Lewis, if God is our creator, then He’s the source and meaning of
everything real. God is real. Everything divorced from God isn’t.
God lives in the sunlight. We live in the shadow lands, and for
eyes unaccustomed to the sun, the light can be painful.
turn away from God turn into the dark. They block God’s light
with the shadow of their own selfishness. Hell is the state of
freely choosing that darkness forever. It’s the state of choosing
ourselves and our sins instead of choosing God; choosing the unreal
instead of the real. And for souls addicted to the unreal, reality
hurts – which is why Lewis tells us that “heaven is an acquired
. One of
the features of modern life, unfortunately, is that we try to
change reality to suit our tastes and behaviors, instead of changing
our tastes and behaviors to suit reality. Bishops get a lot of
mail, and most of it’s important for one reason or another. But
every once in awhile a letter or an email comes in that’s really
weird and really useful at the same time. About a week ago I
got an email informing me that I’d been turned into a vampire.
I like to keep up on current events, so I went to the web address
where this was posted. It was an internet site for people involved
in Vampire: The Masquerade, which is a role-playing game
like Dungeons and Dragons.
Somebody turned me into one of the vampire characters,
and I think I’m supposed to be offended, but actually I’m very
grateful because they gave me a way to illustrate how we more
and more prefer the unreal to the real.
last 30 years, role-playing games have turned into a very big
American subculture, and not just for teen-agers but for adults
too. Some of you parents already know this. The point of a game
like Vampire is that people get together, both in person
and over the internet, to weave a story that becomes an alternate
reality. Each of the persons weaving the story becomes a character,
and he or she really “inhabits” that character in every way inside
that alternate reality. Then the characters bond themselves into
vampire clans who socialize together, make alliances, go to war
with one another, and so on. It’s not just a game. It’s a self-contained
world that the participants create and control. And for many
of the players, it’s an alternate reality – a place to go to get
away from the messiness of real life.
games provide the same kind of escape. In fact, Vampire
can also be played as a computer game on the internet, right now,
against real people anywhere in the world. More than 92 percent
of American children between the ages of 2 and 17 play video or
computer games. Computer gaming -- and especially internet, multiplayer
gaming -- is now the fastest growing segment of the American entertainment
industry. Statistically, the most active gamers are young adult
males and middle-aged women. The average age of an interactive
game player is 28 years old and climbing. Nearly 64 million American
played online computer games last year, and 43 percent of those
And let me
share with you just one more curious detail. One of the most popular
computer games right now is The Sims, which is a “god game,”
where the player takes on the role of a deity who creates and
develops a planet or a society. In The Sims, the player
creates, manages, nurtures or destroys a cyber-family, and it
sold 1 million copies at $50 a piece in its first 10 weeks.
What’s the point of this information, in light of our conference?
Turkle wrote some years ago that, “computer screens are the new
location for our fantasies, both erotic and intellectual.” She
said that, “ We’re using life on computer screens to become comfortable
with new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, sexuality,
politics and identity.” Neil Postman put it more bluntly when
he warned that we’re “amusing ourselves to death” with “technological
narcotics.” But either way, the world we all inhabit is becoming
a world hooked on unreality, not just in computer games
or on TV, but in almost every area of our lives.
tell us that sin doesn’t exist. Scientists tell us that God doesn’t
exist. Linguists tell us that meaningful questions don’t exist,
so don’t try to ask any. And what we’re too often left with is
a vacuum of meaning in our lives that we try to fill with the
unreality of possessions and distractions.
So the key
question in every life becomes: How do we come to desire what’s
real? How do we acquire the taste for heaven? The answer
is: We learn it. And if we need to learn, someone has to teach
us. Every life is an arc of growing. As we grow we observe more,
and we want to understand more. We develop the hunger to learn.
How and what we learn determines whom and what we become. That’s
why parents and pastors, teachers and catechists, are so powerful.
They shape our learning, and in doing that, they influence our
choices throughout our lives.
course, while teachers are very important, not all teachers are
equal. Some care about us more than others. Some have more skill
than others. And some teachers teach the wrong things. As adults,
one of the most important choices we make is which teachers we
listen to – and which we teach our children to listen to.
majority of us here today are Catholic. What does that mean?
Theologically, it means that we’ve been saved from sin in Baptism
and incorporated into new life in the community of faith. It
means that we accept Jesus Christ as our savior, and we commit
ourselves to follow Him as His disciples. But what we say,
what we mean, and then what we do aren’t always
the same things. The space between our intentions and our actions
is where daily life is lived. And in that battle zone, day in
and day out, we have two very different teachers struggling for
the podium in our hearts. The two teachers are the Church and
the world. Each has a map for our lives, but the maps lead in
very different directions.
