With the weakening of cultural Catholicism over the last 40 years, American Catholics are being asked to play new and “unexpected roles” as they embrace the new evangelization called for so boldly by Pope John Paul II at the end of the second millennium, author George Weigel told the annual Catholic Foundation Dinner of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Nov. 19.
Weigel, whose bestselling biography of Blessed John Paul, “Witness to Hope,” was released in 1999, said U.S. Catholics are fighting battles over religious freedom today that are hard to imagine, considering the country was founded on the principle of welcoming “those of many faiths.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, large Catholic families, with the help of a multitude of priests and religious, helped “transmit the faith” in an American culture that was largely supportive, Weigel said.
“The cultural air we breathed helped our parents, priests, sisters and brothers transmit the faith to us,” Weigel said. “Every one of us with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren knows that is no longer the case. No Catholic of whatever age, no matter how well catechized, can walk through a mall in any part of America today and not have their Catholic sensibility, their biblical understanding of the human person, assaulted visually, aurally and just about every way imaginable.”
Weigel said because “the cultural air around us has turned toxic – and, in some cases, poisonous,” Catholics have been “compelled to fight” battles for the right to life from conception to natural death and for religious freedom.
Catholic culture has changed
No longer will Catholics be able to say they are Catholic because “my great-grandmother came from County Cork or from Palermo or from Guadalajara,” he said.
“That kind of ethnically transmitted Catholicism is over, throughout the Western world,” Weigel said. “The only Catholicism of the future is the Catholicism of radical conviction and radical truth – and at the center of that truth is friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Weigel said he often advises friends who are visiting Rome for the first time to soak in the majesty of St. Peter’s Square, with Michelangelo’s dome and Bernini’s colonnade and “the obelisk, which perhaps was the last thing on earth that St. Peter saw.”
“How did a day laborer – a fisherman, probably illiterate, from east of nowhere, as the world then understood ‘somewhere’ – how did he come here and get himself the world’s greatest tombstone?” Weigel asked. “It happened because that man … became the friend of Jesus of Nazareth and then came to know him as the Risen Lord. He was so utterly transformed by that friendship, by that discipleship, that he and others who shared that experience could go and change the course of human history, inspired by the Holy Spirit, in a radical way.”
One reason Blessed John Paul at age 80, frail and suffering the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease, traveled to the Holy Land in the Jubilee Year of 2000 was metaphorically to “carry all of us with him … so we could touch and taste and hear and smell and see again the truths of God’s work in history.”
Not a story, but the truth
“John Paul II went to the Holy Land to remind the church and the world that what the Catholic Church proposes is not a nice story or certainly not a myth or that it is not one spirituality in a supermarket of spiritualities,” Weigel said. “The Catholic Church proposes what it believes to be the truth of the Word and the truth of history. And that truth is anchored in a real place, where you can go today, and you can smell the smells and rub your feet in the dirt. Your mind’s eye can see again real people whose lives were transformed because they had met the rabbi, Jesus from Nazareth, and became his friends. Out of that friendship with him, they changed the world.”
Weigel said while the church must be countercultural in lifting up certain truths – that “human beings are to be measured by their dignity and not their utility – Catholics “above all have to model a more humane way of life.”
“We will attract people to the church, we will attract people to friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, by living lives of compassion, care and nobility in an often cold, increasingly cruel, deeply individualistic, terribly confused world in which we find ourselves,” he said.
The annual John Paul II Award that honors a person in the Archdiocese of New Orleans who has exhibited exemplary qualities of Christian stewardship was presented to John P. Laborde, the former head of Tidewater Inc. Laborde, 90, has served on numerous boards and committees of the archdiocese and was especially integral to the success of the Archbishop’s Community Appeal, which funded social outreach programs to the needy.
“I’m especially proud to be the recipient in the year that the Vatican has announced the canonization of Pope John Paul II,” Laborde said. “I was fortunate to have nuns and priests as a significant part of our lives.”