Back in the great Jubilee year 2000, I published a long article in the Catholic World Report entitled “2030: Looking Backward.” It is a fictional piece in which a Catholic priest (my alter ego) reflects on the history of the Church (especially recent history), with an emphasis on the United States.
I – or perhaps my thesis – received quite a bit of vitriolic criticism from the elite mainstream media and even from the late Tim Russert on Meet the Press. A goodly number of faithful Catholic writers also found it dark and threatening, however, although I had intended it to be positive and optimistic. Take a look here and see what you think.
My avatar priest looked back from the vantage point of 2030 to reflect on recent “history”: the story of American Catholics who became confessors and martyrs to the faith as the federal government of the “Culture of Death” persecuted them. Owing to a prophetic weakness on my part, however, Fr. Charles (my alter ego) did not record the coming of the Felsenburghian personages (for explication of the Felsenburgh reference, see Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s classic Lord of the World, recently republished by Augustine Press in South Bend, near Notre Dame).
There is a lot more in the “2030” look back, with Fr. Charles recalling the secession of the “Culture of Life” states from the United States, precipitating a short and bloody civil war that resulted in a collection of the Regional States of America. As for the Church, “2030” found it much smaller, but flourishing in its faithfulness, with abundant vocations among the laity and nary a dissenter to be seen.
As I wrote this piece, Blessed John Paul had just ushered in the Jubilee Year, Communism was largely destroyed, the United States was the sole hyperpower in the world, and the shock of 9/11 still lay before us.
Now, Pope John Paul II was by no means a cockeyed optimist. After all, he had lived through both Nazi and Communist occupation of Poland, and at the time of my writing his homeland was still only recently reborn into an independent democracy. Yet he anticipated a New Evangelization that would bring forth a civilization of love and truth in the centuries ahead.And his vision may still be realized, probably not before all how reading this have entered eternal life.
Procession of the Maytyrs, artist unknown (6th century)
John Paul’s largely unexpected successor Benedict XVI has long had a darker vision, more in line with my fictional letter writer:
The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes. . .she will lose many of her social privileges. . . .As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.
Of course here our current pope is speaking about the West (Europe and North America) rather than Africa, Asia, or South America. He continues:
It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. . . .The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution. . . .But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Globalization, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
Moral decadence in the key areas of the family and social institutions and the current attack against Catholic institutions in a no longer “exceptional” United States are not really surprises given the decline of Protestant moralism and the devastating impact of the confusion surrounding the implementation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
Today is not a time for optimism or pessimism but rather for Augustinian realism, lived through faith, hope, and charity and faithfulness to Christ and His Church. Looking to the first Christians as our role models, we find that among other things they can teach us that, as faithful Christians, our ultimate reward lies not in this life but in the next.