1.5 million people who are involved in Wicca, a pagan form of witchcraft. Ever since the Garden of Eden and our first parents’ sin of attempting to be like God, people have been looking for ways to have the same knowledge and power as God himself. Today there are more witches than Presbyterians, more people involved in the occult than there are Muslims in the United States. 

The more individuals extol themselves as self-sufficient and exalt reason over faith, they turn from God and enthrone Satan. Attempting to control their lives through the use of the occult, they hand themselves over to Satan who uses them to destroy the peace and harmony God plans for us. Satan is the great deceiver. He makes people believe that they have absolute control of their lives. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “[Satan’s] logic is simple: if there is no heaven there is no hell; if there is no hell, then there is no sin; if there is no sin, then there is no judge, and if there is no judgment, then evil is good and good is evil.”

It would be foolish to close our eyes to the unmistakable increase of the devil’s activity in our society. Lack of civility. Hate speech. The tearing down of people’s good name. The blood shed on our streets. The breakdown of family life. The widespread extolling of vices contrary to the gospel. The delight in exposing the sins of others. Abuse in all its forms. Abortion. The persecution of the Church. All these are born of anger, hatred, envy, pride, greed and lust. They cause division and are the fingerprints of the Evil One.

On the day after his election to the papacy, Pope Francis shocked the cardinals who had placed him on the Chair of Peter. He said, “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil. When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.” The Pope courageously acknowledged the reality of Satan that day and many other times thereafter. And the Pope provided the only way to banish the devil from our midst: professing faith in Jesus. Professing our faith means quite simply staying close to Jesus within the Church, attending Mass at least each Sunday and Holy Day, receiving the sacraments and practicing charity. In other words, the only permanent antidote to evil in the world is the presence of God who leaves in us no room for evil.

Bishops’ meeting in Baltimore left much work to be done

By Bishop W. Shawn McKnight

The November General Assembly of Bishops in Baltimore was a difficult but perhaps unavoidable experience for us to move forward as a Church. I was very disappointed to learn that the Holy See found it necessary to insist that the USCCB not take action at this time on the proposals presented by our conference leadership. My frustration, shared with many other people, is this: We have known about the scandal of Archbishop McCarrick since the end of June, and our Church must take immediate, decisive and substantive action in light of the deep wound the scandal has caused.

I am not so concerned about the time it is taking to punish the perpetrator. Pope Francis immediately required the Archbishop to resign from the College of Cardinals when Cardinal Dolan announced the New York review board found a credible and substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against him. I’m okay with the fact that further penalties (which could include McCarrick’s return to the lay state) will take more time for a complete canonical process. McCarrick isn’t going anywhere and he is already living a life of imposed prayer and penance.

But much more is needed than simply meting out a just punishment. How could his rise to such an influential position in the Church have happened? I am concerned how the national conference of bishops and the Holy See answer that question. An internal investigation of the McCarrick scandal without the use of competent and qualified lay investigators will hardly be considered transparent and credible. We need and must utilize the best and brightest people to do a top-notch investigation and study of the problem. Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta is the most qualified Catholic clergy to lead such an investigation, but without knowing that his collaborators include competent laity, the public may not perceive his eventual report as independent and complete enough to be believed.

At the time of this writing, there has not been one bishop, archbishop or cardinal in either the Holy See or the United States who has come forward on his own to repent publicly of his sins of omission or commission with regard to Archbishop McCarrick’s series of promotions over decades. Please, be men, not cowards, and come clean on your own! There doesn’t have to be a formal and long, drawn out investigation for a bishop to exercise a little compunction and concern for the well-being of the whole Church. An independent and transparent investigation is all the more necessary when culpable hierarchs exhibit an incapacity to do the right thing on their own.

The laity are the only ones who can keep the hierarchy accountable and get us out of the mess we bishops got ourselves into. My singular focus throughout the Baltimore meeting was to advocate and push for greater public involvement of the laity at all levels of the Church. Why can’t we have well qualified, nationally known and trusted lay experts named to the special task force announced by the president of the USCCB? We are too insular and closed in as a hierarchy, and so are some of our processes at the USCCB. The Second Vatican Council gave us not only the freedom but the obligation to utilize and engage the gifts and talents of the laity in the life and mission of the Church.

