“You can’t die in every ditch.”
It was a favorite saying of Fr. Ed Madden, my pastor and boss, when I was a greenhorn DRE back in Boulder. So many problems, so many complaints, so many challenges crop up in the course of ordinary parish work, and I was motivated (at first) to tackle them all at once.
Fr. Madden, drawing on decades of parochial experience, held me back. “You’ve got to pick your battles—you can’t die in every ditch,” he’d tell me. “Save your energy for the big fights.”
So true, and it’s a lesson that I’ve applied to other areas of life, particularly fatherhood. Take family Sunday Mass attendance for example. Yes, it would be nice if everyone was decked out and polished; yes, it would be grand to arrive before the processional; yes, yes, yes. The important thing, however—the ditch to die in, that is—is getting there regardless. I think there’s a crucial object lesson communicated to the gathered faithful (especially the young) when ragtag families stumble in late to Sunday Mass. It’s not ideal, of course, but it’s nonetheless a sign that a battle line had been rightly drawn. Combed hair and matching outfits didn’t make the cut; showing up, despite it all, did.
This selfsame ditch-to-die-in philosophy has been applied to more significant ecclesial matters since the church’s earliest days. Consider Jesus’ riposte to apostolic bickering over hierarchy and status. “Which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves?” he asked them. “Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22.27). You can almost see our Lord whacking his forehead with his palm—“really, guys?!” He’d just celebrated the first Eucharist, his Passion was right around the corner, and here were his lieutenants scuffling in such an insignificant ditch. In time, they were to learn what ditches were worth dying in quite literally.
Skip ahead seven hundred years to St. Boniface and the battles he fought as he evangelized the Germanic pagans. We know a great deal about the particulars in this effort on account of the great saint’s extant correspondence.
Indeed, it makes for enthralling reading—seriously! I know it sounds like a yawner, and something only Church history nerds (like me) could enjoy, but the collected letters of St. Boniface is a real page-turner.
I remember finding this out as a young convert in Chicago. I was hanging around the Catholic Worker, doing the urban do-gooder thing, and sharing an apartment with my putative godfather, Jim. It was the mid-1980s, an especially hairy time in the Church, with all manner of liturgical, theological, and moral experimentation going on, and I was still trying to find my Catholic footing. Jim was himself a strong advocate of the “pick your battles” philosophy, and he was at pains to help me assimilate it.
One day Jim burst from his room and shook a volume at me. “Ricky,” he demanded, “listen to this.” He was holding the Boniface anthology and it was opened to a letter the missionary saint received from Pope Gregory II in the year 732. I could see that Jim had highlighted several passages with fluorescent yellow, and he proceeded to read a particular passage aloud:
Among other difficulties which you face in those parts, you say that some of the faithful sell their slaves to be sacrificed by the heathen. This, above all, we urge you to forbid, for it is a crime against nature.
Jim again shook the book at me and exclaimed, “That’s it—that’s the answer!” He enumerated all the other “difficulties” Pope Gregory had identified prior to this passage—things like priestly debauchery, illicit baptisms, and penitential guidelines for contrite fratricides. These were all significant issues requiring decisive intervention, but his Holiness had his priorities straight. The ditch to die in, the battle to pick, was convincing the faithful to avoid crimes against nature—which, back in the eighth century, apparently included residual cooperation with murderous pagan ceremonies.
And who can argue with him? Even priestly debauchery, as heinous as it is, pales in comparison.
So now we come to the present. What if St. Boniface was making pastoral rounds today? What if he and his associates were ministering to the contemporary Church in the West? And—here’s the question—what’s the “above all” issue facing the People of God in these early days of the twenty-first century? What’s our ditch to die in?
The bigger question, perhaps, is what Pope Gregory’s successor thinks about this—that is, what would a letter from Pope Francis to a present-day St. Boniface identify as today’s top crisis?
You’ll forgive me if I duck that question. There’s plenty controversy and debate concerning the Holy Father’s priorities, and I’m woefully ill qualified to contribute anything worthwhile to that Catholic cyber-scrum. Yet God did make me a dad, and my kids are growing up in a morally pock-marked culture run amok. I may not want to weigh in on Amoris Laetitia, but as papa (“pope”) of my own little domestic church, I have to say something to my Bonifaces-in-the-making.
And I don’t have to wait for Pope Francis—neither do you! We have Sacred Scripture. We have the Catechism. We have the documents of Vatican II, as well as a wealth of conciliar and papal teachings stretching back centuries. Let the heavyweights of the Church wrangle over interpretations and applications of the deposit of faith on its current margins. Such intramural doctrinal battles can take decades, even centuries, to reach any kind of decisive resolution, and we moms and dads have immediate pressing responsibilities much closer to home—to wit: Our grown children are heading out into a modern morass of moral confusion and spiritual acedia, and we have an extremely limited window to equip them for survival—as Catholics, and even just as humans.
We have to warn them about the Culture of Death—about our society’s increasing reliance on killing as a way of solving problems, at both the beginning and end of life. We have to educate them about a sound vision of sexuality and marriage, particularly with regards to the complementarity of the sexes and the dual purposes of the marital act, both unitive and procreative. They’ll need to be made aware of assaults on religious liberty and the risks inherent in following their Catholic consciences—that is, they’ll have to have courage and a willingness to be ostracized socially and professionally, possibly even jailed.
There are other items that can be added to this list, but can we boil them down to a single preeminent issue?
I think we can, and a different heir to Pope Gregory pointed the way.
On the eve of his election to the papacy, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger preached a homily in which he described a burgeoning “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive.” Six years later, as Pope Benedict XVI, he addressed a representative group of German Catholics—heirs to St. Bonface’s legacy—and again referred to a “subliminal relativism that penetrates every area of life.”
For my money, that’s the “above all” difficulty of our times, and the one that I want to especially address with my kids—whether they stay Catholic or not. I can hammer away at natural law to help them understand why the Church teaches that abortion is an “unspeakable crime” (GS 51), regardless of how the pregnancy came about, and that same-sex “marriage” is a contradiction in terms (CCC 2335), but what’s the point if they’ve adopted wholesale the relativistic Zeitgeist? “That’s just your opinion,” they’ll say, or even, “That’s just mean.”
No, our first task as parents these days is defending truth itself. Truth matters; words matter; objective reality matters. If our children, parroting the relativist party line, argue that love takes precedence over truth, we must patiently, ardently correct them: There is no conflict between truth and love. “Truth and love coincide in Christ,” Cardinal Ratzinger reminded us. “To the extent that we draw close to Christ, in our own lives too, truth and love are blended.”
Of course, if we say such things, we have to back them up with our own actions. And that’s our ditch to die in. That’s the daily battle of parenthood. God help us.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from Norman Rockwell’s “Walking to Church” painted in 1952.