In just a few days, we will come to the end of the first decade of the third Christian millennium. Incredible. It seems only a very short time ago that John Paul the Great called the new millennium a special moment for renewal. As usual, he focused on the central point – good to recall in this season – that made the date significant, the birth of the Savior: “Ecce natus est nobis Salvator mundi: in the Year 2000 the proclamation of this truth should resound with renewed power.” (Tertio millennio adveniente).
Renewal has been a dominant theme in the Church since Vatican II, but it’s an odd idea: neither a mere return to the past (if such were even possible), nor radical innovation, but a paradox. Creative fidelity. A new way of doing old things to make them live again.
Renewal was already on the rise with Leo XIII’s call for philosophical restoration with Aeterni patris (1879) and social reform in Rerum Novarum (1891). It bore immediate fruit in intellectual figures such as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Yves Simon, Christopher Dawson, and many others.
The kind of scholastic philosophy and social analysis they practiced are often regarded as passé now, even by many Catholics. But in their time, they had strong influence even in secular circles: Maritain lectured at Princeton and Chicago (and helped write the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights), Gilson lectured at the University of Virginia and Harvard (as did Dawson). Whatever else might be said, they represented a serious Catholic cultural force, which was also evident in writers such as Chesterton, Belloc, Waugh, Graham Greene in England; Péguy, Mauriac, Claudel, Marcel in France; O’Connor, Merton, Undset, and other distinguished names around the world.
All that pretty much petered out in the 1960s. It’s something of a mystery why. The earlier call for renewal worked wonderfully, in its way, while the one issued at Vatican II by the bishops of the world speaking as a body seems to have actually fragmented Catholics so badly that a half-century later we’re still not entirely sure where it will all end. The new things that have emerged have been ambiguous, and not always welcome. And it’s clear that either we will have a new outpouring in new things of the spirit or our culture is headed for some very sad days indeed.
There are great precedents. When the medieval world was in crisis, the very challenges called forth saints like Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, and Dominic Guzman. When corruption of the papacy and the Reformation seemed to threaten the Church, Ignatius of Loyola and the Spanish mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross appeared, to say nothing of heroic martyrs like Thomas More and Edmund Campion.
Franciscans spread like wildfire through Italy, Germany, and England while Francis was still alive, and great Franciscan theologians like St. Bonaventure were teaching at the University of Paris within a few years of his death. At times, the sheer energy released by the Franciscan charism looked like it was going to tear the Order and the Church to pieces. Of course, it eventually led to great glories. So perhaps we need to take a long view of our own time.
There are encouraging signs of new things. Among religious: the Nashville Dominican nuns; the Abbey of Clear Creek in Tulsa (an offshoot of Fontgombault that – since Vatican II – has also created three new contemplative monasteries in France); Fr. Groeschel’s Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. At a time when vocations are languishing, these solidly Catholic institutions are growing.
Then there are new Catholic energies in higher education at Ave Maria, Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom, Thomas More, Magdalen, and the programs on secular campuses: Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, the St. Anselm Institute at University of Virginia, the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute at the University of Colorado in Boulder (which I just visited last week) forming the more than 90 percent of Catholics who do not attend Catholic colleges or universities.
But it’s clear that what ultimately make the difference are saints. I sometimes think: Why not St. James of Georgetown, St. Ralph of South Bend, St. Hadley of Amherst? Or saint you of your place and saint me of mine? But that’s Someone Else’s call.
At The Catholic Thing, we have tried producing our own res novae towards renewal. By December 31, we will have brought you 260 original articles this year alone, including a symposium on the passing of Father Richard John Neuhaus and another on Caritas in veritate. You won’t find a better string of original work anywhere.
I checked Google Analytics the other day – a great tool for tracking readership. By the end of this year, we will have had over 1 million page views, and our little flock keeps growing. You probably wouldn’t suspect it, but you are among readers in every state and 121 countries and territories.
It’s the time of the year again when I have to ask all our loyal and enthusiastic readers to contribute to our common task. If you’ve been reading us for a while, you know that I let our work speak for itself. I could take the usual line and tell you that the Apocalypse will immediately follow if you don’t contribute. But we are adults here. All I ask is that each of you contribute $25 (or even better, some multiple thereof since we have many readers who will not be in a position to contribute). That’s all it would take to make sure that powerful Catholic commentary will continue to come to you and readers around the globe every morning in the new year.
We have also been talking lately about some new things. Don’t worry. The daily column format will continue to provide real Catholic thought every morning. But there’s much that needs doing and we’re considering some new ways to do it. Feel free to send suggestions. But please, also, click the Donate button right now and do your part to help TCT keep offering the new Catholic things that our culture so desperately needs today.