This summer, I re-read a wonderful book by Julian Barnes called
The Sense of an Ending. It is the story of a man named
Tony Webster, a middle-aged fellow who believes that he has
everything worked out, everything settled.
His solitary life is lived by following strict schedules and
routine ways of going about things. He likes it. He is boring. He
thinks he has everything under control.
Except of course he doesn't. A few visitors from his past remind
him that life is full of challenges and that, most of the time, the
challenges, and indeed life itself, are beyond our control.
Most of us love control. We like living with the idea and the
ideal that we can make things happen, that we can keep things from
happening and mostly that we can predict precisely how things are
going to come out. In our lives, we live from moment to moment
filled with the supreme confidence that we can do it by
In fact, it is a cultural imperative. We even think that we can
control God. We can take him as we want him, and put him away when
it suits our schedules and our needs. That means, of course, that
most of us flee conflict. In our lives, we avoid anything that
makes us uncomfortable, that creates situations of
argumentativeness, that makes us, well, all too human.
There is a problem, however, and that is God cannot be
controlled. In fact, our attempts to put God in a bottle or box, to
place God precisely in the paradigm of my issues and my situation,
are often what cause the most trouble in our lives.
We are somewhat caught off guard by what we hear in the Gospel:
Take up your cross. Now, how can anyone want to do that? How can
anyone claim to DESIRE to be crucified? Or at least this is the
usual misinterpretation of the Gospel. But, in point of fact, what
we are asked to do here is not take up the cross of Jesus, the
instrument of torture and death. We are asked, rather, to take up
the cross, the CHI, the X, of the Greek alphabet.
Now you are wondering where all of this is going. That is
precisely the point. Who isn't wondering where things are going? If
we are really paying attention to life and not merely trying, like
Tony Webster, to keep things under control, if we are really
living, then we have to continually stand in that rather
uncomfortable place, the crossroads.
The crossroads is that place where we are faced with decisions,
moment-by-moment decisions that can take our life in this direction
or in that. In Julian Barnes' book, he states that there are two
kinds of people, those who have "clear edges" and those who imply
mystery. Authentic living resides in the later.
Conflict, perpetually seeing the options that God affords each
of us is the only authentic way of living. All of us live with
conflict, even when we try to hide its crenelated edges. We try
hard to get rid of conflict and thus create a life that is not
real, a life hidden behind the barriers of falsehood, such as
alcohol, drugs, sex, the pursuit of money, just name it. After all,
you read about it every day in the news.
The cross is inevitable; choice, options, openness, opportunity.
Every day we are faced with these, sometimes of our making, often
not. Jesus says: Embrace the cross. Another way of saying this is:
really live. What doors will be open to us if we just lose control,
if we give control to God? What possibilities are awakened when we
realize that we are living in a world in which there is neither Jew
nor Greek, male or female?
What if Saint Paul's ideal was a reality and things were not
quite as predictable as we something think or wish they were? What
if little miracles could happen?
All of the little mechanisms we have in place to keep things
orderly are broken open in the profound message of the Gospel. So
it is with each one of us. In the novel, The Sense of an
Ending, the protagonist Tony Webster learned more about life
when he realized that he knew so little. John Henry Newman remarked
famously, the more we know, the more we know we do not. Perhaps in
our age, that is the new evangelization.
Today we gather in this place of formation to begin a new
formation year. In my rector's conferences this semester, I would
like to address the question of the new evangelization. However,
before we can consider ourselves as agents of the new
evangelization, we must ask: What are the challenges of our world?
Perhaps we must ask even more: What are the challenges in us?
Authentic evangelization cannot happen until the world is ready
to receive the Good News. It also cannot happen if its proclaimers
are unable to be channels of the Good News. These challenges are
not merely acts of the will. Our true questions in advance of a new
evangelization are quite profound: How can the seminary provide the
impetus for a new world vision? Or perhaps even more profound: What
precisely is the new evangelization?
To begin this conversation, I want to focus on two contemporary
figures in Catholic thought. The first is Christopher Dawson. When
I was planning my Eucharist lectures for this year, I had an
epiphany (a fairly rare occurrence, I assure you). Why is the
question of the Eucharist so difficult to grasp in the Church
today? Why is it the case that a large section of the Catholic
population neither understands nor accepts the received Catholic
ideal of Eucharistic presence?