For 40 years,
Catholics have heard a steady chorus of how we need to be open
to the world, learn from the world, honor the good things in the
world, and be more humble in our approach to the world. All of
this is true. God created the world, and He loves it, and He
sent His only son to redeem it.
But at the
same time, God wills that the world should be converted and sanctified,
not worshiped. In his Gospel, St. John describes the
“world” as everything which is aligned against God. Jesus shed
His blood on the cross because that was the price of redeeming
the world -- from its sins and our sins. The cross was real.
Christ’s suffering was real. And if the world isn’t a holier
place today than yesterday, it’s because we Catholics have chosen
the unreality of the world and its distractions over the
reality of the cross.
We’ve been too comfortable and accommodating. We’ve listened
to the world too politely when it lies about abortion, or contraception,
or divorce, or the death penalty, or our obligations to the poor,
or the rights of undocumented workers, or the real meaning of
pluralism, or our international responsibilities -- and we haven’t
shouted out the truth.
is a powerful and attractive teacher, but while it can often give
us what we want, it can’t give us what we need. We need God.
We’re hungry for things that are real because God -- the source
of everything real -- made us to share in His life. And this
is exactly the meaning of the Gospel last Sunday (Mt 4:1:11).
Jesus says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word
that comes from the mouth of God.” And when Satan literally offers
Christ the world and all its power if He’ll just make a deal,
Jesus answers, “The Lord your God you shall worship, and Him alone
you shall serve.”
Jubilee Year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we live our faith
as Christians, compared to people in other religions. I’ve been
struck by the posture of Muslims at prayer. The word “Islam”
means submission, and Muslims embody that word in the way
they pray. Islam didn’t invent the idea of submission. It was
borrowed from Judaism and early Christianity -- but Muslims made
it the heart of their faith. We can relearn something about our
own faith from the posture of Muslims at prayer – some important
things about our own proper relationship with God.
How do we
serve God? We serve Him by following His will with our whole
body, mind and soul, and the one reliable teacher and guide we
have to knowing His will is the Church. And I don’t mean the
Church as we’d like her to be, but the Church Jesus intended her
to be – His bride and our mother. Jesus said, “you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death
will not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). He said, “I will give
you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on
earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth
shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16:19).
His disciples out in His name, with His authority, to continue
His work in the world as the Church -- and only through the Church
could we even be sitting here today talking about Jesus Christ.
The fidelity of Catholics to the Church, generation after generation,
even when her leaders have sometimes been weak or sinful – that
fidelity is what carries the message of the Gospel through
time. Without the Church, Jesus Christ cannot be known. So obedience
to the Church and faithfulness to her teaching is not some sort
of servitude; it’s a choice to participate in the act of giving
life to the world. Without the Church, we have only the world,
and the world is not enough to feed the hunger in our hearts.
been puzzled by two things in my adult life as a Catholic. I’ve
been puzzled, first, by people who claim that Vatican II somehow
changed the identity or the mission of the Church. In fact the
council says that the Church is “the universal sacrament of salvation”
(LG, 48). The council says that “Christ is the light of humanity
. . . and that light of Christ [shines] out visibly from the Church”
(LG, 1). The council says there can be no distinction drawn between
the institutional Church and the “real” Church – they are one
and the same. The council says that, “the whole Church is missionary
and the work of evangelization [is] the fundamental task of the
people of God” (AG, 35). The council says that outside Jesus
Christ, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by
which they can be saved” (GS, 10).
puzzled, second, by people who misunderstand the ministry of Blessed
Pope John XXIII. John had a short pontificate and died before
the council ended, so it’s easy for some biographers to create
the impression that, if he had only lived a little longer, he
would have changed so much more about the Church. That’s a fantasy.
Nothing in his life or his writing supports that idea, and frankly
that kind of misrepresentation dishonors the memory of a very
saintly man. In fact, John XXIII saw the Catholic Church as the
soul of the world -- and he said so in the opening lines of his
great 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra:
and teacher of all nations – such is the Catholic Church in the
mind of her founder, Jesus Christ; [her vocation is] to hold the
world in an embrace of love, that men in every age should find
in her their own completeness in a higher order of living, and
their ultimate salvation. She is the ‘pillar and the ground of
truth.’ To her was entrusted by her holy founder the twofold
task of giving life to her children and of teaching them and guiding
them – both as individuals and as nations – with maternal care”
we try to soften the content of the council, or rewrite the meaning
of John XXIII’s life, or sweeten the mission of the Church in
the world, what we’re really doing is building an alibi for our
own lack of courage. For each of us as a believer, there’s no
way around Christ’s mandate to engage and convert the world.
