October is the month of the Most Holy Rosary, a devotion associated in modern times with the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917, during the First World War. Mary asked for prayer and penance, which she always requests in these private revelations that echo the public revelation in the Gospel: “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Mary at Fatima also entered into the history of the modern world when she told three unlettered peasant children that the Great War then being waged, President Wilson’s “war to end all wars,” would soon end, but that a greater menace to world peace would arise in Russia, whose errors would spread throughout the world and bring untold millions to violent death. In the end, however, Mary promised that her Immaculate Heart would triumph. This promise, too, echoes the Gospel itself: the risen Christ is victorious over sin and death.
Eternity enters into human history in often incomprehensible ways. God makes promises but gives no timelines. Visiting the shrine at Fatima, pilgrims enter a huge plaza, with the spot of the apparitions marked by a small chapel to one side, a large church at one end, an equally large adoration chapel at the other end, and a center for visitors and for the hearing of confessions. Just outside the main grounds, a section of the Berlin Wall has been re-built, a stark witness to what Mary had talked about almost a century ago. Communism in Russia and its satellite nations has collapsed, although many of its sinful effects are still with us.
Communism imposed a total way of life based upon the belief that God does not exist. Secularism is communism’s better-scrubbed bedfellow. A small irony of history cropped up at the United Nations a few weeks ago when Russia joined the majority of other nations to defeat the United States and the western European nations that wanted to declare that killing the unborn should be a universal human right. Who is on the wrong side of history now?
The present political campaign has brought to the surface of our public life the anti-religious sentiment, much of it explicitly anti-Catholic, that has been growing in this country for several decades. The secularizing of our culture is a much larger issue than political causes or the outcome of the current electoral campaign, important though that is.
Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring. I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smart phone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” What I said is not “prophetic” but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.
An earlier Archbishop of Chicago once tried his hand at reading the signs of his times. On May 18, 1937, Cardinal Mundelein, in a conference to priests of the archdiocese, called the then-German chancellor “an Austrian paper-hanger, and a darn poor one at that, I am told.” Why did Cardinal Mundelein speak in a way that drew applause from the New York Times and local papers and brought the German government to complain bitterly to the Holy See? The government of Germany, declaring its ideology the wave of the future, had dissolved Catholic youth groups and tried to discredit the church’s work among young people through trials of monks, priests and religious sisters accused of immorality. Cardinal Mundelein spoke of how the public protests of the bishops had been silenced in the German media, leaving the church in Germany more “helpless” than it had ever been.
He then added: “There is no guarantee that the battle-front may not stretch some day into our own land. Hodie mihi cras tibi. (Today it’s me; tomorrow, you). If we show no interest in this matter now, if we shrug our shoulders and mutter … it is not our fight, if we don’t back up the Holy Father when we have a chance, well, when our turn comes, we too will be fighting alone.”
“When our turn comes …” Was Cardinal Mundelein a prophet as well as an administrative genius? Hardly. At his death in 1939 he was well known as an American patriot and a friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he also had a Catholic conviction that no nation state has been immaculately conceived. The unofficial anthem of secularism today is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” in which we are encouraged to imagine a world without religion. We don’t have to imagine such a world; the 20th century has given us horrific examples of such worlds.
Instead of a world living in peace because it is without religion, why not imagine a world without nation states? After all, there would be no American ambassador recently killed in Libya if there were no America and no Libya! There are, obviously, individuals and groups who still misuse religion as a reason for violent behavior, but modern nation states don’t need religion as an excuse for going to war. Every major war in the last 300 years has been fought by nation states, not by the church. In our own history, the re-conquest of the secessionist states in the Civil War was far bloodier than the re-conquest of the Holy Land by the now despised Crusaders. The state apparatus for investigating civilians now is far more extensive than anything dreamed up by the Spanish Inquisition, although both were created to serve the same purpose: to preserve a government’s public ideology and control of society, whether based on religion or on modern constitutional order.
Analogies can easily be multiplied, if one wants to push a thesis; but the point is that the greatest threat to world peace and international justice is the nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making “laws” beyond its competence. Few there are, however, who would venture to ask if there might be a better way for humanity to organize itself for the sake of the common good. Few, that is, beyond a prophetic voice like that of Dorothy Day, speaking acerbically about “Holy Mother the State,” or the ecclesiastical voice that calls the world, from generation to generation, to live at peace in the kingdom of God.
God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about him and persecute or harass his followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression. There is nothing “progressive” about sin, even when it is promoted as “enlightened.”
The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end. It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters. The Synod on the New Evangelization is taking place in Rome this month because entire societies, especially in the West, have placed themselves on the wrong side of history. This October, let’s pray the rosary so that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen the bishops and others at the synod as they deliberate about the challenges to preaching and living the Gospel at this moment in human history.
This column first appeared in the Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for October 21 – November 3, 2012.