June 30, 2019

A Crisis of Faith

Timothy Birdnow

The Bishop of the Belleville, Illinois Diocese has been under fire for some time. He's a black man, and was probably appointed by the Pope because Belleville is a community that has suffered from racial strife in the past. But Bishop Edward K. Braxton has not been popular in the region, and I suspect because he is not a flaming liberal. I may be wrong about that.

At any rate, he has just turned 75 and must tender his resignation. His enemies are waiting with baited breath to see if the Pope accepts it.

It seems to me the complaints about the Bishop are nitpicking. For example, he once told sixth graders there was no Santa Claus. SIXTH GRADERS and the parents were outraged! I hate to break it to them, but somebody should have told them long before. If your sixth grader still believes in Santa you have some problems.

At any rate, the Bishop held a fundraising party for his birthday, and gave an excellent speech which I share with you below:

Dear sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ,

Peace be with all of you!

This evening’s dinner, held on the very day on which I have completed my 75th journey around the sun, is not primarily about me or my birthday. Though, it is a reminder that "There is no day but today. Tomorrow is not promised.” We have only today to love God with our whole being and to love all people as we love ourselves. And, of course, this day is about the inescapable truth that "in a little while you shall see me. And then, again, in a little while, you shall see me no longer!”

Saturday, the commemoration of St. Thomas More, was the 14th anniversary of my installation as the eighth Bishop of this Diocese. In my installation homily, I quoted the last words of St. Thomas More, before he was beheaded by King Henry VIII for his refusal to recognize the King, rather than the Pope, as the supreme head of the Church in England. Sir Thomas said, "The king has commanded me to be brief. So, brief I will be. I die the king’s good servant. But, God’s first. I say none harm. I do none harm. I think none harm. If this be not enough to keep a man alive, then, in Good faith, I long not to live!” Throughout these years, my honest effort has been to live by these words of the great English martyr for the Catholic faith! However, this evening is primarily about our children and the urgent need to provide them with an excellent Catholic education. Some recent studies suggest that every year 50% of Catholics under the age of 30 leave the Church. Many make this decision as early as thirteen. More than that, during this past year, for every new Catholic we Bishops welcomed into the Church in the Rite of Election, six other Catholics left the Church. These departures have happened not primarily because of the terrible sin and scandal of clergy abusing children but primarily because of a crisis of faith. These individuals simply state that they no longer believe the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles.

Every spring between Easter and Pentecost I confirm hundreds of our 7th and 8th graders praying that they will be sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit — the power that moves the stars, the force that turns the planets, and the love of God which guides men’s hearts! Several years later, I remind them of their Confirmation when I give them their diplomas as they graduate from our Catholic high schools. I pray that they receive the Spirit’s gifts of reverence, understanding, knowledge, courage, right judgment, wonder and awe in the presence of God. Most of all, I pray that they receive the gift of wisdom. Not, as St. Paul teaches us, the wisdom of this world; but the wisdom of Christ.

Our Catholic elementary schools, high schools, and Newman Centers exist to inform, form and transform our young people with Christian wisdom. Indeed, it is Christian wisdom that anchors their faith, making it clear that our schools are not "private” schools at all. They are Christian schools, whose primary goal is to help our students attain the joyful vision of life that comes from Christian wisdom. Everyone involved in any aspect of our school system should be committed to the cultivation of "Christian wisdom” which is the ultimate reason for the existence of our Catholic schools.

