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Lent at the End of an Age Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 17 February 2013

We are at the end of an age. And that is a fact that must loom large in the inventory of our Christian lives, for which we are all individually responsible. The priest or bishop or professor who misled us in college will not be with us at the judgment seat. Neither will “the culture” or the media. Lent is the suitable time to put aside all excuses and to reflect on larger concerns, which are becoming more acute with each passing year.

The “take-out” model of parishes – where you drop in to church for the sacraments and little else – has left generations of U.S. Catholics poorly informed and largely unprepared for a culture that no longer supports life, basic faith, truth, or morality. So for Catholics, this is the question: how do I carve out my life in a world that constantly contradicts what I believe so that I become a saint?

Catholic ghettos are not the answer because they actually contradict the full meaning of our baptism. All the American attempts in that direction that I know of collapsed quickly – usually with a lot of ill feeling. We are meant, as baptized Christians, to be in the world and challenging it.

Now, to start our inventory we have to make one fact central to our lives: “Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.” (Benedict XVI) So life is a continuous conversation with the God who is love. Each event, each relationship is part of this conversation, an expression of love. Driving, phoning, touching, speaking, smiling all are parts of this conversation. Such actions have meaning for us and our salvation – or against us and our salvation.

The way we tell the difference is by turning to God become man among us. Jesus Christ “tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.” (Benedict XVI) So from him we are going to get the nuts and bolts of the meaning of life, which in practical terms means those truths that he (the Incarnate Word) speaks through the Church in Scripture and Tradition.

One part of that Tradition can be very helpful in taking an inventory of your life and relationships: Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). Catholicism is an amazingly objective religion. There are thousands of actual saints in history. Catholics are not lost in the false world of ideals. In the Church, there’s no indulgence of the perennial excuse of good intentions as a substitute for real witness. There are clear, objective standards in Catholicism – much to the chagrin of those who have been trying to make Catholicism fuzzy to create fig leaves for themselves.

The Pastoral Constitution is not fuzzy. It offers clear principles for Catholic life. After a brief Prologue, it divides into two parts. Part One addresses “The Church and Man’s Calling,” and Part Two “Some Problems of Special Urgency.” Among much else, Part One basically lays out the Church’s (Christ’s) understanding of what it means to be a human being. A good read for clearing up our understanding of who we really are.

In a series of chapters, Part Two explains Marriage and Family, the Proper Development of Culture, Economic and Social Life, the Life of the Political Community, Peace and the Promotion of the Community of Nations. If you have been puzzled about where to begin, this is not a bad place to start making an inventory of life.

I would suggest taking a sentence at a time. For instance, this: “The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family.” Do I seriously believe this? Do I hold to this fact in everything that I do? If not, I have to change my outlook and behavior. Perhaps that should start happening right now?

Try passing a day following this Christian perspective and see how it changes things. And then, do the same with the many other instances of good counsel in this rich text. You may be surprised at the result. You may find yourself wanting to be conformed to Christ more and more, to achieve success with a more Christian life. And all this despite the many and deep challenges of our passing age.

It’s called Catholicism. Have a great Lent.

 
 
Fr. Bevil Bramwell is a member of Oblates of Mary Immaculate and is Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. He has published Laity: Beautiful, Good and True and The World of the Sacraments.
 
 
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Comments (20)Add Comment
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written by Jill, February 17, 2013
I started a small group on Facebook wherein I post one paragraph of GS per day, sometimes half a paragraph if it's particularly long, and reading it has been a daily challenge to me as a Catholic. (Fr. Bramwell even suggests one 'sentence' per day!) I would second his idea, to read it and think about the role of the Church in our world and, as members of that Church, in finding our purpose in this world. To absorb what it teaches keeps me from floating along, waiting for Heaven. Some encyclicals are pretty heavy-going for me, but GS has been a challenge only to my thinking, not to comprehension.
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written by Maggie-Louise, February 17, 2013
To: B.B., OMI:

I have read that Pope Benedict, as Cardinal, called G&S "downright Pelagian," and that he was very unhappy with the document and liked it the least of all the documents of Vatican II. Can you give some advice on how to read this document with the Pope's words in mind and what, exactly did he read in the document that lead him to this conclusion?
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 17, 2013
Thank you Jill.
Maggie-Louise: I have not heard any such comments from Cardinal Ratzinger. He did find it optimistic. But even if what you say is true-which most things claimed about Ratzinger are not-why would any of this have anything at all to do with reading an official Church document?

