by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
St. Pope John Paul II loved theater and drama. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, as a young adult, the future pope and saint was part of an underground theater group. They clandestinely performed plays as part of the resistance that was seeking to preserve Polish culture at this dark moment in their nation’s history.
I have no aptitude for dramatic performance. My role in high school and college seminary theater productions was setting up chairs, taking tickets and selling popcorn.
However, I did participate on stage in one college production. Most people are understandably impressed when I tell them that my one and only stage role was Hamlet.
They naturally, but incorrectly assume that I played perhaps the most esteemed role in English theater, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Actually, my performance of Hamlet was in the play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” In the seminary production, we only performed one act from the play in which Hamlet had only one line.
If my memory serves me well, the only sentence that I spoke on stage was: “S’blood, there is more here than philosophy can figure out!” This was definitely a crowd-pleaser for an audience that was largely composed of philosophy majors, their professors, friends and families.
I was reminded of this recently in my preparation for a homily given on the solemnity of Pentecost on graduation weekend for Conception College Seminary, where all of the graduates are, of course, philosophy majors. Sometimes, seminarians are less than enthusiastic about the study of philosophy. However, as I told the Conception seminarians, it is a great gift and blessing to be given the luxury to study philosophy.
Philosophy is the study of the greatest and most fundamental questions for humanity: What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is truth and how can one attain it? Is there a God and, if so, what can we know about God through reason? What is our relationship to God, the cosmos and the world?
Recently, I was listening to an interview of Trent Horn, a Catholic apologist who is part of Catholic Answers, a ministry that attempts to find ways to present effectively the beauty and truth of our Catholic faith.
Horn is often the answer man on Catholic Answers radio shows devoted to responding exclusively to the questions of agnostics (those who are uncertain if God exists, but consider his existence irrelevant to their lives) and atheists (those who positively assert there is no God).
During the interview, he shared his enjoyment of the opportunity to engage agnostics and atheists in philosophical discussions about the existence of God. He is quite effective through thoughtful questions and the use of logical principles in making the case that it is much more reasonable to accept the existence of God than to deny it.
If you have a relative or friend who is struggling with belief in God, I encourage you to read Horn’s book, “Answering Atheism.” Another great resource in this area is Father Robert Spitzer’s recent book, “New Proofs for the Existence of God.”
Father Spitzer, a Jesuit, is the former president of Gonzaga University and has earned multiple advanced degrees. Based on his long experience of working with college students, Father Spitzer is confident through logic and philosophy that anyone can be led to accept the existence of God.
In my homily, I emphasized the importance of the knowledge of philosophy for future priests, who will be serving in an ever-increasing secular culture with a growing number of agnostics and atheists. Seminarians need to know how best to help lead individuals from unbelief to faith.
However, I also reminded the seminarians that the apostles were not schooled in philosophy. The first disciples did not convince a pagan world of the truth of the Gospel through logical argument. It was, rather, their personal experience of friendship with Jesus combined with their reception of the Holy Spirit, who confirmed in their hearts the joy of God’s love revealed in his son that made those first disciples such effective witnesses of the Gospel.
As Adam and Eve discovered, it is a dreary and scary world when we push God out of our lives, attempting instead to be our own gods. In American culture today, there is an increasing despair and pessimism, the inevitable fruits of a society that is becoming less religious and increasingly alienated from God.
More than philosophers, our culture needs witnesses of the joy that comes from friendship with Jesus Christ. Only the experience of God’s merciful and unconditional love for us can fulfill the deepest longings of our hearts. Just as the first disciples, we need to dispose our hearts through prayer to welcome the Holy Spirit, who will confirm and deepen our experience of God’s personal love for us revealed in Jesus.
Moreover, the Gospel of Jesus cannot be lived alone. It must be lived in community, where we find encouragement and support to follow Our Lord even to Calvary. It was the witness of the early Christians’ love for each other that attracted many pagans to desire the source of their power to love.
Hamlet is correct. There is something more than reason and even the most powerful philosophical arguments can figure out. This “something more” is the experience of God’s love for us revealed in his son, Jesus, and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. It is the witness of joyful, hopeful and loving Christians today that has the power to attract those groping in the darkness of unbelief to open their hearts to the truth and beauty of friendship with Jesus and of a life lived in communion with God.
To share the gift of our Catholic faith with others, we need to use both the powerful arguments of reason and the attractive witness of the joy and the love of a Christian life well-lived. Together, they make faith practically irresistible!