Pope John Paul II earlier this month visited Switzerland. Though frail and weak in body, his spirit is indomitable and his message youthful and strong. He reminded the thousands that came to pray with him that “for all the baptized it is essential to pass from a faith of custom to a mature faith, which is expressed in clear, convinced, and valiant personal options”.
In many parts of the world, the custom that had once supported the faith has been eroded by an aggressive secularism which pretends that the life of society can be organized without reference to God. Even here in the United States, despite the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, our popular culture is increasingly hostile to religious faith. Public institutions whether in government or the media hardly ever take into account the role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans except to criticize it.
The defection of thousands of Hispanics to Protestant sects and the fact that many of our youth abandoned religious practice once they move out of their parents’ home are both indicative that the force of custom is no longer an effective means of keeping people loyal to the Church and her teachings. In the past, the force of custom in a culture that was friendly to faith gave rise to a sense of complacency among pastors and faithful. That complacency has led us to tolerate more than we should have the inadequate and even defective religious formation of our young people. Today after some 30 years of “experiential” catechesis most of our young people are religious illiterates. Last November, we bishops heard the report that not one of the current texts used for teaching religion in our Catholic High Schools was in conformity with the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. This leaves our future generations unprepared to swim against the tide of a radical secularism that threatens to wash away traditional morality based on right and wrong and to replace it with one based on desires. The fragility of the family daily assaulted by these new secular ways is increasing apparent as divorce rates soar even as same sex couples attempt unions parodying marriage.
Like a lobster’s exoskeleton that protected it from predators and disease, a “faith of custom” at one time protected the believer and even “formed” him in faith. Secularistic culture has stripped away the outer shell of custom that one time supported religious practice. Only a mature faith –freed of false fears, confident and unashamed – can witness convincingly to the truth of the Gospel in today’s world. We need to recommit ourselves so that all our formation programs, especially those involving our young people, are aimed towards challenging us to a mature faith “expressed in clear, convinced, valiant personal options.” In other words, the Holy Father is telling us that, since the exoskeleton of religion friendly custom has collapsed, in order to proclaim the good news into the Third Millennium, we need to be Christians with “backbones”.