John A. Hardon, S.J., has fought the good fight for some time. He has published more than twenty-five books (some translated into Japanese, German, and Spanish), written innumerable articles, founded several Catholic organizations, and contributed to six encyclopedias. Recently, he spoke at the Call to Holiness Conference in Michigan. He has been a leader in Catholic media, and a shining light for faithful Catholics in the U.S. and around the world—all of this with great humility and generosity of spirit. In this interview with Crisis, Fr. Hardon speaks on Catholics in the media, millennial suffering, his spiritual regimen, and the Catholic call to live, faithfully and courageously, the gospel.
First of all, Father, thank you for interviewing with Crisis and congratulations on the fiftieth anniversary of your ordination. You mentioned in your homily today that suffering was a great part of the priesthood, and that your fidelity to the Magisterium and to the Holy Father had provoked persecution. Would you tell us something about that?
I would say that I define suffering as the rational experience of pain. Notice, rational experience of pain. Animals, strictly speaking, don’t suffer. They have pain but they don’t have minds to reflect on the pain that they experience. We define pain as whatever is contrary to the created will. And of course that can be physical pain, it can be emotional pain, or it can be a spiritual pain. The deepest kind of pain is, needless to say, spiritual pain. I said that suffering is the rational experience of pain. Consequently, it is important not just to experience pain, but I even dare to say, enjoy, enjoy suffering. Behind that strange statement is the deepest mystery of our faith—namely, that God, as St. Paul tells us, became man having joy set before him, and he chose the Cross. That’s the deepest mystery of our existence. Clearly, when the second person of the Holy Trinity became man, he resigned himself to pain. He chose it. He chose to experience what is contrary to the human will, so that he might teach us the most difficult mystery of life. And we ought to accept it—accept what is contrary to our wills in order to experience the satisfaction of doing the will of God.
You also said that this is the century of the most martyrs, but that the Holy Father predicts that the next century will be the greatest so far for the Church.
Yes, and there is a logic behind that for the Holy Father. As I said during my homily, I don’t think that anyone should question that the twentieth century has been the most sin-laden in human history. There have been more abortions since 1900 than there were in all the previous centuries put together.
And you consider abortion part of the martyrdom?
Yes, of course. Martyrdom is witnessing to the truth, and paying for the witness. In other words, we’re living in the age of martyrs in two senses. First, on the level of suffering and pain. For many, suffering due to physical pain has been reduced by advances in science; thus, the deepest pain is not in the body, but in the soul. In the souls of the just, there has been an ocean of suffering. One sees so much evil in the world, and often it is very close to home. It is a deep suffering. When we see evil perpetrated, committed by people whom we dearly love, it causes us deep suffering. And so that’s martyrdom, you might say. But when we accept such suffering as a witness to our love for Jesus Christ, we are practicing martyrdom, and, with his grace, we can even enjoy the experience.
The Holy Father’s prediction that the twenty-first century will bring the greatest spiritual renaissance in human history follows on the suffering of the believing people who will be rewarded for their witness. The more they adhere to Christ’s teachings, the more they will pay for it.
Suffering is, for many of us, a living or white martyrdom. The other martyrdom is the red, for bloodshed. From the first century, from the beginning of Christianity, Christ and his followers have been opposed. What a mild verb, opposed. Christ and his followers have been opposed, persecuted, hated, and crucified. The event on Calvary has been going on now for almost 2000 years. When I was doing my studies in Rome for my doctorate in theology, I often took visitors, tourists, to the ruins in Pompeii. I’ll never forget it. Etched in the soft stone of one of the buildings which survived the volcano was written in Latin, Christiani delendi sunt: “Christians must be eradicated.” For the first 300 years the Church was the church of red martyrs, and that inscription has been there for almost 300 years. But there is another saying, Sanguis martyrum, semen Christianum: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” Christianity was born on the Cross. Christianity flourishes in and through the Cross. In other words, the Church grows in numbers, in her love of Christ, and in her loyalty to him because she is living a martyr’s life, and because she is ready to die a martyr’s death. Because Christians have suffered so much in this century, we are sowing the seeds of phenomenal growth, both in numbers and in sanctity, for the Catholic Church of the twenty-first century.