Dawson wrote two books that address the cultural crisis of
contemporary faith. The first is called The Formation of
Christendom. In this book, he outlines the way in which the
Church transformed the prevailing culture in the late antique
period and beyond, seeing in the medieval synthesis the important
means by which the Church and culture found its authentic
The book is interesting, but even more fascinating is its
sequel, The Dividing of Christendom, in which he relates
the means by which this unique synthesis of faith and culture were
dismantled in the misspoken renaissance, the reformations and the
so-called enlightenment of culture in the late 17th and early 18th
These are theories that ignite the maelstrom of cultural
discontent that has come full force into our contemporary ideology.
These are theories such as individualism, the fluidity of the
social order, the unexamined ideals of democracy, the sense of
contemporary "freedoms" that often act in precisely the opposite
In The Formation of Christendom, Dawson states:
"Catholicism does not rest on the consensus of human wisdom - even
on its highest and most spiritual plane - but on a divine
revelation which is also an act of creation." In other words, the
culture paradigm of Catholicism is not a choice among equally
viable choices; it is the human character in its fullness, which in
the economy of the Incarnation is also the Divine Character.
Now we can turn to the second contemporary figure, J.R.R.
Tolkien. To begin my remarks, I would like to say a few
biographical words about Tolkien. John Ronald Ruel Tolkien was by
education and profession a philologist, primarily focusing on
Icelandic languages. Perhaps we do not see this as a very promising
beginning for a man destined to re-establish the primary mythic
basis of Christianity in the 20th century.
Tolkien was born in South Africa to English parents in 1892, the
closing years of the 19th century. At an early age, he
moved with his mother and brother to England, leaving his father in
Africa. He would never see his father again, as he died a short
time later. Raised by his mother, the entire family converted to
the Catholic faith when Tolkien was in his teenage years.
His mother also died young and Tolkien and his brother came
under the protection of the Oratorian Fathers of Birmingham, still
in the early 20th century very much under the influence
of Newman's memory. After his education at Oxford, he married and
later fathered children, one of whom became a priest.
Tolkien's life is interesting enough and his career is fairly
straightforward for Oxford scholars of this time. However, during
his long teaching sojourn in Oxford, Tolkien met some very
important friends, among them, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, who
formed a social and intellectual group known as the Inklings. It
was in the context of the Inklings that Lewis invented his
allegorical world of Narnia and Tolkien created the mythos of
Tolkien's best known works, The Hobbit, published in
1937, and The Lord of the Rings, which finally appeared in
1955, are just the most widely read aspects of a larger project.
Tolkien's novels are the result of a vision that incorporated
thousands of pages of writing on the history of Middle Earth, the
creation of entire languages, mythic origin stories and many other
writings that have never been published.
What Tolkien intends with the saga of Middle Earth is nothing
short of the demonstration of what true myth is, which is nothing
short of this: In our creative capacity, we are participating with
the Divine vision. Catholicity, in Tolkien's writings, is less
about its specific content and more about its method.
His Catholicism speaks to the world not as another world-view or
an alternative vision, but as Truth, not only a truth but the
Truth, the Truth for which all are striving, at least implicitly,
and the Truth that is our primordial center and destiny.
Here Tolkien differs distinctively with his long-time colleague
and friend, C. S. Lewis. For Lewis, who advocated the extensive use
of allegory as a mode of Christian storytelling, the symbolic world
stood in the midst of another world, the world of distinct
secularity. In The Chronicles of Narnia, the world of
Narnia represents a type of existence that existed apart from the
world, a world for the few and the select, or elect.
Tolkien's Catholic vision could not abide such a distinction.
Tolkien dislikes allegory because he does not really believe there
is another, non-allegorical world. The entire world is encompassed
in the far-reaching myth of Christianity. It is a daring vision
that promotes not only the universality of the Church, but its
permanent center in human existence, an existence overshadowed by
the Holy Eucharist.
I believe what Tolkien is promoting, and indeed what I am
recommending, is the centrality of the Euchological in contemporary
discourse. Do we see the world as decidedly centered in the reality
of the Holy Eucharist? Is the Blessed Sacrament the working center
of our lives? To me, this is the new evangelization. We must live
by this principle, this ideal, if we are to make any sense at all
of what we do in the context of our lives as followers of Christ
We must learn, we must speak the cadences of evangelical speech,
a form of speech geared toward building up the human enterprise
rather than tearing it down through the constant barrage of
critical, indeed hateful, engagement. Our language must perpetually
be the language of praise and blessing, even when we understand
that praise and blessing as authentic challenge for us to live
Evangelical speech is not grounded in an unfocused and
unrealistic sense of good feeling. Evangelical speech is grounded
in the Truth, which we proclaim in Jesus Christ. We speak Good News
to one another when we challenge one another to higher living, to
better living. We speak Good News to one another when we challenge
one another to be saints, realizing full well that preaching with
our lives is the most effective evangelical speech there is.
