Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

The church in history; the church today

Sunday, August 28, 2011

World Youth Day, a festival for young Catholics from around the world, took place this year in Madrid, Spain, from Aug. 16-21. The World Youth Day celebration is held every two or three years in a different city. The first World Youth Day I participated in was held in Denver in 1993. A few years before that event, I had become bishop of Yakima, Wash. When I saw the great spiritual impact the five days of catechesis, prayer and celebration with the pope had on the young people who attended from Washington State, I was much encouraged. When the young people returned home and reformed youth ministry in that small diocese, I was grateful to God and to them. I have gone to almost every World Youth Day celebration since Denver.

Hardworking youth ministers and volunteers in many parishes and schools of the archdiocese carefully did the preparation for Chicago’s participation in World Youth Day 2011 (See story on Page 7). The archdiocesan celebrations here and in Madrid were organized by the youth ministry section of our Office for Catechesis and Youth Ministry. We were a small part of the 1.5 million young people in Madrid, but the spiritual effects here will bear fruit in this Year of Teens and Young Adults, according to the Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan. I was proud of our young people in Madrid, many of whom took part in catechetical sessions I was assigned to give. The weather was hot and the vigil ceremony on the last night before the pope’s closing Mass was rained on, but the Archdiocese of Madrid organized the many events efficiently and their volunteers demonstrated an enthusiasm that was contagious.

On my way to Madrid for the World Youth Day events, I stopped for a day in Fatima, Portugal. It was my first visit to the place where the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Our Lady of the Rosary, appeared to three shepherd children in 1917. It was a private pilgrimage, an occasion for personal prayer and for deeper study of the apparitions. The third edition of the Roman Missal, which we will begin using this coming November, includes for the Universal Church the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. It will be celebrated every year on May 13, the anniversary of the first apparition.

The apparitions of Our Lady in Lourdes, France, which took place about 70 years before the apparitions in Fatima, brought the Blessed Virgin Mary into the lives of many people who are sick. The apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima, Portugal, brought Mary into events marking the history of the world throughout the 20th century. In both apparitions, the Blessed Mother told the visionaries to pray the rosary to bring peace to the world and also to do penance for sinners who turn away from God’s loving mercy. Mary’s message is that of the Gospel of her Son: repent, do penance for your own sins and the sins of the world and come to understand how God is guiding the world and is present to all of us in every event, from personal sickness to wars and social movements that shape world history.

At Fatima, Mary spoke about the errors of communism, which had recently come to power in the Russian Revolution, and the persecution that the communist movement would inflict upon the church. She assured the children that the Great World War was ending but warned that a far greater war would come unless sinners repented. As I visited remnants of the fallen Berlin Wall that, at the Fatima shrine, bear mute witness to how Mary’s words spoke to the central events of the 20th century, I wondered what she would say today.

Mary’s message would be the same, but the enemies of God and the church would not be confined to followers of communism. The purpose of communism and of contemporary secularism is the same: to create a society where God cannot appear in public, to erase any evidence of religious belief from public life and to prevent the church from acting in history, confining the church’s mission to private worship, carrier of a belief system that can have no influence on society except on secularist terms. In this sense, secularists in this country and elsewhere are successors of the communists of the last century. Recently, they have driven the church out of adoption and child-care services in Illinois. In other states and at the federal level, legal constraints have been crafted to secularize the Catholic health care system and much of the outreach of Catholic Charities. But these external constraints are only witness to something far more chilling to those who cherish freedom: seeing to it that consciences informed by the Catholic faith are as unprotected in law as are the lives of unborn children. The historical irony now is that many of those who have passed laws that will be used to punish the church as a discriminatory organization would still identify themselves as Catholics. The church is no more discriminatory than is God, whose moral law the church is commissioned to preach and to carry out.

In Madrid, despite a few disgruntled protesters, young Catholics shaped the public life of a great city for five days. In between the public Masses and talks, the youth led the Way of the Cross. In a catechetical session on witnessing to Christ in the world, I had told the young people that, if they were to be missionaries of Christ in our society, they should be prepared to carry the cross. Catholics are persecuted violently in many places in Africa and Asia; they are persecuted legally, in ways sometimes obvious and sometimes not, in Europe and Canada and the United States. The persecution is always for a “good” reason, whether equal “justice,” as was the excuse under communism, or equal “rights,” as is the case here. In any case, young people who are serious about their life in Christ should realize that they will be the object of social disapproval or contempt or even legal punishment as our society continues to secularize itself in ever more aggressive ways.

Fatima and the Gospel itself remind us that God is not indefinitely mocked in any historical movement or moment. We should work and pray so that, a century from now, Catholics visiting Fatima will not stop before a memorial to another social experiment that, like communism, proved itself morally and financially bankrupt: American secularism.

The youth from around the world who gathered in Madrid reflected and prayed and sang about three themes: firm in the faith; established in Jesus Christ; witnesses to Christ in the world. The world is better for World Youth Day. The young people were open and joyful. They knew the One in whom they place their hope, despite the dangers and difficulties of the times. If they stay resolute, with the help of God’s grace, the human race need not be trapped in the hypocrisy and despair marking our historical moment. World Youth Day 2011 was a good week, and it bore the promise of better times to come.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago