Much ink has already been spilled over the vulgar display at the Met recently, where celebrities who abhor all that the Catholic Church teaches vied with one another to see who could dress more inappropriately than another to mock the church.
Yet, in a way, why would anyone be surprised? Blasphemy, mockery, and the contemptuous smirk when speaking of orthodox Christianity are hallmarks of the so-called elites who run the institutions of today’s popular culture. What was unfortunate, although not unexpected (sadly), was the apparent “blessing” of the event by various forces in the church.
Whenever the church attempts to go with the prevailing secular culture, especially when that culture is at worst hostile to the church and at best neutral, the church comes off the loser — and a sad and sorry loser at that. It could almost be called a reverse evangelization. Instead of the church informing and changing the culture, the prevailing culture changes the church.
That was not the Great Commission given by Jesus to His disciples, nor the way the Gospel spread throughout the centuries. The church certainly “baptized” all that was good in the many cultures the Good News has touched, but to allow the “spirit of the age” to change the church was, and is, a recipe for decline, corruption and irrelevance.
Some would argue that many of the ills of the Catholic Church in the past half-century have come about because, at the very moment Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, wanting the windows “thrown open” to let fresh air into the stuffy church, the air outside was becoming foul and putrid.
The role of a prophet, which every Christian receives at baptism, is not to foretell the future but to speak the mind of God, often to a world that does not want to hear it. Those in the church who echo contemporary society’s mores and fashions are far from the “rebels” the media so often like to portray them, or the way they pompously self-identify.
They are, in fact, truly part of the Establishment, in every way that a Bill Gates, an Oprah Winfrey, or a Barack Obama is, the controllers of the zeitgeist and, as such, really fifth columnists in the body of the church — not prophets but wolves in sheep’s clothing.
To be truly rebellious today is to swim upstream, against the tide, in other words, to be countercultural. Nowhere is that more important today than in Western Europe, a place, according to Pope Francis, that is “sterile.” It’s a place where Christianity appears to be gray, old and dying — and where many in the church believe accommodating the culture is the key to success, when all the evidence shows the opposite.
Now comes a voice from Africa, in the heart of Europe, at the annual Chartres pilgrimage, when some 15,000 mainly young people walk from Paris to the beautiful Cathedral in Chartres. This last weekend the congregation heard a truly rebellious and countercultural voice challenging France and, in fact, all of Western society to “wake up!”
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Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, a native of Guinea in Africa, and mentioned as a possible successor to Pope Francis — although of a distinctly more conservative hue — gave what many are calling one of the most stunning sermons from a senior cleric in recent years.
Rather than follow the path of accommodating the zeitgeist, the African cardinal, with a prophetic voice reminiscent of some of the African “fathers” from the earlier centuries of the church, spoke of the “darkness” spreading across Western society, a darkness that can only be defeated by the light of Christ.
Sarah told the young pilgrims that “western society has chosen to establish itself without God,” and that without God, it will become the “cradle of an ethical and moral terrorism more virulent and more destructive than Islamist terrorism.” Without Christ, this lion from Africa said, Europe would be a society of “error, hopeless nihilism, or aggressive Islamism.”
That’s not the sort of language that would go down well with the metropolitan elites, nor most bishops.
In perhaps the most beautiful section, Cardinal Sarah addressed the thousands of young people in front of him at a traditional Mass celebrated with reverence and dignity (apparently the young don’t want a Mass with poorly written hymns from the ’70s, played on guitars by their elderly mothers or grandmothers who make up the “folk group” in the parish).
Sarah spoke to the young people as an “elder,” echoing the phrase from the first letter of St. John. In extraordinary language, he warned young people of the dangers they faced, “ideologies that deny human nature and destroy the family,” and he included strong criticism of the United Nations and its many agencies, “which impose a new global ethic.”
In words that will surely receive much condemnation for appearing to call for civil disobedience, at least, if not more radical action, the cardinal told the young people to “fight any law against nature which would be imposed on you, oppose any law against life, against the family.”
In extraordinary language, he warned young people of the dangers they faced, “ideologies that deny human nature and destroy the family,” and he included strong criticism of the United Nations and its many agencies.
This is a direct challenge to the abortion/euthanasia/gender denial beliefs being propagated in most European states and increasingly in the U.S.
This brave African cardinal, who experienced what it was like to live in a brutal dictatorship in his own country of Guinea, is a role model for those who know that in order for the good news to be Good News, there must be bad news — or there is no news (as one of my priest friends says).
As the late British parliamentarian Enoch Powell once said, “People are disposed to mistake predicting trouble for causing trouble.” Cardinal Sarah is no Jeremiah or Cassandra; his warning is a Gospel challenge to see the evils of the day in a clear light — and, as he said, “be of those who take the opposite direction.”
“For Christians, the opposite direction is not a place — it is a person, it is Jesus Christ.”
Indeed, the West needs to “wake up” to this beautiful voice of hope from Africa.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.
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