Editor’s note: The following address by Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln was delivered at the Spirit Catholic Radio/Catholic Answers Evangelization Conference in Omaha on October 29, 2016. This version has been slightly shortened.
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Dear friends in Christ,
I am very glad to be here with you for this conference sponsored by Catholic Answers and Spirit Catholic Radio. I am grateful that you have come to spend the day being formed for the mission of the new evangelization.
Some of the very best Catholic leaders in the country are here today, and I am honored to be asked to speak at this conference with them. I am especially humbled to follow my good friend Patrick Coffin—although I was confused by his talk. This spring I started raising chickens in my backyard in Lincoln. I thought Patrick’s talk “Apologetics for Chickens” was going to tell me how to better evangelize my chickens!
Of course, I am also very grateful to our host, Creighton University.
Creighton is a very good place for us to talk about the mission of the new evangelization, the formation of Christian culture, and your responsibility, as lay men and women, for the Gospel.
This university is named for Edward Creighton, who came to Nebraska as a young man in 1856. He was a businessman: he helped build telegraph lines across the west, and he founded banks and railroads. But Edward Creighton was also an evangelist, in the best sense of the word.
When he came to Omaha, it was a frontier town of just a few thousand people. But it was growing, with immigrants, and laborers, transients, and with families. And as it grew, Edward Creighton built the infrastructure of a community rooted in faith. He built churches and sponsored priests; he brought religious sisters to Omaha to establish hospitals. He spoke out against slavery and the mistreatment of native people. He paid just wages. He gave his wife $25 every day, an amount close to $400 today, and asked her to buy and distribute whatever poor families needed.
Edward Creighton wanted Omaha to be defined by its commitment to the Gospel. And he knew that depended on its leadership. He left the biggest portion of his fortune to found a university that would form Catholic leaders, capable of building and transforming the world for Jesus Christ. That is the foundation, the legacy, and the responsibility of Creighton University.
Edward Creighton was serious about living as a missionary disciple of Jesus Christ. He served the poor and the sick. He spoke out against injustice, and he worked to end it. His vision has formed generations of young men and women who want to live in this world as Christians. Creighton wasn’t perfect, but he was faithful. And that’s the legacy of the Church in Nebraska; the legacy of the ordinary Catholics who have come before us.
Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of resting on the fruit of what good Catholics before us have built. We cannot be a Church of maintenance, as George Weigel reminds us in Evangelical Catholicism. We are a Church “permanently in mission.” God will judge each one of us on whether we have become his disciples, and whether we have made disciples of all nations, as Jesus commanded. We are each called to become the saints the world needs now.
Pope St. John Paul II taught that saints step forward, into a world needing the Gospel, when no one else will. That’s what Edward Creighton, along with his wife Mary and his brother John, did.
We are each called to step forward, as missionary disciples to the time and place in which we live. And to be effective missionaries, we need to understand our territory. We need to know our audience. Edward Creighton knew his own times; he had his finger on the pulse of the culture in which he lived.
This morning, I’d like to talk about the America of today, the Church of today, and about what it means for each one of us to become the saints of our times. I would like to devote the first part of my talk to a brief reflection on the cultural landscape in which we live, and in the second part offer three suggestions for sharing the faith, and living as missionary disciples.
The Culture We Are Living In Today
I have said before that today’s America is becoming defined by a kind of utilitarian, technocratic gnosticism.
That sounds complicated, but the idea is simple, and I’ll explain it:
The moral compass of our political and cultural leaders seems mostly governed by a set of false ideas: That we can define reality according to our preferences. That we can remake every human relationship according to the power of our wills. That we have the unconditional right to use technology or wealth to overcome the limitations of our humanity, or achieve whatever we think will make us happy.
In 1992, Justice Anthony Kennedy, an Irish-Catholic like Edward Creighton, wrote in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
The Sexual Revolution told us that freedom means defining the limits of reality for ourselves, instead of encountering, understanding, and accepting reality as it is.
Those ideas have roots in the philosophical enlightenment that begat modern democracy. And for that reason, Christianity has always existed in a kind of uneasy tension with modern democracy. But it took the Sexual Revolution, begun five decades ago, to tip the balance of that tension, and to pose new and serious challenges for Catholics, and for our nation.
To understand the America we live in, we need to understand that the Sexual Revolution was really an anthropological revolution. The advent of contraception, and legal protection for abortion, unmade the basic biological meaning of sexual intercourse. And when it did, it gave life and energy to the idea that human beings can unmake and refashion every part of what it means to be a person, a family, and a community.
In just a few decades, the Sexual Revolution has remade most of what America’s cultural and political leaders believe about morality. In a culture where life’s meaning is self-defined, and technological progress can unshackle human desires from the limitations of our bodies, moral choices seem irrelevant to many people. In place of asking what we ought to do, the only relevant question in a technocracy like ours is what we can do.
In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman says that overly technological cultures, “driven by the impulse to invent, have as their aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique.”
