This is the edited text of a talk given by Fr Anthony Mastroeni in July 2001 at the Thomas More Winter School in Brisbane. Father Mastroeni is the chaplain at Christendom College in Virginia, USA.
Few people see the turn of a century and fewer still the turn of a millennium as we have. Sad to say, many of those who were privileged to experience this awesome shift of time did not take note of the reason for it all. Very few realised it was because, 2,000 years ago, the Eternal Son of God took flesh in the womb of a virgin named Mary.
At that time the divine embraced the human, heaven reached down to earth and eternity touched time. Much like a cataclysm, it hit time right in the middle, splitting it before and after. Hard as non-believers try, they will never be able to erase the fact that that event is really the demarcation of time.
It is because Jesus was born that we have a new millennium and it is because of the legacy of faith in Him that we enjoy the fruits of culture.
Most people do not know that hospitals are the invention of the Catholic Church; and in fact the little caps that some nurses wear are the diminished religious habits of nuns. In some English-speaking countries, they still call them sister.
The modern university also has its roots in the Church. First the cathedral schools grew, then colleges, and then clusters of colleges formed universities under the chancellorships of local bishops, for instance, the Universities of Paris, Oxford and Padua. For about 500 years most literate persons in Europe were priests and monks. They kept the pilot flame alight for classical learning. Were it not for them, we would not have copies of Horace, Virgil, Cicero or Marcus Aurelius. Nor would we have had such greats as Shakespeare, Milton and Browning who were all suckled on classical learning.
Very few people realise that were it not for the Catholic faith there would be no modern science. For the great mediaeval thinkers, especially Thomas Aquinas and the schoolmen of the 12th and 13th centuries, knew that this universe was rational and that the physical creation had its own order which could be penetrated by the human mind so that we could know its causes. This is the beginning of science and it paved the way for Newton and later Einstein. In every other culture, science remained stillborn because reason was not seen as having its own sphere of operation; in some cultures, objective reality was even seen as an illusion or the cause of evil. Science could never grow or flourish in places like that.
Our world therefore suffers from a kind of collective amnesia so that at the turn of a new millennium all that Western society can remember of its Saviour, sadly, is the use of His name as a curse word.
The Holy Father has challenged us to recover, as he puts it in Novo Millennio Ineunte (The Beginning of the New Millennium), the sense of startling freshness that the Shepherds experienced as they came upon the Christ Child. We can only imagine what stirred in their hearts. And when they had seen Him, St Luke tells us, they became, in effect, the first missioners after Our Lady - in the words of the Holy Father, she was "the star of evangelisation" who carried the baby Jesus to her cousin Elizabeth. The Shepherds were unlettered, untutored and uncultured, yet the Gospel says that "many were astonished at what the Shepherds had told them."
Can you imagine the impact we could have, with all of our learning, qualifications and years of reading, if we could marshal such energy, be totally convinced of the Faith and speak it with fearless abandon? St Vincent de Paul once said, "Give me ten good priests and I will evangelise all of France."
In Novo Millennio Ineunte the Holy Father is calling us to a renewed sense of mission, to bring Jesus, the freshness of the Gospel, the Good News of Salvation, to a world that in truth is spent, tired, morally exhausted, having tried everything and found none of it brings lasting happiness.
We need to have some of that sense of urgency of St Paul who said, "Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel." He knew and believed that we are saved by no other name in heaven and on earth; that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Our formerly Christian civilisation now possesses a bare shell of what was once the Faith: 30 per cent of French say they have no religion; 56 per cent of the English say they do not believe in a personal God; only three per cent of Catholics in the Czech Republic practise their faith; in the US only 25 per cent attend Mass each week and in Australia the proportion is smaller; in Holland, churches are closed and sold as restaurants, cabarets, even mosques.
Europe and much of the Western world is moving towards a kind of quiet apostasy that is not so much a neo-paganism as a post-paganism, which is much worse.
There are many reasons for this, including the fact that for 50 years under Communism and Marxism in Eastern Europe, whole generations were educated in atheism and materialism. Another reason for the massive unbelief is the moral haemorrhaging we have seen in Western countries, as hearts have become hardened and wills resistant.
For our faith is not merely a thing to be known, but a Person to be loved and surrendered to. Our faith is really a love affair with God. Lack of faith can be more than a simple matter of ignorance; it can be more a matter of the will. The way most people see things is often determined by the way they choose to live. Behaviour usually explains unbelief; less frequently, unbelief explains behaviour.
When people do not believe, it is not because they have problems with the Creed, but more often with the Commandments. Immorality can cause the mind to be darkened and confused. The human heart is like a window. If the window is covered with a steady stream of debris and dirt, it is only a matter of time before one cannot see anything outside; all one sees is a reflection of oneself. That is what St John means in his Gospel: "The light came into the world, but men preferred darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were wicked."