Praise and blessing are not highlights of life. They are a means
of life, a way of life, a true life. Opposed to evangelical speech
is evangelical terrorism, murmuring, complaining, criticizing,
backbiting, all disguised as the promotion of a value which,
brothers and sisters, is not at all worth pursuing.
I will state again what I have said many times. When charity
fails, when good will breaks down, there is no longer any
evangelical goal worth pursuing. In our lives in the world (not
just in this place but in the world), the responsibilities of an
Evangelical People take hold of us.
What are they? First, authentic listening. Here we must
learn that the first skill of a priest is to learn to listen,
listen to what people are saying in confession, in the hospital
room, in the prison cell, and in the daily engagements of life.
We must learn to authentically listen to the needs of others,
even when we do not fully understand those needs, even when those
needs are not our needs. Authentic listening means learning to keep
silence while the story of the other is poured out. It means
authentically appreciating the story of the other, even when that
story is not our story.
Second, we must learn to speak, speak sparingly but
meaningfully. Trivial, useless speech that intends to cause
laughter or impress others with its very triviality is not
Christian speech. That is not to say that there is no place for
humor in our discourse (in spite of what the Holy Rule says).
There is room for humor, and even a bit of silliness, but
ultimately we must ask ourselves: Does it build up or does it tear
down? Is our speech meaningful? One criticism I often hear about
our common life is that our table conversations tend to be fairly
focused on the trivial.
While I think a little small talk is not a bad thing, I tend to
agree with this criticism. The question of table conversation, or
casual conversation, or small group discussion, or even theological
reflection, may not be bad will, but a lack of skill, an inability
to engage the other in somewhat meaningful discourse in which there
is no technological interface. We must learn to speak meaningfully
to one another. Maybe that starts at the table tonight.
Third, we must act. How willing are we to act as evangelical
people? Our lives here and our lives in the future as priests are
lives poured out. They are not lives that look primarily to
self-preservation. The opposite is true. Martyrdom is our goal, a
martyrdom frequently realized in the mundane events of daily life,
in the momentary yet momentous opportunities that come every day in
the priesthood and often go unnoticed, surprisingly even by
Tuning into the smaller things of life and maximizing the minute
encounter truly separates the men from the boys, so to speak. Life
must be filled with action, but it must be action laced with
subtlety. Subtlety is a lost art. Can we revive it?
Finally, this evangelical life is lived by a full awareness of
what might be termed organizational literacy. This means knowing
where we are, knowing the people around us, and knowing and
understanding the mission.
Brothers and sisters, we are called to a ministry, an important
ministry that is also a supernatural call. That ministry is not in
some future place, at some distant time. That ministry is here. It
is now. We are called in our evangelical call to be Christ for one
another, and if we can learn to be Christ for one another, we can
certainly learn the skills, the ways and means of realizing Christ
for a world that so desperately needs to be totally open to
Tolkien was a great writer, I believe, because he was completely
imbued with an authentic Catholic identity and ethos. What does an
authentic Catholic identity and ethos offer us? I believe it offers
us the opportunity, if we are truly attuned to our own Catholicity,
it offers us the opportunity for four things.
The first is cultural reappraisal. In our world today, we are
asked to accept without question the cultural cards we are dealt.
Brothers and sisters, they are marked cards. Tolkien demonstrates
in his writings that we live in a mixed world. One way he
accomplishes this is through his characters. All of Tolkien's
characters are somewhat flawed; they are all "on the way" to
Here Tolkien captures perfectly the dilemma in which we find
ourselves. We are folks on the way to something better and
something greater, our destinies in God, but we often do not
realize it. Our lack of intention, our lack of realization, does
not, however, change who we are. Elves are selfish, human beings
are weak, dwarves are greedy, and halflings are, well, half.
But for Tolkien, if all are half, we are all half full rather
than half empty. All are in the process of becoming perfect by
becoming authentic to themselves. That is a profound Christian
message. While Middle Earth is a decidedly mixed lot, Tolkien is
also convinced that those who are pure of heart are able to see its
goodness and to understand and ultimately reject its evil.
Good is not a matter of learning only. It is also something that
is innate in the human person. We naturally recognize goodness. We
abhor evil instinctively. We are confused when our natural
predilections are contradicted by the social message telling us
that something is good when we know it to be evil in the depths of
The second evangelical tool we are offered is cultural
regeneration. If we are down, we are not out. Just as we have it
within us to recognize the Truth, so we have it within us to do the
good. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien demonstrates the
worth of the human spirit in the courage of the hobbits.