Here is just one example: Two weeks ago, a Silicon Valley technology company announced that it had raised $200 million dollars to begin a new initiative: genetically sequencing lab-created embryos, in order to deliver children free from major and minor genetic defects, especially for older couples. This is the technology that can create babies formed to parents’ specifications, and it’s becoming available and affordable in America.
Cultural leaders say projects like this give freedom for parents to “have it all.” Political leaders rush to give them grants or tax breaks. But we don’t stop to take into account the meaning of what we’re doing. We don’t consider that projects like these create embryos in laboratories, and then leave them to die. We don’t consider the costs of remaking and reshaping human life itself according to our preferences.
In a technocracy, ethical concerns are leveled by technological ability. And those of us who dare to raise objections are seen as backward, or enemies of progress, and because of this we face very real consequences.
In 1994, Pope St. John Paul II said that this kind of “progress” leads to “a war of the powerful against the weak.” The America of today is living in that war. The enemies of progress are religious believers who raise concerns about human dignity and objective moral reality. The enemies of technocracy are those who speak for the weak in the face of the powerful. Religious liberty is threatened today mostly because when we speak for the vulnerable, or for the rights of conscience, we dare to call into question the tyranny of progress.
The victims of the war of the powerful against the weak are those who can’t contribute to progress, or efficiency, or profit. There is very little room in a culture like ours for people who represent inconvenience, who might stand in the way of maximizing the happiness of the powerful. In a technocratic culture like ours, there is very little room for the poor, the elderly, the disabled, or the unborn.
Moral decision-making is being reshaped by the technocratic revolution. And each one us is suffering the consequences.
This year, Washington, DC and Colorado are considering laws that will allow doctors to help sick patients end their lives. Euthanasia is already legal in three other states.
In the debate over euthanasia, one thing has been particularly troubling to me. People who are interested in assisted suicide don’t usually report being afraid of pain or suffering. They usually report being afraid of becoming a burden. They sometimes report being afraid of being abandoned.
No one should be afraid of burdening his family. But in the technocratic worldview, there is no greater sin than depending on the help of others.
The fruit of the Sexual Revolution is a worldview that reduces other people to objects—that sees them as a means to an end, or as obstacles to our happiness. The fruit of the Sexual Revolution is a culture that tells our grandparents they are burdens.
When we reduce other people to objects, we lose the relationships that give life meaning. We lose the ability to love. America today is becoming a very lonely place. True friendship is becoming a rare commodity. Each of us knows families who sit at the dinner table, each person staring at his own screen, not sure how to have real and meaningful conversations with one another. Pornography has become a public health crisis, in part because the intimacy required in real marital relationships is becoming too difficult, and is too easily replaced by isolated self-gratification.
The philosopher Matthew Crawford observes that when we aren’t careful, our technology can turn on us—instead of using tools to achieve our good, our tools can become the standard of goodness.
The America of today is a good and beautiful place. The people of our nation are good, and earnest, and admirable. But the technocratic revolution of our time, and especially the Sexual Revolution, has turned on us, and revealed deep social, political, and cultural problems that can only be resolved through Jesus Christ.
Evangelists Are Disciples Before All Else
Today we are talking about how to follow the Lord’s mandate to make disciples of all nations, and how, especially, to make disciples of this nation. Again, in order to be good missionary disciples, we need to know the mission field. We need to know the cultural landscape in which we live.
I’d like to suggest three points about our call to become the evangelists, and saints—the missionary disciples—of this modern moment. These are by no means the only ways to become better evangelists of our culture, but I hope you might find them useful.
The first point is that we’re called to be disciples before all else. Before we’re Americans, before we’re missionaries, before we’re anything else, we need to become disciples of Jesus Christ and therefore true friends of Jesus and his Church.
Before we can proclaim Jesus, or witness to him, we need to follow him closely. We need to follow him through Scriptures, praying with Scripture itself, learning how Jesus prayed, learning how he taught. We need to follow Jesus by following his Church—by living a sacramental life, in which Mass, and confession, and the spiritual life of the Church form the contours of our hearts and minds. We need to learn how Jesus taught, in part by learning how and what the Church teaches. The only way that we can convey Christ is by knowing him, and following him, at every point of our lives.
The Greek word the New Testament writers used for disciple is “mathetes,” which literally means “apprentice.” As we follow Jesus, we need to become his apprentices. Apprentices learn by watching, by asking questions, by patterning themselves after their masters. Even before they learn his techniques or practices, apprentices learn who the master is, how he carries himself, how he thinks, how he makes judgments. All of those things go into his training. In the medieval world, an apprentice copied his master’s work, painstakingly, over and over again, before he attempted his own. He learned his own craft by imitating every piece of his master’s life.
The defining characteristic of Christ’s life is love. And if we become the apprentices of Jesus, we’ll learn how to love. Love is a sign of contradiction in our world. Love—real, true, sacrificial and self-denying love—has been replaced in popular imagination by romantic sentimentality. And without real love, St. Paul tells us we’ll be “resounding gongs” and “clashing symbols.”
If we really learn to love, as Christ did—if we are apprentices of love—we’ll be prepared to transform the world in his name.
Evangelists Are Signs of Contradiction
My second point is that becoming evangelists today requires that we become signs of contradiction.