Beyond the McCarrick scandal, we have more work cut out for us with regard to putting into place protocols and institutional structures to build credibility in the hierarchy’s handling of sexual abuse cases going forward. History proves that we bishops are not capable of policing ourselves adequately on the issue of clergy sexual abuse. Why not include the laity to assist us with this problem? The document the Missouri Province of Bishops presented to the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People on Oct. 6 was intended to offer a set of principles for the USCCB to consider as it was developing proposals for the full body of bishops, including the involvement of the laity. We Missouri bishops wanted something valuable to come from our November meeting.

And so, I was disappointed that even the mild proposals up for consideration at the Baltimore meeting had to be pulled from a vote. It was a rather harsh reminder to me of what many lay people have been saying throughout our Diocese: We bishops are ineffectual in our attempts to address the problem of abuse of power by the hierarchy. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People has had a marked impact on lowering the number of incidents of abuse by clergy since 2003. But with the aggravation of the McCarrick scandal, the laity and clergy are now rightfully asking that we get it all out, once and for all, and respond with an urgency that this crisis deserves. We literally have people dying because of the harm caused by predator clergy, and survivors of abuse are further victimized when we fail to take swift action. Seeing certain retired bishops who were notoriously responsible for covering up clergy sexual abuse at this year’s General Assembly in Baltimore as welcome guests was a slap in the face to all who have been wounded by the clergy. This example of episcopal arrogance and clericalism evidences the fact that we still don’t get the problem.

The whole Church is needed to solve our problem which the whole world knows about. What more do we have to hide? If we are going to move forward, we need to have authentic communion and a genuine synodal process. And this requires transparency and better communication between the clergy and the laity, between the USCCB and its own members, and between the USCCB and the Holy See. We need to become the Church Christ founded us to be.

Some of the most poignant comments I heard during the listening sessions in our Diocese were in response to the question asking for people’s dreams for their children and grandchildren. People spoke of a Church where their children and grandchildren would find the love, mercy and hope of Jesus Christ, a community filled by God’s graces and led by holy priests. Despite our current lethargy, I believe we are witnessing the rebirth and renewal of our Church in our day. And I feel very blessed to be part of that renewal with each of you. We are better together.

 

 

Bishop McKnight's column was first published at Making Connections, his column on the website of the Diocese of Jefferson City.

The suffering Church and the third day

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli

On the Mediterranean coast, half way between modern Tel Aviv to the north and Haifa to the south, stand the ruins of Caesarea Maritima, the magnificent city that Herod the Great built between 22 and 10 B.C. Herod’s palace, built on a promontory jutting out into the sea, was an engineering marvel. The city’s 40-acre harbor could accommodate 300 ships. The city boasted a hippodrome as well as a theater with a seating capacity of 3,500.

Caesarea Maritima was one of the most important cities in the world. It was the Roman capital from which Pontius Pilate ruled the province of Judea at the time of Jesus. Paul was imprisoned here. Deacon Philip lived here. And, for the first 300 years of Christianity, Caesarea became a center of faith and study that rivaled Alexandria and Antioch. Among its most famous Christians is Origen.

Origen (184 – 253 A.D.) was a teacher, scholar, preacher, apologist, and theologian. He has rightly been called “the greatest genius of the early Church.” Like St. Paul himself whose writings influenced all subsequent theology, Origen has had an unmistakable effect on the Church’s great thinkers for centuries. Among others, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Meister Eckhart all studied his writing. Origen’s allegorical interpretation of Scripture became the preferred method of explaining the Scriptures during the Middle Ages.

As a first-class philosopher and student of Sacred Scripture, he has earned himself the distinction of being the Church’s first biblical scholar. But, he did not limit his study to Sacred Scripture. He wrote on many different topics, including textual criticism, hermeneutics, theology, asceticism and homiletics. Origen’s principal work, De Principiis, was the first systematic exposition of Christian theology ever written. With the help of seven full-time secretaries, he produced more than two thousand works. So extensive were his writings that St. Jerome remarked, “Has anyone read everything that Origen wrote?”

The catechetical school that Origen established at Caesarea Maritima boasted the largest theological library of the day. It attracted such renowned scholars as St. Gregory Nazianzus, St. Basil the Great and St. Jerome. One of Origen’s students, Eusebius of Caesarea, earned the distinction of being “The Father of Church History.” Eusebius himself provides us into a glimpse of Origen’s personal life.

According to Eusebius, Origen not only worked assiduously defending the faith, but also he lived the faith in great simplicity. He owned only one coat. He wore no shoes. He ate sparingly. He slept on the floor. He spent the night studying and praying the Scriptures. In the words of Eusebius, “he taught as he lived and he lived as he taught.”