What is true and good is not often easy, or at least it may not
appear to be. But doing the good is ultimately easier than doing
wrong, because to do wrong is contrary to our spirit; it is alien.
As we learn to do the good (and think and engage the Good), then it
becomes easier; it becomes not second nature because it is our
Third, our goal as Catholics is cultural reinvigoration - we do
not take the culture for granted. Everything is changed by our
authentic presence in the world. In The Lord of the Rings,
the hobbits return to Hobbiton after their adventure. They are not
the same. Having engaged the world, having confronted evil, having
learned the good, they are different. They cannot return to their
homes, their familiar surroundings, with the same spirit.
It is interesting that I often hear seminarians expressing this
after a year or so in the seminary. They are not the same men that
left home. They do not engage their "hobbit holes" with the same
spirit they had before. An authentic search for holiness in the
depths of myself often means, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, you
can't go home again, at least not the same.
As we progress in Christian life, home is no longer where I grew
up. It is not even my rectory, my monastery, my assignments. Home
is heaven. We know that as we move through life and we become
increasingly homesick as we progress. At the end of The Lord of
the Rings, Frodo realizes that he cannot live in Hobbiton
anymore. He must go to the Grey Havens. He must set sail toward
that distant shore, toward eternity.
Finally, there is cultural re-evangelization. Having gone "there
and back again" we know, we come to know, that evangelization, even
the new evangelization, must begin in my own heart, by my own
hearth, in my own home. What is new about the new evangelization is
not the need or means, but the understanding of whom. It is us.
In light of these cultural challenges, we have to ask ourselves,
what is the condition of our seminaries, of these privileged places
where we hope to instill in each one the authentic spirit of the
Church? When we look around at our new men here today, all of us
are aware that not all of them will rise to the priestly state.
Perhaps some of them are wondering that, too.
Ultimately, perhaps strangely, that is not our goal. Our goal is
to make each one here a better person for having been here. Our
goal is to sharpen the Christian identity of each one, no matter
where he or she may go away from this place. Our goal is to assure
that you are prepared to receive the call that will come, God
willing, one day from your bishop or religious superior.
We must prepare for that call. This is indeed a house of
discernment, but that discernment (on your part) is only
authentically realized when you give yourself fully to being formed
for priesthood, not in standing back and trying to do that work
yourself. God will call you in time or He will make apparent to you
that you are called to something else.
All of us are called to live our lives in full complement to the
Gospel of Christ. There is no other vocation. We live those lives
in different states, but there is no other definitive call. We are
defined by Christ. Our resting and our rising are defined by
Christ. The work we do in this place of prayer is defined by
Christ. Our toil in the classroom and the library is defined by
Christ. Our recreation, our eating, our friendships and
relationships with family; all is defined by Christ. Everything we
do is manifested in that essential relationship and our sole reason
for being on this earth is to give him glory.
That is the new evangelization. When we realize that, we have
evangelized ourselves. And when we are fully alive in the Gospel,
we will speak, we will act, and we will be in and for Christ and
What is next in the new evangelization? This summer I was
pursuing an article on CNN about the faith of the millennial
generation. The evangelical author had something interesting to
say. Let me quote her at length:
"Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and
evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing
twenty-somethings back to church is simply tomake a few style
updates - edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in
thefellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web
site that includes online giving.
But here's the thing: Having been advertised to our whole
lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we're
not easily impressed with consumerism or performances. In fact, I
would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing
driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.
Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly
drawn to high church traditions -Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy,
the Episcopal Church, etc. - precisely because the ancient forms of
liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being "cool,"and
we find that refreshingly authentic. What millennials really want
from the churchis not a change in style but a change in
Perhaps that is at least the start of the new
In my conferences this semester, I want to spend some more time
reflecting on the new evangelization. In doing so, I want to focus
on the writings of some other great Catholic authors. In my next
conference, I will address the question: How do we accurately
diagnose the contemporary situation? I will use the writings of
Flannery O'Connor to look at this important question.
In the third conference, I will address the existential question
that stands at the center of our contemporary dilemma. What should
we be (become)? In this context, I will consider the writings of
the priest-novelist Robert Hugh Benson.
Finally, I will ask the important practical question: How do we
get there? Gerard Manley Hopkins, that least pragmatic of
priest-poets, will hopefully assist in answering this question.
A few months ago, I came across a quote from a contemporary of
Tolkien, a great philosopher who said in speaking to his dearest
friend: Promise me you'll always remember you're braver that you
believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.
In our troubled world, I believe that this may well be the new
evangelization. That may well be the true sense of an ending, or a