Letting cultural "buzz" stop you from approaching official church teaching is not a good route to take. Just do as I said, take one sentence per day. The document is so rich.
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written by Maggie-Louise, February 17, 2013
'He (Cadnl.Ratzinger) did not, however, trim the truth as he knew it and went so far as to say that a certain passage in “Gaudium et Spes” of which young Wojtyla was a principle architect was, “downright Pelagian.” Cardinal Dulles observed: “The contrast between Pope Benedict and his predecessor is striking. John Paul II was a social ethicist, anxious to involve the Church in shaping a world order of peace, justice, and fraternal love. Among the documents of Vatican II, John Paul’s favorite was surely the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes. Benedict XVI, who looks upon Gaudium et Spes as the weakest of the four constitutions, shows a clear preference for the other three.” '

I won't give the source in public although it is a public source, but this is from a highly respected, well-known priest. I did not question the orthodoxy of the document. I beg your pardon if I offended you. I'm sorry I brought it up.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 17, 2013
No problem at all. It is just that Benedict will not appear here to defend himself. This sounds like someone's judgment of something that he heard.
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written by petebrown, February 17, 2013
Nice piece Father. Every parish I have ever had any involvement with has the "take out" model. Add to that most parishes are far too large and unwieldy that the average parishioner has little real social connection to it. One could show up for Sunday Mass for years and never meet anyone. The problem is not really centered around the clergy. It's just the mentality by which most Catholics have been conditioned to see their Church.

There are usually 1) a very few people who know lots of people in the parish and 2)very few people know each other. It's a totally anonymous experience for most with little community at all and little desire on anyone's part to change that. In fact, given the realities of life in early 21st century America, I haven't the foggiest idea how to change that even if people wanted to. Most Catholics have long since been conditioned to look for social outlets in other places. I don't know but I would bet that even Mass attending Catholics leading a sacramental life have far more friends at work or the local watering hole or even in their neighborhood than in Church.

And frankly without a vibrant parish life, it's hard to see much of a renewal taking place in the US Church. And I don't buy the explanation that the US is "culturally Protestant" because by most accounts, Protestant communities have a stronger sense of community than most Catholics do--even without the sacramental emphasis.

As a professional theologian, I am not so sure any more the problem is theological.
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written by Gregory, February 18, 2013
You did try your best, Maggie-Louise. That's all you can do. Let those who have Google, use Google.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 18, 2013
Thanks Pete. It is not a theological problem but a moral problem. People are not motivated and church officials have chosen not to be motivators. So it is over to the laity. Start groups to reflect on Gaudium et Spes. This would not be a bad thing. In fact I think that it is the authentic posture at the end of an age.
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written by lisag, February 18, 2013
petebrown, don't you think that the "take out" Catholic has the idea that church is not fun. Corny dinners, parish festivals,and one day retreats just cannot compete with video games, HD TV, and secular community events. Parishioners probably don't have neighbors that go to the parish and if they did they don't know them. There can be a connection in parishes that have schools, because then the families get together for sports and birthday parties. The other deterrence to community is there is no outside threat. That could soon change, but my feeling is that most "take out" Catholics would leave rather than fight.
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written by Maggie-Louise, February 18, 2013
Gregory, thank you. You raised my spirits.

One can hardly keep from wondering how many centuries the world will have to wait for another man to come along whose mind and heart are as enormous as our Holy Father's. He sets the standard for and the example of so many virtues, humility not the least of them. I will miss him so much, and I will continue to keep my arms tightly around our Lord's ankles and hang on for dear life. Thank you.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 18, 2013
Another comment Maggie-Louise. I looked at the whole context of Ratzinger's criticism of Gaudium et Spes. Provided that one reads the document in unison with the other documents, then his criticism is not that apt. But on its own and given the fears that it would be misinterpreted I can see why he said what he said about the first part. My column refers to the second part of Gaudium et spes and involves a number of principles that can reasonably be considered to stand somewhat alone provided one is reading them with a Catholic worldview holding such things as marriage is between a man and a woman.
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written by Maggie-Louise, February 18, 2013
Thank you for the clarification, Father Bramwell.
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written by Jacob Morgan, February 19, 2013
Regarding Pete's comments, it is a problem. As a convert to Catholicism from Protestantisim, the lack of community in the local parishes I've been a part of is striking.

There are some legitimate reasons for this. Protestant church goers generally have a socio-economic self-sorting exercise where people of the same type, if you will, go to the same Churches. People will cross denomination lines go be with the right sort of people. E.g., the vast majority of church goers at an Episcopal, Baptist, or a Pentacostal church will be remarkably similar in political beliefs, family size, what they do for fun, etc. Protestant church goers, these days, tend to skip church when traveling. They tend to have fewer services on a Sunday or a weekend and when there are multiple services, they stick to one of them. Sunday school is a social activity for adults, and when the adults go to Sunday school the kids go. When a once-saved-always-saved beliver's prayer environment is in place, the reality is that a church has to compete, has to really make it worth their time, to get them to join and stay.

