The following essay is adapted from keynote remarks delivered to graduates at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary 185th Concursus.
I’ve been retired now for two years. Retirement gives you a lot of time to think. And lately I’ve been thinking that if an Oscar were given each year for “Best Catholic Performance in the Role of a Reformation Protestant,” half the Catholics in Congress, not to mention the White House, would qualify.
I’m overstating things, obviously. But maybe not by much. And even if it were true, frankly it would be good news. Protestants of the Reformation actually submitted their lives to their Christian beliefs. They often died for those beliefs. Early Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists, each in their own way, saw their baptism as the cornerstone of a godly life. And of course, Catholics serious about their faith felt the same.
What we have today in Washington—and not just there, but in so many of our individual lives—is a malleable, vanilla kind of religion that can be used to justify almost any ugly idea or behavior that needs a moral gloss. It’s happening right now, very publicly, with a president and a speaker of the house who claim to be Catholic, but then zealously support the right to kill an unwanted, unborn child. It’s happening with a Catholic White House very slow to enforce federal law protecting the homes of Supreme Court justices, simply because those justices may overturn Roe v. Wade and the abortion regime that depends on it.
That’s the world you enter, or one day will enter, as you leave this institution. That’s the world you’re being called on to reclaim and make new. Those of you who are seminarians will go on to ordination and the priesthood. It’s an immense blessing for each of you, as it has been for me; a blessing, and over the decades, a source of deep joy. Your lives are a gift to the whole Church. So are the families and teachers who formed you so generously and so well. But we should never forget that the foundation of every other sacrament is baptism. It seals all of us together—clergy, religious, and lay—as one believing people. It commissions each of us to a missionary life, whatever our vocation and wherever God leads us.
When Augustine said, “For you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian,” he spoke directly to the shared Christian identity that baptism marks on each of our souls. No one in the Church has a second-class status or an unimportant task to accomplish for the Lord. When Jesus said, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he was speaking to all of us. Each of us. No exceptions. Yet those words, spoken so forcefully by the God who loves us and redeemed us, seem so easily forgotten by many of us.
The central issue of American Catholic life today is the temptation to accommodate, to compromise, to get along and fit in—and then feel good about it. We put diversity above truth, because it seems more comfortable to do that. We place the individual above the common good, because we can then do what we want. We put “tolerance” above genuine love, justice, and charity, because it seems so much more peaceful to manage differences that way. And none of this converts anybody. It does the opposite. It provides people with alibis and leeches away their faith. When people really believe in something, they act on it. And when they don’t act, they don’t really believe. For all of us as American Catholics, the issue of faith is the heart of the matter. Real faith changes us. It hammers us into a new and different shape.
To the degree we Catholics have longed to join the mainstream of American life, to become like everyone else rather than be “other than” and holy, we’ve abandoned who we really are. That’s what the word “holy” literally means: It means “other than” or “different from” the world around us. So I think this, then, is the lesson on this graduation day for all of us. We need a Church rooted in holiness. We need parishes on fire with faith. And we’ll get them only when we give ourselves fully and generously to God; when we center our lives in God; when we seek to become holy ourselves, as God is holy. And that’s what your time in this seminary has been about: a formation community that teaches us to be holy and to embrace what holiness truly demands.
The Church needs faithful scholars and liturgists. She needs good managers, educators, social workers, and other committed laypersons to counsel and help guide her. And she needs pastors who know how to lead with humility, courage, and love. But what she needs more than anything else is holiness. The renewal of the Church is not finally an issue of structures. It’s an issue of faith. We need to be people of prayer and courage and zeal. We need men and women for others, anchored in the sacramental life of the Church. And we need priests who will spark a new, Pentecostal fire from every vocation and form of discipleship in the Church.
I’ll end with a simple story.
Some years ago there were a number of high-profile public campaigns to invite fallen-away Catholics to come home to their Church and rediscover her beauty and wisdom. The goal was a very good idea. The effort had strong leadership, a good staff, a smart business plan, and skilled execution. And a lot of Catholics did come home. And many of those same Catholics then said, “Thanks very much; now I remember why I left”—and evaporated again. They disappeared for a good reason. What too many, too often, found in their churches was mediocrity, and they could get that anywhere.
We need a new Pentecost. Remember that. Give your lives to that. God is calling each of you to be what he saw in you when he first spoke your name from all eternity, and then spoke it in the silence and yearnings of your heart.
The prayer we need to keep on our lips, as we look back on today, and look forward to the hopes and difficulties that lie ahead, is “thank you”—thank you, God, for calling me to your service; thank you, God, for demanding from me a life of holiness; thank you, God for giving me the parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, teachers, classmates, and friends who surround me here and who support me on the way.
Charles J. Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan, is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia.
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