Jesus said, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations”
(Mt. 28:19). And what that also means, is that there’s no way
around the cross, because the cross is the salvation of the world,
and as disciples, we’re meant to take part in the cross.
great Jewish Catholic writer Leon Bloy once said, “man has places
in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering,
in order that they may have existence.” Cardinal Augustine Meyer
once wrote, “nothing great is ever achieved without suffering.”
And Pope John Paul II once said, “the redemption was accomplished
through the suffering of Christ [and] every man has his own share
in the redemption. Each one [of us] is also called to share in
that suffering through which the redemption was accomplished.”
this mean that Christians should enjoy pain? No, of course not.
But suffering pointed to a higher purpose becomes something
greater than itself. Olympic athletes win their medals by
“suffering” the discipline of their sport, which stretches them
toward greatness. Some kind of suffering -- the loss of a loved
one, or an illness, or a broken relationship -- forces its way
into every life. We can’t avoid it, but we can choose
how we use it. Our suffering will either shape us, the
way a burden bends the back of a mule, or we will shape
it into a prayer for other people and something beautiful
the lesson for each of us here today? Four things.
if we take nothing else away with us from our time at this conference
this weekend, we need to stop thinking of the Church as some kind
of religious corporation, and start treating the Church as our
mother and teacher. The Church is not an it. The Church is a
she. We can love our mother; we can’t love an institution. And
while the Church has institutional forms, she is always much more
than the offices that serve her mission. When we talk about the
Church as if she were just another impersonal bureaucracy, what
we’re really doing is creating an excuse to ignore her when she
Gentium 68 reminds us that Mary, “the mother of Jesus . . . is
the image and beginning of the Church as [she] is to be perfected
in the world to come. Likewise [the Church] shines forth on earth
until the day of the Lord shall come (cf. 2 Pt 3:10), a sign of
certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim people of God.” That’s
the image we need to nourish in our hearts to keep us focused
on the reality of the Church that gives life to her institutional
if we say we’re Catholic, we need to act like it. When Catholic
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia publicly disputes Church
teaching on the death penalty, the message he sends is not all
that different from Frances Kissling disputing what the Church
teaches about abortion. I don’t mean that abortion and the death
penalty are identical issues. They’re not, and they don’t have
equivalent moral gravity. But the impulse to pick and choose
what we’re going to accept is exactly the same kind of “cafeteria
Catholicism” in both cases.
often we treat the Church the same way we treat our flesh and
blood mothers. We want the mommy part, but we don’t want the
teacher part. We want her around to feed us, encourage us and
comfort us when things are going badly. But we don’t want her
advice, especially when it interferes with our plans. When Pope
John XXIII’s encyclical first came out, the conservative author
William Buckley, who didn’t like the Pope’s economics, wrote a
famous column called, “Mater si, Magistra no!” – mother yes, teacher
no. That led Louise and Mark Zwick to characterize him in the
Houston Catholic Worker as “the inventor of cafeteria Catholicism
and the pro-choice stance (at least in economics), who accepted
encyclicals he agreed with and rejected others.” I think they’re
if we teach and preach in the name of the Church, we need to do
it fully, zealously and with all the persuasive skill God gives
us. All of us sooner or later get tempted to edit what the Church
teaches so we can please our audience. But if we refuse to teach
the things we disagree with, or we teach them with a “wink and
a nod” to let others know that we don’t really believe what the
Church says – that’s dishonest. It’s a kind of pride that puts
our personal judgments above the judgments of the Church and her
spouse, who is Jesus Himself.
and finally, we need to live in a way that honors each other,
and honors the mission of the Church -- because in us and through
our actions, the outside world will judge the Gospel we claim
to believe. If the pain now taking place in Boston teaches us
anything, it’s that nothing can wound the Church more deeply than
the sins and the indifference of her own people, especially people
want to leave you with two images.
Gospel of John, 19:26-27, says that on Golgotha “when Jesus saw
His mother and the disciple that He loved standing near, He said
to his mother, ‘woman behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple,
‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour, the disciple took her
into his own home.” Each of us today is the disciple Jesus loved
and loves. And from the cross He is asking us to take the Church
into our hearts as John took Mary into his home, to defend her
and care for her and advance her mission in the world.
second image comes from Robert Frost and the last few lines from
one my favorite poems. I’m sure you’ll know it:
roads diverged in a wood, and I –
took the one less traveled by,
that has made all the difference.
says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Following Him may
be “the road less traveled,” but it’s the one road that leads
us to reality and joy and the light of God’s love.
me, the guide on that road has always been the Church. The greatest
blessing I can give you today or any day, is my prayer that she
will become the same for you.