G.K. Chesterton says that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.
If we are going to make disciples in the stark, technocratic, lonely culture of American public life, we need to become signs of contradiction. In today’s world, that means that we are called embrace what the world rejects: friendship, beauty, goodness, truth, weakness, suffering, joy, and hope. If we are going to become the saints of this moment it will be because we embrace the reality of human life, living fully and freely, because of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.
Becoming a sign of contradiction is not the same as becoming contrarian. Evangelization is not a war with the world. Nor does becoming a sign of contradiction mean withdrawing from the world. The world is already mired in conflict, and fractured and atomized. Becoming a sign of contradiction means witnessing to something more delightful, more profound, and more meaningful than what our world offers.
Evangelization is an invitation, expressed in love, to encounter, love, and serve the living God. Evangelization is a witness to the real peace, joy, and hope of life in Jesus Christ.
Just recently, I had the privilege of leading a candlelit Eucharistic procession through the Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska. Over 500 college students walked in the procession. We stopped at three outdoor altars for prayers and benediction, one in front of the student union, one in front of Memorial Stadium (right in front of the statue of Bob Devaney!), and one on the corner of “Fraternity and Sorority Row” on 16th street. The students sang hymns as we walked. It was a powerful witness of public faith, and a powerful sign of contradiction.
The third altar was across from the Lutheran Student Center. As we passed by, Newman Center students signaled to students standing at the window to come and join us—and they did! Five Lutheran students joined in the procession back to the Newman Center, where we had the concluding benediction and the Divine Praises.
I met these students after the procession, and we talked, in a spirited and meaningful conversation, about the Eucharist. It was wonderful!
Every human heart is made for love. Every human wants to be free. Thirty years of priesthood have taught me that every single soul is seeking mercy.
God made us that way. And becoming signs of contradictions means witnessing to the love, and freedom, and mercy that we have experienced in Jesus Christ.
Becoming signs of contradiction means forming authentic friendships and authentic communities. Becoming signs of contradiction means witnessing to the freedom that comes from the sacrifice and self-denial of real love. Becoming signs of contradiction means promoting the true, the good, and in our culture, most especially the beautiful. Being signs of contradiction means sharing that Jesus Christ is a person, whom we know, and love, and whom we have experienced loving us.
A few weeks ago, I was invited by friends to a “house concert” in their basement. There were about 20 of us, from different religious and cultural backgrounds. For two hours, we listened to a folk ballad singer, who sang Scottish and Irish ballads, and cowboy songs, and ancient hymns. It was real. It was simple. It was beautiful. It was not utilitarian or self-serving. It was not glamorous or extravagant. It was a simple experience of unity, and laughter, and hospitality. It was an experience of friendship, and quiet contemplation, and peace.
That small concert was a sign of contradiction to the isolation and self-interest of the world. And it moved me to gratitude, to wonder at the beauty of song and poetry, the goodness of friendship, and the majesty of God.
“House concerts,” and family celebrations, and Bible studies, book clubs and friendships are all signs of contradiction to the world. So is the beauty of the music, and art, and literature of Western culture. So is the ministry of real encounter and friendship with the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.
My final point is that we should expect, as we become evangelists to our modern culture, to face opposition and obstacles. We face threats to religious liberty in this country because our prophetic voice makes sin uncomfortable. The confidence of believers in the truth of the Gospel is an affront to tyrants. Our witness to charity, even, when juxtaposed with greed and evil in this world, is a threat to those who advance themselves by immorality or selfishness.
Believers live in this world, but we do not live like the world lives. For that, since the first days of the Church’s life, we face trials and challenges.
Pope Francis says that we’re called to be missionaries of mercy. And part of being merciful means telling the truth. Truth without mercy can be cold and harsh, and mercy without truth is a counterfeit. Last week, my friend Archbishop Charles Chaput said that “mercy means nothing—it’s just an exercise in sentimentality—without clarity about moral truth.” We have an obligation to tell the truth, in love. And we should expect that telling the truth will lead to persecution.
This summer Fr. Jacques Hamel was martyred while celebrating Mass in Rouen, France. I was privileged to be in Rouen one week before his martyrdom.
It’s easy to believe that Christians in this country might soon face the cross of martyrdom. We are not immune from the persecution the Church has faced for two thousand years.
My friends, we cannot be afraid of that persecution. We live for eternity. And we know that because of Christ’s cross, when the Church is persecuted, grace abounds. In that grace is the spread of the Gospel.
God calls us to be faithful to our mission, whether or not we see success, and whether or not we face persecution. My spiritual patron, Blessed John Henry Newman, wrote of his life that “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes … a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work.”
God has called us to a mission. He has called us to become the saints of our time. He has called us to proclaim the Gospel, to a world longing for the Lord’s love and his truth. He has called us to be joyful, faithful, holy signs of contradiction, signs of the mercy of God. We are necessary for the Lord’s purposes. May we do the Lord’s work. May we make disciples of this nation.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “St. Peter Preaching in Jerusalem,” was painted by Charles Poërson in 1642.