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I have discovered that the remedy for worrying about the fate of our culture is roasting marshmallows with a six year old.
Reading some blogs and news outlets last week, I could not help hearing Cicero’s famous lament, O Tempora, O Mores! (Literally: Oh, the times, oh, the customs!) Cicero exclaimed this during a famous speech in which he denounced a plot to take over Rome by the violent hand of Lucius Sergius Catilina and his (no doubt despicable) minions.
There are many these days who feel that the American government has been taken over by career politicians or ideologues with whom we celebrated Independence Day not as a community but in angry, awkward juxtaposition because we don’t share the same definitions of independence or freedom. Pundits and pols urge a nation divided to find common ground, as if a debate about whether to turn left or right makes any sense at all when there are radically different views of where we should be headed.
For Catholics, it seems that the culture is increasingly hostile. Some would rather withdraw and form bunker communities. Others seem to think the Church is the problem and twist Christ’s words as if to say “Believe in your lives and reform the Good News.”
Society’s pace of change is vertiginous and our anxiety is palpable.
And yet the Church celebrates the Year of Faith. The Holy Father, tag teaming with Pope Emeritus Benedict, has written us all an encyclical letter about “The Light of Faith.” He met Saturday evening and celebrated Mass Sunday morning for seminarians and young members of religious congregations. He acknowledged the challenges but didn’t seem very worried.
Come to think of it, my six year old son, toasting his marshmallows for s’mores last night, didn’t seem worried either. He was living the joy of sweet consolation. And the fascination with all things scorched and sugary.
The Holy Father underlined three points of Sunday’s Gospel : the joy of consolation, the cross, and prayer. They are all essential to the Church’s mission, he told the seminarians and young novices.
The Cross of Christ is our calling card, our distinctive mark. If we expected to be high-fiving each other all the time over our victories in this world, we signed up for the wrong sport. When we suffer with our culture, because of it and for it, we are doing what Christ did for us. “And if we remain within this mystery, we are sheltered both from a worldly and triumphalistic view of mission and from the discouragement that can result from trials and failures. Pastoral fruitfulness, the fruitfulness of the Gospel proclamation is measured neither by success nor by failure according to the criteria of human evaluation, but by becoming conformed to the logic of the Cross of Jesus, which is the logic of stepping outside oneself and spending oneself, the logic of love.” Pope Francis knows the challenges, but He also knows the Lord of history.
We can only avoid the worldly mentality and the self-isolation of despair through prayer. “Listen well: ‘evangelization is done on one’s knees’. Without a constant relationship with God, the mission becomes a job.” Our world needs more jobs, yes, but what we need most are vocations. Not only to the priesthood, but to the living out of one’s faith in fulfilling service to others in all walks of life.
And part of that service is sharing joy.
It is astounding to contemplate the joy on kids’ faces when they toast a marshmallow. There is no distraction. All is fanciful enrapture in mystery, anticipation and bliss, even within the community of competitive “mine’s more perfect than yours.” Even the occasional minor burn hurts less.
Perhaps my joy as a father watching his children relish that family moment is similar to the Holy Father’s deep contentment seeing these young people give their lives to Christ with such enthusiasm. He wants them, and all of us, to share that joy, even in the midst of the cross.
“Do not be afraid of the consolations of the Lord. Isaiah’s invitation must resound in our hearts: ‘Comfort, comfort my people’ (40:1) and this must lead to mission. We must find the Lord who consoles us and go to console the people of God. This is the mission. People today certainly need words, but most of all they need us to bear witness to the mercy and tenderness of the Lord, which warms the heart, rekindles hope, and attracts people towards the good. What a joy it is to bring God’s consolation to others!”
Cicero’s lament will be with us all long as sinners walk the earth. Let it not be a cause of discouragement, but action. But let this action not be a frenetic activism that betrays the belief that it all depends on us. It must begin in prayer, in contact with God, and then, even amidst trials and the cross, our experience of God’s mercy bears fruit in a joy that is what our world really longs for, since it knows only ephemeral pleasures that can never satisfy a being not made for this world.
We will surely suffer reaching out to save this world, as Jesus did, but, as my six year old reminded me, “Even the ones that got burned taste really good!” O Tempora, O S’mores!