The story goes that towards the end of his pontificate, Pope Leo XIII was offering Mass in his private chapel with his secretary as altar server. All of a sudden this priest saw the Pope become what we would call catatonic - staring out into nowhere, pale and ashen and not saying a word. He stood that way for a long time. Finally he came out of it, finished the Mass and without hesitation went back to his study and started writing.
We know today that what he wrote was the Prayer to St Michael. Without going into detail, Leo XIII told his secretary and his advisers that it was revealed to him that the 20th century would be Satan's own hand-picked century. When you look at what has occurred - Auschwitz, the Gulags, Hiroshima, Mao Tse-Tung's Great Leap Forward or Pol Pot's Killing Fields - you can hardly dismiss that at pious sensationalism. Then there is the ever-present, ever-growing holocaust of abortion, and now infanticide and the beginning of euthanasia.
Lack of remorse
Yet there has been a total lack of remorse on the part of the perpetrators. They felt no guilt. It was as if the deed had been done by someone else.
William Bennett has written a book called The Death of Moral Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on the American Ideals. In that book he sounds the alarm which could apply to any Western society, namely that we are fast losing our capacity for moral outrage, our power to be provoked by evil and injustice, our sense of decency.
It first begins with language. C.S. Lewis calls it "verbicide" - the killing of words. It changes the meaning of words ever so slightly until finally there is a whole shift in meaning. Lewis says that in order to have social engineering, we need to have linguistic engineering first. For instance, our world is no longer a world defined by the battle between good and evil, but by what is appropriate or inappropriate, acceptable or unacceptable. That can be dangerous because it opens the possibility that in some other place and time something inappropriate now could be appropriate later.
In our day we have three dominant virtues: tolerance, niceness and compassion. Our modern world has no great loves and no great hates. There was a time when our parents and grandparents spoke in hushed tones about those who lived together without marital vows as "living in sin"; now we speak of "living upstairs."
No-one refers to evil by its right name anymore. Euthanasia did not begin with a suggestion to "kill the old folks." It began with legislation titled "Aid in Dying." It sounded like hospice care rather than lethal injections. We now allow people to "die with dignity" or "let go". No-one lies anymore; they "misrepresent the facts" or are "less than candid." No-one steals anymore; they "misallocate funds." No-one is lazy or slothful; it becomes a "motivational problem." The sin of contraception has become "safe sex." Fornication (or pre-marital sex) is referred to as being "sexually active." Abortion did not begin with a suggestion to "kill the babies." It is called "reproductive choice" or "termination of pregnancy."
But the Holy Father says in Veritatis Splendor that an upright conscience should call evil and good by their right names.
In evangelisation we should not avoid the hard questions, such as salvation in Christ only, and the moral issues. We should not be afraid of rejection, of being unpopular. People want the truth. As Cardinal Ratzinger said, the world is awash with facts but starving for real truths.
But we cannot give what we do not have. To evangelise we need to have a passionate love of the truth of Christ. We do not engage in apologetics because we enjoy debate or controlling people, but because we are passionately in love with the truth of Christ and want others to know it. The aim is not simply to win arguments, but to win hearts. Apologetics gets to the head so it can reach the heart, the head being the gateway to the heart. We can only love what we know to be true.
The best way to conquer your "enemy" is to make him your friend. We need to make friends with even those who do not agree with us, to listen to the other side, let them teach you before you teach them, be interested in their opinions even if they irk you. Oftentimes they are saying something more than they are saying with words.
Even if you are not speaking all the time, refuting what is being said, truth has its own power which goes beyond the powers of persuasion. Sometimes a person hearing himself saying something stupid does not need us to tell him that. The truth insinuates itself oftentimes by its own power to enter into the human heart, and in its own good time.
All over the world people are taking evangelisation initiatives. In the US, young people have formed a group called Project Truth which leaves Catholic material in doctors' offices, on trains or at airport terminals - anywhere where people have to sit for a while and may want to read something. Students from Franciscan University of Steubenville evangelise on the beach. They start volley-ball games, invite others to participate, make friends and speak about the Faith.
In Washington DC, a group began a project called Theology on Tap. Every fortnight they gather in a pub to listen to a guest speaker who addresses a particular truth of the Faith: why be Catholic, the existence of God, what is the Mass, why go to confession, etc. On one occasion I spoke there on the Passion of Christ and heard confessions until one in the morning.
We have to go where the people are, since many no longer come to the parishes and churches. It demands ingenuity, and a missionary heart and spirit. We need to study the Scriptures: St Jerome said ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. Good books by Peter Kreeft, Larl Keating and Fulton Sheen are a help, as are numerous websites on a wide range of apologetics topics.
Above all, we should not be afraid and not lose heart because God does not lose battles - He is the Lord of Hosts. St Thomas More said: "The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them."
- Tapes of the Winter School talks are available from our Brisbane office