The World is Thirsting for the Transcendent: We Need God!
Duc in altum! These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’ (Heb 13:8).
~Pope St. John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte
Duc in altum! “Put out into the deep!”
These are the words of Christ to Simon Peter, commanding him to lower his nets into the sea. Peter did as the Lord told him, but not before expressing doubts, for he and his companions had been fishing all that night, without success. But, when Peter and his companions hauled up their nets, the nets began to break, so great was the catch of fish. Astonished at the miracle, St. Peter cast himself at the feet of the Lord: “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
These are also the words that Pope St. John Paul II chose to begin and end his apostolic letter Novo Millenio Ineunte, in which he celebrated the dawn of the third millennium by urging Christians to renew their commitment to the Gospel and Christ’s evangelical mandate: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
Though the pope wrote this letter to greet a new millennium, its message is perennial. Indeed, the whole of the pope’s letter is intended to emphasize that no matter the year or the century or the millennium, no matter the time or the season, every Christian is called to commit him or herself to the self-same mission: to live in Christ (“It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” – Gal. 2:20), and to preach Christ to all the world.
Many of you reading this column are formulating your New Year’s resolutions. But the pope’s letter reminds us that there is only one New Year’s resolution that truly matters: to become saints.
The Perennial Christian Program
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
~St. Augustine’s Confessions
In June of 1979, Pope St. John Paul II visited Poland. During one speech in Warsaw, the Holy Father spoke of the urgent need for spiritual and cultural renewal. Within the vast throng of some one-million people gathered there, a great cry spontaneously rose up: “We want God! We want God!”
In a Poland oppressed by the atheistic and totalitarian communists, the worship of God had been made difficult by the oppressive crackdown on the Catholic Church, and the pervasive propaganda in the schools and media. But the Polish people knew that the materialistic utopianism of the communists could not give them that for which they yearned.
The same desire for God is just as operative (if not more so!) in our own increasingly materialistic and atheistic culture, so weighed down by the burden of sin: That neighbor crushed by a recent painful divorce is crying out, “I want God!” That friend at school who has threatened to commit suicide is crying it, “I want God!” The nephew who has fallen into a life of drug use and sexual immorality is crying out: “I want God!” The niece whose life fell apart after she aborted her child is crying out: “I want God!” And if we would only cease our frenetic activity long enough to listen, we would find that our own hearts, too, are crying out: “I want God!”
We have all encountered misguided pastors who are obsessed with “change,” with devising or implementing clever new programs to help the Church “get with the times” and to “speak to the current generation.” Unsurprisingly these programs rarely work, for the world is not thirsting for the trendy and up-to-date. Indeed, our world is drowning in the trendy and up-to-date, which can be found in super-abundance at the nearest mall or movie theater.
The world is thirsting for the transcendent; and the transcendent is not a thing that changes with the times or that needs to be updated for one generation over the next. The desire – and the remedy – will be the same in 2019 as it was in 2018, as 1018 for that matter.
“It is not therefore a matter of inventing a ‘new programme,’” said Pope St. John Paul II in Novo Millenio Ineunte.
The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a programme which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication. This program for all times is our program for the Third Millennium.
‘What Must We Do?’: A Christian’s New Year’s Resolution
In this time of bewilderingly rapid and misguided social change, we may feel a sense of helplessness, anxiety and even fear: How do we respond when our efforts seem so small in the face of the Culture of Death? What is our path to achieving the radical transformation of culture and people? At a time when the media, politics, and popular culture are so virulently hostile to religious belief, and Christianity in particular, how are we possibly to catch the great catch that our world and Church so desperately need?
As Pope St. John Paul II emphasized and re-emphasized, the answer is always and everywhere the same: Christ.
Conscious of the Risen Lord’s presence among us, we ask ourselves today the same question put to Peter in Jerusalem immediately after his Pentecost speech: “What must we do?” (Acts 2:37). We put the question with trusting optimism, but without underestimating the problems we face. We are certainly not seduced by the naive expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you! It is not therefore a matter of inventing a “new program”. The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. — Novo Millennio Ineunte, ¶29
However, our hearts are fatally fickle and our resolutions in continual need of renewal. In this New Year, let us resolve to pay heed to the universal cry for God, beginning with the cry of our own hearts. Let us resolve to reflect the life Jesus calls us to live, to open our hearts to God’s transforming activity, to submit our lives to His will, to follow the Gospel, to put on Christ (Rom. 13:14).
In this New Year let us resolve to become saints!
To the extent that Christians are living as Christians, they are also heralds of the Gospel – for they will continuously preach Christ in their every word and deed: in their peaceful demeanor, in their charitable speech even about those who hate them, in their generosity to the poor and the downtrodden, in their rejection of shallow consumerism and the depraved dominant morality, etc. This will in turn become the hinge upon which a Culture of Life will be constructed – defending life from conception to its natural end and upholding the dignity and the inalienable rights of every man, woman and child.
We must remember the miracle of the great catch of fish. Before and after Christ arrived, Peter and his companions were doing the exact same thing: working hard to catch fish using the best methods and equipment at their disposal. Their efforts did not change; only the results changed. Without Christ, there was no catch; with Christ, the catch surpassed their wildest hopes.
We will only succeed in building a Culture of Life and Civilization of Love when we live authentic, transparent lives in Christ: holiness is the universal call which will infuse our ability to transform cultures and peoples. It is not enough that truth and grace are offered through the proclamation of the Gospel of Life. It needs to be accepted and experienced in every practical situation, in the way Christians lead their lives.
I will conclude with one more quotation, filled with hope, from Pope St. John Paul II’s letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, adapted for the beginning of a new year:
A new [year] is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ. The Son of God, who became incarnate two thousand years ago out of love for humanity, is at work even today: we need discerning eyes to see this and, above all, a generous heart to become the instruments of his work. … Now, the Christ whom we have contemplated and loved bids us to set out once more on our journey: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). The missionary mandate accompanies us into the [new year] and urges us to share the enthusiasm of the very first Christians: we can count on the power of the same Spirit who was poured out at Pentecost and who impels us still today to start out anew, sustained by the hope “which does not disappoint” (Rom 5:5).