So the Church is growing more than we know?
But you wouldn’t know it from the media. A person would not know that from the way that the media cover things.
Let us pick up on the word media, a force so prevalent in our society today. In 1971, Ugo Modotti, a Camaldolese abbot, was sent to America by Pope Paul VI to summon a group of ten, both clergy and laity, including myself, to establish a Catholic media organization. We all met with the abbot three times in the next year. We spent two or three days in meetings. And the Holy Father’s mission was very clear: American Catholics must get some control of the media of social communication; otherwise, the pope feared for the survival of the Church in our country.
About a year later, Abbot Modotti and I were having dinner at the residence of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Palatine, Illinois. Toward the end of the meal he said, “Father, I have a strange request to make of you. Would you take over my mission from the Holy Father?” I said, “Thanks for the compliment,” (for I knew that the pope trusted the abbot), “but I am no Modotti, the pope doesn’t know me.” He said, “Too late, I already told the Holy Father to appoint you to the Holy See, and if anything should happen to me, then you should take over my mission.” Two weeks later he was found dead in bed. Since his death I have done everything I possibly can to encourage Catholics to evangelize and catechize through the use of the media in teaching the one, true faith.
Tell us more about your commission from the Holy See. You want more good Catholics in media. You want media reform as the Holy Father, as the Vatican, has said. That’s a very difficult thing to achieve.
Most zealous Catholics are not as well organized or cooperative as those in the world. One of the hardest things is to get orthodox Catholics to cooperate. For their own projects, God will bless them, but they are no match for the organized efforts of those on the other side. This is a weakness. Catholics must enter the media on all levels, they must provide sound doctrine, and authentic Catholics must cooperate with each other. Catholics must evangelize through print, film, radio, television, and now the Internet. The first medium is print. It is not necessarily the most influential, but it is the most lasting, and so it has the most lasting influence.
Crisis. The word “crisis” is Greek for choice, decision. It is a good name for your magazine, because we are called to choose truth, we are called to decide for Christ. I read Crisis because it is authentic. These can be days of great grace. These are days when the media have great control of our culture. Let me tell you something that I will never forget. For six winters I taught at the University of Ottawa in Canada. My confessor there was an Oblate priest named John Mole. I was with him there in 1972 on the happy anniversary of his ordination. On that day, he had received a letter from Marshall McLuhan, whom Father Mole had received into the Church. Does that name ring a bell?
Absolutely. He wrote the famous phrase, “The medium is the message.”
Well, on that day when my confessor and I were in conversation, Father Mole showed me the letter which he had just received from McLuhan, and in the postscript of that letter McLuhan wrote this statement, “The modern media are engaged in a Luciferian conspiracy against the truth.” Certain statements you never forget. And that was prophetic. Since I’ve been with the Holy See, from Pope Paul VI to the present pope, John Paul II, the popes have wanted Catholics to change that. Imagine the alternative: “The modern media are engaged in a Christlike, shall I use the word, conspiracy, for the truth.”
As you well know, dissident movements are getting bolder and bolder. In addition to reforming the media, so that the public has a truer knowledge of the Church, what is the best thing that Catholics can do to combat heresy and dissidence?