What do I mean by Christian wisdom? Christian wisdom is born of all the questions that come naturally during the years of elementary and secondary school and college. It is born from a dialogue of the soul between our students and their parents (who, by the way MUST be the first teachers of the faith), their teachers, priests, bishop, the Christian community, and, ultimately with the Mystery of God. Children at every age, in their own way, ask profound questions about the riddle of human existence. (Why do we exist? Why do we exist now? Why do we exist in this place? In our post-Christian secular age, how do we decide with confidence what is right and what is wrong? Why do good and innocent people endure catastrophic suffering while do evildoers die peacefully in their beds? Why do we die at all? What is our destiny? What does it mean to say that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and that are called to share in the resurrection mystery? Do we really believe the words we proclaim in the Creed every Sunday, "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Rote catechism answers to these questions are not sufficient for our children today. Priests, teachers, and parents must cultivate Christian wisdom and hand it on to their children. Christian wisdom is born from serious inquiry, great silence in the presence of the God who is God and the pondering of the scripture, illuminated by the teachings of the Church. In the end, Christian Wisdom does not view the world and human history as so much sound and fury signifying nothing, not a tale told by an idiot. Christian Wisdom views the world as charged with the grandeur of God’s invitation to share in unending Divine Life, through the living gift of Divine Love. Christian wisdom affirms that the life of every individual person in the world has purpose, meaning and value. Ultimately, Christian wisdom discerns that God is not God the way we would be God, if we were God!

Christian wisdom means coming to know that Jesus of Nazareth is the center of our lives. By His life of selfless love, by His death and resurrection, Jesus has given each of us the pattern of our own life if we are to see God face to face. Jesus has taught us that it is more important to be more, give more and love more than to have more, or buy more!

Christian wisdom makes it possible for the children in our schools to know how the greatest story ever told applies to the story they are telling with their personal lives each day. Christian wisdom is essential, if we want our students take their places on the stage of life with a mature understanding of their faith so as to withstand the winds of doubt and skepticism and make meaningful contributions to the community as Christian ladies and gentlemen. This is what I believe parents should be hoping for when they bring their children to the doors of our schools. Yet, I fear this is not the primary concern of some parents. Nor is this the primary concern of some school staff members.

But, no matter what else students may learn in Catholic schools, if they do not begin to attain Christian wisdom, we, as Catholic educators have failed in our central mission. What is that mission? To bring our students into a life changing personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Sunday we celebrated the great feast of Corpus Christ, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We were reminded that the bread and wine that we consume during the Sunday Eucharist is unique. It is not ordinary food and drink. The dinner you have just enjoyed here this evening will gradually become you by osmosis. But, when we consume the Eucharist, we become what we eat. We become the Body and Blood of Christ. This great paradox is at the heart of Christian wisdom!

Only by embracing Christian wisdom can we and your children and your children’s children stand firm in the face of forces in American culture which rejects God, Jesus of Nazareth, the 10 Commandments, the Beatitudes and the Catholic Church. (A culture that worships money and worldly success, indulges in excess, debases human sexuality, undermines the very nature of the family, casts off unwanted developing human life from the womb, exacerbates the ethnic, racial and cultural, economic and political divide in this country; a culture that embrace euthanasia and physician assisted suicide,) a culture which does not beat its swords into plowshares and turn its swords into pruning hooks, but trains for war again and again and again!

Tonight, I remind all of you that your families are, or should be the first school of religion. Parents are, or should be, their children’s first teachers of the faith and ready to answer the questions of their thirteen year old who doubts his or her faith. Help them Learn their faith, Love their faith and Live their faith.

If children see their parents going to Mass faithfully each week, reading the Bible and studying the Sacred Scriptures they will hear at Mass, going to Confession regularly, praying before and after meals, praying morning and night prayers, treating all people as their sisters and brothers, then that’s what they will probably do. If, however, our children do not see this Christian example from their parents, our Catholic schools will be unable to place their feet on the path of faith.

As your Bishop, as one who cares deeply for you and your families, I invite you to think about these things, talk about these things, pray about these things, and act on these things. The shape of the Church to come is in your hands.

The Lord Jesus Christ needs each of you. He needs your eyes to continue to see.

He needs your ears to continue to hear. He needs your voices to continue to speak. He needs your feet to continue to walk. He needs your hands to continue to serve. He needs your heart to continue to love. Prepare yourselves well for the great work to which we have been called. For you are the hope of the Church!

Thank you. From my heart, I thank you!

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