by Joseph F. Naumann
Marcellino D’Ambrosio in the preface to his recently published book, “When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers,” described the world into which Christianity was birthed: “Rome’s engineers were busy building new buildings, and its legions were conquering new territories.
“But Rome herself was no longer new. She had grown old and decrepit. The republic of Cicero had degenerated into the despotism of Caesar. Tyrant after tyrant had seized power at the price of much bloodshed. Devotion to family, hard work and frugality had been replaced by an addiction to pleasure and power. A welfare state based on conquest and slave labor bought the loyalty of the mob with free bread and gladiator games. The people were all too ready to trade their liberty for creature comforts.”
Dr. D’Ambrosio compares the Fathers of the Church to the Founding Fathers of our country. Much as the American Founding Fathers defined the nature and purpose of the United States, so the early Church Fathers helped to articulate the vision of the church that Jesus had entrusted to the apostles and to define the practical implications of what Christians believe.
Dr. D’Ambrosio defines the Fathers of the Church as “those great Christian writers who passed on and clarified the teaching of the apostles from approximately the second through the eighth centuries.” Reflecting on the parallels between challenges confronting the early Church Fathers and the challenges Catholics face today, Dr. D’Ambrosio observes: “The cynical, tired world today is remarkably like the worn-out Roman society of their day.”
Reading the daily newspaper, watching the nightly news or however you keep current with the affairs of the world in this digital age can easily become quite depressing. It is painful to witness our nation and the Western world appearing impotent as innocent people are brutalized and executed simply because they are Christian. What a tragedy that our own government is attempting to coerce Catholic ministries and Catholic business owners to be complicit in providing abortifacient drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations against our deeply held religious and moral convictions.
(In case you were wondering, the HHS mandates that the administration chose to make part of the application of the Affordable Care Act remain a major moral problem for Catholics and many other people of faith. We are in the precarious position of hoping for favorable decisions from the Supreme Court.)
Our economy rests on a very fragile foundation as our national debt, much of it to nations who are our political enemies, continues to rise. Sadly, there are few of our political leaders who have the courage, skill and leadership to attempt to change our economic trajectory. Those that do will have a difficult time winning reelection.
Many in our culture not only are incapable of distinguishing evil from good, but actually trumpet, as fundamental freedoms, the right to kill one’s own child and the right to redefine something as fundamental as the nature of marriage and family.
I found Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s comparison of our world today to the one in which Christianity was born as both challenging and comforting. If we know history, we are aware that the collapse of the Roman Empire was the result of the moral decay of the culture. The lowering of moral and ethical standards in the name of tolerance in American society appears to have our culture in a similar rapid decline.
Yet, the collapse of our nation and culture are not inevitable. Culture is the cumulative results of the personal life choices made by individual citizens and the civic choices that we make by those we elect to public office. The question before us is: Are we content to allow our culture to continue to decay as long as we have our material creature comforts?
It is quite easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in light of the cultural attacks against the sanctity of life, the ferocious efforts to redefine marriage and family, and the assault on religious liberty and conscience rights. What can we do against such powerful adversaries?
Personally, I am often overwhelmed by my responsibilities as archbishop to shepherd well the Catholic community of northeast Kansas. I imagine my anxieties are not much different from Christian parents as they struggle to provide well for the material and spiritual needs of their children.
I find comfort in recalling the challenges facing the early church. How even — or perhaps especially —during times of persecution, the church grew at a rapid pace. Even when Christians appeared to be on the losing side of the cultural battles, they were never without peace and joy, because they were never without Jesus and his Holy Spirit.
We have the promise of Jesus to be with his church until the end of time. True, Jesus did not promise that in every particular locale and culture the church would flourish until the end times. We know many places, for example, in North Africa, where Christianity had a vibrant presence but today Christians are less than one percent of the population.
We have a responsibility to fight hard and heroically to preserve rights of conscience and religious freedom. We must defend the respect for human life from its very beginning in the wombs of our mothers until our natural death. We must advocate fearlessly for the preservation of marriage and family life. We must strive mightily, cooperating with God’s grace, to live lives of moral integrity and to do what we can to renew our nation and culture.
Easter reminds us that we know already the end of the story. We know the victory of the Lamb is assured. The Risen Jesus and his Holy Spirit remain with us, promising peace and joy even in the midst of life’s tumultuous storms.
May Easter inspire us to treasure even more the gift of our Catholic faith, make us more determined to live with integrity what we believe, and renew within us zeal to bring others to know the love of Jesus and the joy of his Gospel!