The Catholic method has three parts. Everything in imitation of the Holy Trinity! And this is what I’ve been told by the Holy See for twenty-eight years. Part one: find the believing Catholics. Part two: train them. Part three: organize them. There are all kinds of training, but this is my own sacred responsibility. After finding the believers, I have trained them, again in three parts. They are the Marian Catechists, who have been required first to make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for thirty days. That discipline prepares them to consult God in making decisions, to learn the Catechism, and to teach it. Then they are trained in doctrine by taking a home study course based on the Catechism. Years ago, the Marian Catechesis was based on the forthcoming Catechism, before it was published, because I was on the commission and I knew what was going to be in it. The third part of the catechists’ training is a certain structured life, including prayer and worship. Most people do not live an organized life. The only structure in their lives is what they have to do to show up on time for work. Or, if they have a family, they might say what the family duties require. Finally, the organization of these catechists must involve the Church hierarchy; which means that they should be organized under the authority of their bishops united with the Vicar of Christ, the Bishop of Rome.
A rough calculation indicates that your own personal prayer regimen takes three hours a day. To most people that would seem insurmountable. What do you recommend for the beginner?
The latest statistics show that the average American watches twenty-eight hours of television a week—four hours a day. What I recommend for the beginner is based, in part, on what I require of the Marian Catechists. Daily Mass and Holy Communion, daily rosary, daily spiritual reading, and daily examination of conscience. The daily examination has, of course, three parts. First, thanksgiving for everything which has happened throughout the day, including pain, because some of the most choice blessings that we receive from God are painful. Second, examination of conscience for failure in doing his will, and telling him, “Lord, I’m sorry for my laziness, or my pride, or for controlling not my sinful thoughts.” Thirdly, and this is the most important part, is anticipation of the next day; ask the Lord what to do next, and how to do it. Don’t ask him if he wants you to do something, of course he does, ask him what. Our natural tendency is to do that which is pleasant first, that which is useful second, and that which is necessary last. Remember that in Latin, agenda means “things that must be done.” And so we should ask for the light to do what he wants us to do, and do it generously.
Now this is where Mother Teresa’s sisters come in. Fourteen years ago Pope John Paul II called Mother Teresa to the Vatican and said what she was shocked to hear. He said “Mother,” (he called her Mother), “I want your nuns to become catechists.” She said that her sisters were not trained for that. The pope said “I knew you’d say that. I’m telling you to train them.” Then Mother asked, “Where do we start?” And the pope answered, “I told Cardinal Ratzinger to expect you after our meeting here.” She met with the cardinal, and I got a call. Cardinal Ratzinger said, “We’ve got a job for you.” And so the Marian Catechists were commissioned to train Mother Teresa’s nuns, which are now 4000 Missionaries of Charity. Today there are 265 Marian Catechists in this country, and more in 100 countries throughout the world. We could not have done it unless the Marian Catechists lived the structured life.
So it came back to you. It makes me think of your saying “there’s no rest until eternal rest.”
No, and there shouldn’t be. Otherwise we should confess it as laziness!
Father, many people contact us at Crisis because they are frustrated. They witness violations of doctrine and liturgy in their parishes, and when they bring it to their pastor’s attention, and then to their bishop’s, nothing is done. To whom shall they go? To whom in the Holy See shall they present evidence of aberration?
That’s an important question because so often people write to the Holy Father, which is wonderful. But he’s flooded with mail. A Vatican official told me that he doesn’t even have enough secretaries to open the mail, let alone answer it. So be judicious.
For any aberration, there is an official. The officials head up congregations. For example, there is the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger. There is the Congregation of Bishops, the Congregation of the Clergy, of the Apostolate, of the Family, and so on. There are councils too. All are commissions which the Holy Father uses. To know whom to contact, Americans can acquire the Official Catholic Directory, which lists the data of the U.S. dioceses, but also has a listing of the congregation officials, etc., under the section of the Church hierarchy. For more details, one could acquire the Annuario Pontificio, the annual pontifical directory, which is in Italian.
What would you like to say in closing, Father?
I strongly recommend that the faithful are trained to understand and share their faith with others: mothers with their children, grandparents with their grandchildren, husbands with their in-laws, wives too. In other words, there’s not a single believing Catholic who does not have wide-open apostolic potential. However, let me make it very clear. We cannot be ordinary followers of Christ. Only those who are holy and heroic Catholics will even survive, not to say thrive, in today’s society.