In the days of Origen, the Church herself had to face persecution, hostility and attacks from pagan philosophers. Even within the Church, there were the interminable battles on such important doctrines as the Trinity, the Divinity of Jesus and Redemption. While, in some instances, Origen may have not understood or explained the faith correctly, he nevertheless said, “I want to be a man of the Church … to be called … of Christ.”

What a great inspiration Origen is for anyone who may find it difficult when the Church faces challenges, questions, hostility, persecution and human failure. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, he writes: 

“The Church is being built out of living stones; it is in process of becoming a spiritual dwelling for a holy priesthood, raised on the foundations of apostles and prophets, with Christ as its chief cornerstone. Hence, it bears the name ‘temple.’…It is written: You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. Thus even if the harmonious alignment of the stones should seem to be destroyed and fragmented and, as described in the twenty-first psalm, all the bones which go to make up Christ’s body should seem to be scattered by insidious attacks in persecutions or times of trouble, or by those who in days of persecution undermine the unity of the temple, nevertheless the temple will be rebuilt and the body will rise again on the third day, after the day of evil which threatens it…” From a commentary on John by Origen, priest (Tomus 10, 20: PG 14, 370-371).

With these words, Origen offers hope to those who become discouraged when they see the Church suffering, besieged and wounded by sin. Origen presents the Church as a building being constructed, a work in progress. And, he enlarges our understanding of the Church so that we see ourselves as her members, imperfect in ourselves, yet being perfected by the grace of God. As we look forward to “the third day,” the day of the final resurrection, we pray for the Church and try to advance her holiness by striving after holiness in our own imperfect lives.
 

Ghosts and life after death

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli

One of the most famous figures of all English literature is the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Three times he appears in Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He demands that his son settle accounts with his uncle who murdered the dead king. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III, ghosts also appear. From the 3rd century B.C. Epic of Gilgamesh through Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Shakespeare and Dickens, ghosts populated the pages of literature. They have appeared in films and even starred in their own TV show, Ghost Hunters.

Are ghosts merely fictional? Do they really exist?  First Lady Grace Coolidge said that she saw Abraham Lincoln’s ghost looking out the window of the Oval Office. Many others have, likewise, reported sightings of the ghost of our 16th President at the White House. Among those claiming to have seen a spectral Lincoln are Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and President Reagan’s daughter Maureen.

Within the Old Testament, there is the famous incident of the ghost of the prophet Samuel. In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul is facing a fierce battle with the Philistines. He wants to know the outcome; and, so he consults the witch of Endor. The spirit of the dead prophet Samuel appears and predicts Saul’s imminent defeat and death. Some commentators say that Samuel came because God allowed him to come and speak on God’s behalf (cf. Sir 46:20). Other commentators consider this incident a demonic apparition. In either case, they accept the apparition.

The New Testament gives evidence that the disciples of Jesus believed in the reality of ghosts. After the miracle of the loaves and fish, “when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the sea, they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost,’ they said, and they cried out in fear” (Mt 14:26). When the Risen Lord appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, “they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then [Jesus] said to them, ‘Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have’ ” (Lk 24:37-39). 

The word “ghost” simply means “spirit.” It refers to the spirit of a deceased person who has made himself or herself present to the living. According to polls taken in the last ten years, almost forty-two percent of Americans believe in ghosts. According to a recent poll, almost thirty percent of Americans say they have been in touch with someone who has died.

Stories about contact with the dead continue to fascinate us. They provoke the imagination. They manifest our awareness that there is more to reality than the physical world which we empirically experience. These reports of the spirits of those who have died clearly suggest personal survival after death. 

In her wisdom, the Church rightly condemns consulting mediums to be in touch with the dead. In fact, “all forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116).

As Catholics, we hold that, at death, we face an immediate judgment of our lives. If we are in the state of perfect charity, we go to heaven. If we die in the state of mortal sin (God forbid!), we suffer eternal estrangement from God in hell. And, those of us who die in the state of grace, but not in perfect charity, undergo a purification of love in purgatory before we come into the presence of God. In a word, death is not the end of our personal existence. Nor does the Grim Reaper sever our relationships with each other. All tales of ominous specters appearing from beyond the grave pale before the brilliant truth of the Risen Christ who leaves the tomb empty and joins the living and the dead in one holy Communion of Saints where we assist each other with our prayers!