I’ve been reading lately a book by Yves Congar, OP, a leading theologian at the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago. It’s called simply, “Jesus Christ.” (Herder and Herder, New York, 1966)
Congar begins his book describing the religious situation in France in his day. The French were becoming a people living without God, he says. They’re like people with cancer and don’t know it. And no one is telling them about it.
They think they’re self-sufficient. They can do anything through their own powers; they don’t need anyone’s ideas but their own; they make their own decisions and choices.
They largely dismiss religion as something that doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter much. They’re not going to church. If someone explained what they think, it would go like this: “God…so what? I prefer ordinary people to churchgoers. Religion is nothing but a superior, subtle form of egotism. What has religion to do with work, with human love, with human problems, large or small, with real life?”
I remember hearing that description of religion in France fifty years ago and saying to myself, “The poor French! Here in the United States it’s so different. Our churches are filled, our Catholic schools and parishes are thriving. We have the faith here.”
Well, fifty years later I think Congar’s description of religion in France fits us as well.
Today is Catechetical Sunday. We are beginning many of our programs in religious education and formation this month. We need to recognize the situation we face and humbly ask God to help us and bless what we do.
A recent issue of the Jesuit magazine America was devoted to this topic. One article by a religion teacher caught my eye. It’s called “Help Their Unbelief.” Let me quote from it.
“Anyone interested in Catholic education must acknowledge that today’s students emerge from a culture indifferent to the existence of God. And to the extent they do consider the matter, students typically doubt that God exists. They are skeptical about religious belief and sometimes hostile to it, and they are convinced that there is no objective truth.
“In addition to the influences of culture, religious belief rarely receives the support in the crucible of faith formation, the home. If religion receives any attention, it is often one item on a menu of activities that compete for the family’s time. A surprising percentage of students are also wounded. Every week, as a teacher of sophomores and seniors, I learn something that stuns me, something of the powerful aftershocks of divorce, alcoholism and depression. Many young people have no consistent , loving authority figure, no reliable model of virtue and no stable community. They often have no one to trust.”
(Matt Emerson, Help Their Unbelief, America, September 10-17,2012)
That’s a sobering picture of religious formation today, isn’t it? But it states frankly the challenges we face.
Now, let me return to Fr. Congar and his book “Jesus Christ” from fifty years ago. He offers some insights about how we got to the unbelief that’s spreading through the western world, but the remedy he offers is all important. It’s Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, God with us, “the goodness and kindness of God” that has appeared to us. Jesus is “he who is, who was and is to come.”
Congar says to look at the humanity of Jesus. Listen to his words, look at how he learned about life from Mary and Joseph, follow him as he graciously welcomes people, especially those whom others don’t welcome at all, study God walking in time and place, look at him weak, fearful, brave, suffering, praying as he dies on a cross.
He did not come to a perfect world then; he does not come to one now. He faced unbelief before. “Who do you say I am,” he asks his disciples, who had been with him so long. “You are the Messiah,” Peter answers, but he does not understand it very well. So much about Jesus, particularly the mystery of the Cross, he does not understand at all. “You’re thinking as human beings do. You’re like Satan,” Jesus tells him.
But he did not abandon imperfect disciples then, and he does not abandon them now. Jesus faced doubt and doubters before, people who dismissed him, people hostile to him, but he set his face on his mission and did not give it up. He remains steady on that mission. He will reveal God to us now and will also reveal to us what it means to be truly human.
We are called to his school again, the youngest of us and the oldest. It’s the most important school we can go to, where Jesus is our Teacher and Lord.