Three weeks ago, on Gaudete Sunday, I was asked to be a guest homilist on the new evangelization at St. Cyril of Alexandria Parish in Pittsburgh’s Brighton Heights neighborhood. In that homily, I identified three cultural beliefs and/or assumptions that present a challenge for the church in the new evangelization in the 21st century.
In my last “Catch the Fire” column, I addressed one of them, the belief in universal salvation. The other two are secularism and the denial of the existence of evil. These beliefs or assumptions are in many ways ingrained and, for many, a knee-jerk reaction to questions about the meaning of life and death in our own day and age.
Secularism, in a nutshell, is an article of faith that teaches that, whether God exists or not, he is irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. God is like a master clock builder who makes a clock, winds it up and then walks away. This is an article of faith in a philosophical way of thinking known as deism. Deism is an early form of Enlightenment thinking that has helped give rise to our modern form of secularism.
What follows from this belief is that regardless of what we do or fail to do in this life, in the end, God will have compassion on us and give us an eternal life of happiness and bliss. For if God as a creator, is removed from his creation and does not really care about what we do or don’t do, then in the end what ground does he have to judge us? Such ideas are just the remnants of a “primitive” culture that were used by the political powers of their time to control the “uneducated” masses.
And finally if God does not really care what we do and we all ultimately end up in the same place, then there really is no such thing as right or wrong. And, by extension, there is no such thing as evil, hell and the devil either.
This is but a simple explanation of a popular approach as to how modern man attempts to answer the deeper questions about the existence of God, the meaning of life and death, and what happens when we do, in fact, die.
This also helps to explain perhaps why so many Catholics have become inactive. For if a large number of Catholics have embraced this secular understanding of reality, then it should not be so surprising that 77 percent of American Catholics do not attend Mass or the Divine Liturgy on a weekly basis.
Now let’s turn to Christmas and Gaudete Sunday (two weeks before Christmas in the Latin rite). “Gaudete” literally means “rejoice.” What exactly are we rejoicing in? We rejoice in the simple fact that God is with us, and that on this day (Christmas), a Savior is born. Christmas celebrates the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. However, the idea of a savior necessitates the obvious: that we need to be saved from something.
We need to be saved from ourselves and the mess we have created. We are broken and finite creatures. But we are also created in the image and likeness of God, and so we are worth the trouble. And for that very reason, God took the trouble to become flesh and blood (incarnate) and come down here to fix the problem. He offers us the chance at salvation.
The conclusion of the Gospel this year on Gaudete Sunday (the Third Sunday of Advent) made it quite clear that salvation is not a given. St. John the Baptist speaks about the Christ as one whose “winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (John 3:17).
Thus, the Christmas season is truly a time to rejoice because the solution to the problem is made manifest before our very eyes. The true understanding of Christmas exposes those cultural assumptions for what they are: myths. God does care, heaven and hell are real, and evil does exist. The horrific events in Newtown, Conn., 11 days before Christmas should make the last point abundantly clear.
The Year of Faith in many ways is like “preseason” training for the new evangelization in the third millennium of Christian history. That is why the Year of Faith “is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world” (“Porta Fidei,” 6). Before we can begin the new evangelization, we must be convinced of this fact and recognize the falsehood the general culture presents as truth around and among us.
Perhaps we should take a moment sometime this Christmas season, perhaps in the silence of the night, to just be quiet before the great mystery of the Incarnation and make the words of the father whose boy was possessed by a demon in the Gospel of Mark our own: “I do believe, help my unbelief!”
Merry Christmas, everyone. May the light of Christ shine brightly in you!
Deacon Wroblicky is director of the Office for the New Evangelization.