The Catholic parishes I've been involved with have people who attend one Mass or another at their convenience. With faithful travelers showing up one doesn't know if the person next to them is a visitor or a life-long member. The Catholic Church is the most diverse in terms of socio-economics, and who knows what the politics and beliefs are of the other parishoners--it is an issue in that one has to be careful what is discussed lest people be offended. In addition to that, are they a memeber of the Benedict XVI fan club, or do they long for a women priest to take over? There is little common ground that can be assumed.

Final issue is that in a Protestant church the minister is basically a CEO who has to attract customers away from a dozen other similar churches. The Catholic parishes I've been in had no Catholic competition, and had one priest who was over worked. They were unequiped at, unskilled at, and bascially unaware of any benefit in, creating an environment that would lead to friendships, etc.

Result is people going to Mass for years, recieving the sacraments, then clearing out afterwards like a fire alarm went off. Relatives and childhood friends hang out, that is it. It is hard to explain, and a little scandalous, to tell our Protestant friends that no, even though we've been Catholic for a few years now, we have no friends who are Catholic. Sometimes they'll even name off some Catholics they know that go to the parish, and invariably, no, we don't know who they are. No idea. Personal evangelisim sounds nice, and a lot of the gaping holes in Protestantisim are filled in Catholicisim, but...I think it would be a waste of time to invite people to Mass, to be stampeded by a hundred other people in a mad dash to the parking lot. "Yeah we've got the fullness of the faith and all that, but couldn't care less who you are. Don't hold up the line." OK, I'm exagerating, but only a little.

Sorry to hijack the thread, but this new evangelisim thing is not going anywhere (to re-evangelize the post-Christian Western culture) if the Church is ill-equiped to evanelize already dedicated Christians who know that something is missing in Protestantisim.
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written by Magdalene, February 19, 2013
I did have to move from my hometown where the Catholic parishes had become too much to endure. I did not go to a Catholic 'ghetto' though but to a more faithful diocese across the state and the most faithful parish in the town with two daily Masses and daily confessions. I re-educated myself with catechists courses so I can be an asset to the people and facilitate classes. Now God has me in pro-life work and can reach out to hundreds of people through the 40 Days for Life effort which is an endeavor that not only saves babies but souls and helps all involved to grow stronger in their faith as well.

We cannot keep our faith behind closed doors or be satisfied with checking in on Sunday or just being 'nice'. That will not hold up as the pressure against Catholicism in our society grows. We must pray and seek the grace for the strength that the early martyrs had for our faith is not only worth living, but dying for.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 19, 2013
Jacob, first of all welcome to the Catholic Church. Secondly, no American Catholics don't do community very well. Your insights are crucial here because if ever there was a moment of the laity then we are in it right now. So you are going to have to shoulder more than you bargained for, but I say go for it - build community. A discussion group might be one way to start.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 19, 2013
Good for you Magdalene! I love your initiative! Keep at it.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, February 19, 2013
Maggie-Louise, I appreciate your question more and more. I had another thought. When JR wrote his commentary he was but a humble professor. He had not yet joined the magisterium so all he had was his wit and his grace. Professors don't always get it right in such circumstances.
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written by Glenna, February 19, 2013
Fr Bramwell, I was impressed with your article, but I'm very impressed with the honesty & simplicity with which you've addressed some of these snarky comments. Excellent witness.
In 2005, the year Benedict became pope, we started a monthly study group under the auspices of Communio, the group he & vonBalthasar started back in the '70s. Since that time we've met every month just to study what B16 has written. Since the beginning of the Year of Faith, we've been reading Gaudium et Spes. As you say, it well rewards a prayerful, open reading of the text. As with anything of God, we're unlikely to find the pearls if we start digging with disbelief.
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written by Maggie-Louise, February 19, 2013
Dear Fr. Bramwell,

Thank you again for your clarification. But, please, the issue does not warrant additional attention. I'm sure you have more important concerns to deal with.

My father used to tell me that the only stupid question is the one not asked, and having just read an essay by a priest whose scholarship, intelligence and erudition I admire deeply that pertained to a point or two in your essay, I thought of my father's admonition and decided to ask a question. I didn't intend to raise so much controversy, to say nothing of hackles.

I appreciate your responses and I thank you for giving my question your consideration.
Have a happy Lent and God bless you.
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written by Louise, February 19, 2013
Father, thanks for the suggestion.

Jacob, you mention "parishes". Are you saying that you have been in multiple parishes and made no Catholic friends? If so let me give you a suggestion. At every parish there are the worker bees (men and women) who do everything and know everyone. They complain a lot about their hard work and not much help but they basically like the work and they are sincere about wanting help. When you meet them and help them all of the sudden you become part of the heart of the parish and you start to get to know everyone! I'm not talking about the glamorous jobs but about the people who set the tables for parish celebrations and cook the meals and do the dishes, etc, etc, etc. Doing dishes at parish events is a particularly great way to make friends and become very popular! There is a lot of friendship building that goes on in parish kitchens. You will also find out all the other things going on in the parish that are worth getting involved in.

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