The ideal Catholic is sagacious, commanding, courageous, debonair, persuasive and driven to influence the world. Unfortunately, (s)he’s an endangered species.
Instead, Catholics today tend to be insular, judgmental, ill-informed and well, lacking most of what is essential to being Catholic.
There’s a difference between the worldliness that the Gospel warns against and allowing ourselves to become the agents of change that the world desperately needs today. Agents of change led by the spirit of God, by truth, justice, love, kindness and mercy. If Catholics hide from the world in the fear of becoming caught up in it, then who will change it?
In other words, we shouldn’t isolate ourselves from culture in the hope to protect ourselves.
This was, in fact, what the disciples attempted to do after the death of Jesus. They all hid in the upper room, convinced that the enemies had in fact defeated Jesus by killing him and that by hiding, they might at least wait out the “end times”
But after the resurrection, Peter and Paul – now invested with the power of God – decide that the best way to “make disciples of all nations” was to go straight into the economic, political and cultural centers of the world: Rome for Peter and Athens for Paul.
It was a decision that would eventually take both their lives. And it is up this dangerous mountain path which we climb here – to bring the light of Christ into the very heart of culture.
In order to achieve this, Peter and Paul both had to go through a process of rediscovery and reinvention. Their newfound identity and mission dictated the type of person they would have to become in order to achieve success.
Inserting oneself in the heart of culture is the work of an outlier, a species of Catholic that has always been at the cusp of change and reinvention in the Church and the world. It is time we bring an endangered species back to life.
Search for an Identity
But what does it mean to be a Catholic in today’s culture? There seem to be only two options for the modern Catholic.
The first is to become an ultra conservative-traditionalist that becomes intransigent with everyone unlike oneself. The problem here is that oftentimes, Catholicism or Christianity is just a name they hide behind to validate the world they’ve built up around themselves.
Everything to them appears in black or white because they refuse to recognize the many shades of grey that life often presents to us. They don’t realize that just because some things are grey doesn’t infringe upon the essential absolute truths without which this world would become an absurdity.
The other option presented to today’s seeker seems to be to join the imperialist forces of Catholic Political Correctness. The mission of the CPC is to rid Catholicism of anything that might be offensive to someone. The CPC’s anti-creed assumes that if we rid ourselves of anything that distinguishes us from the rest of the world, then everyone might eventually be ok with adding Christian to the long list of adjectives that describe them.
No one, it seems, has been more affected by this than Millennials, who through some miracle have either retained their (albeit confused) Catholic identity or have wandered back after college.
On one hand, the higher education they received makes them distrust simplistic answers applied to the complex problems of society today.
On the other hand, they often have returned to the faith after having discovered in first person how empty worldly desires have left them. They return longing for something to fill an empty heart; for a purpose that goes beyond the here and now.
They long for a third option.
Climbing the Mountain with Great Thinkers
Strangely enough, there has only ever existed a third option in minds of the great spiritual and intellectual leaders of the Catholic Church.
They understood that God does not want us to merely survive as Catholics but to thrive. And because he wants us to thrive, he wants us to become the best version of ourselves.
When we partner with God and work towards that goal, we end up doing amazing, incredible, otherwise impossible things together with Him.
To live in such a way is to become so attractive that others can’t but help to feel drawn to God.
Achieving this is tantamount to climbing a tall mountain on a path that follows a steep ridge. One wrong step to either side could be perilous.
Fortunately, we are accompanied by sherpas who have already successfully reached the peak. These are the truly badass Outliers in the Church, spiritual and social changers like Benedict, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, and Catherine of Sienna. They somehow achieved the paradoxical union of two seemingly opposite extremes: the truths of the mind with the truths of the heart. They will show us the way.
No one explains this better than G.K. Chesterton in chapter six of Orthodoxy:
And sometimes this pure gentleness and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture; the paradox of all the prophets was fulfilled, and, in the soul of St. Louis, the lion lay down with the lamb…
It is constantly assured that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb.
The real problem is—Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.
It is only in this way that we will rescue an endangered species so that it can take back its place as “light for the world”.