Navigating the troubled waters of relativism

A review of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput's new book

David Uebbing serves as the Chancellor for the Archdiocese of Denver.

American society is experiencing profound cultural shifts, creating times of great uncertainty, especially for Christians and Catholics. In “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput offers a road map for understanding our nation’s roots, the cultural forces that have shaped it into what it is today, and reflections on living with hope in an Post-Christian society.

The intellectual scope of Archbishop Chaput’s book is impressive. Over the course of 12 chapters he leads the reader in an examination of the philosophical and moral underpinnings of our nation, analyzes the warped anthropology caused by the cultural revolution of the ‘60s, explains the impact of these seismic shifts on our modern culture, and then offers his well-known brand of unflinchingly honest advice to Christians for living their faith in a hostile environment.

“Strangers in a Strange Land” is a tour de force of scholarly thought on the development of Western society. Readers encounter a tapestry of insights woven together from intellects as diverse as Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political theorist Pierre Manent, St. Augustine, Benedict XVI, Alasdair MacIntyre, Saul Alinsky and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Suffice it to say, Chaput’s latest book is not a light read, but it is a necessary read for all who are striving to understand the challenges Christians face and will face in the coming years.

Archbishop Chaput begins his insights on America’s founding by stating, “Americans hate thinking about the past. Unfortunately, we need to.” This is the case, he says, because “We can’t understand the present or plan for the future without knowing the past through the eyes of those who made it. For the American founding, there’s no way to scrub either Christianity or its skeptics out of the nation’s genetic code.”

And yet, he notes, these faith-filled beginnings are “infinitely fragile.” Archbishop Chaput proves this by recounting how technological advances, the introduction of the birth control pill, the Vietnam War and the efforts of radical feminists quickly unraveled family ties and social cohesion.

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In Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s new book, the former bishop of Denver explores how to navigate through a relativistic culture as a Catholic in the modern world.

For those that think it’s possible to return to Mayberry, the Philadelphia archbishop tells it plainly, “America can’t be the way it once was. … changes in the country’s sexual, religious, technological, demographic and economic fabric make that impossible.” The appetites and behaviors of the United States have been fundamentally altered by these changes, he argues.

For those of us in the Archdiocese of Denver who have had the blessing of knowing Archbishop Chaput, it comes as no surprise that his candidly honest assessment of the state of our culture is accompanied by a reflection on Christian hope.

He asks his readers, “How can we live in joy, and serve the common good as leaven, in a culture that no longer shares what we believe?” This question carries a special gravity because the secular culture has detached what it means to be a man from God and is aimlessly seeking answers.

Quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Archbishop Chaput answers his question by saying that believing Catholics and Christians must be a “conscious minority” that adds to the common good. We must fight a culture of lies by consciously living the truth instead of merely talking about it.

In the end, Archbishop Chaput’s guidance for our Post-Christian culture is fittingly humble. “We’re here to bear one another’s burdens, to sacrifice ourselves for the needs of others, and to live a witness of Christian love … Every such life is the seed of dozens of others and begins a renewal of the world,” he writes.

For those concerned about the present and future of American society, “Strangers in a Strange Land” is a must-read that will leave you thinking and praying long after you’ve finished it.

Click here to see purchasing options for “Strangers in a Strange Land.”

COMING UP: How deacons give life to the Church

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The calling and ministries of the diaconate are as varied as the men who serve in it. For Deacon Don Tracy, the call to the diaconate was a long one, and his first years as a deacon didn’t match his expectations.

“Feeling unsettled with a restless heart for many years, I did not understand at the time that I was experiencing the first stirrings of my call to the diaconate by the Holy Spirit. As I searched to find the peace that was missing in my life, I went down several false paths, believing that a career change to one of the service-oriented professions would give me the tranquility I desired,” Deacon Tracy said.

“I eventually discerned that I should not change careers…but those feelings came to a head when I joined a men’s group called ‘That Man Is You.’ I felt as if I were being turned inside out and sought the help of deacons for guidance. With their assistance, I began to discern that my restless heart came from God calling me to the diaconate,” he added.

But shortly after becoming a deacon, his first ministry became caring for his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his ordination.

“For the next two years, my life was far different than the deacon brothers I was ordained with who were beginning ministries in their parishes and for the people of the archdiocese,” Deacon Tracy said. “Instead, my ministry as a husband and deacon was to care for my wife through what seemed like countless medical appointments and hospital stays. And when my dear wife entered her final weeks on earth last year, I did everything I could think of to help her get to heaven.”

His ministry to his wife as she passed from this world to the next profoundly changed his life — now, he hopes to begin a ministry to those who are struggling through illness or are grieving the loss of loved ones.

Deacon Tracy’s ministry to his wife in the first two years of his diaconate was just one way he was personally called to serve; many deacons, in addition to assisting the pastors in their parish, do much more than we realize.

On average, the 207 deacons spend 60 hours a week serving, between their normal jobs, family obligations, and ministries, according to Deacon Joseph Donohoe, director of deacon personnel at the Archdiocese of Denver.

Deacons assist the priest by ministering baptisms, witnessing marriages, performing funerals and burial services, distributing Holy Communion and preaching homilies.

Outside of this, they also assist in teaching RCIA, baptism preparation, marriage preparation, Bible studies, funerals, retreats, parish missions, visiting prisons and juvenile detention centers, bringing communion to sick patients in hospitals or hospice, visiting the elderly, working with immigrants and working in homeless shelters.

“We’re active in [sacraments], but we also have an obligation as deacons to respond to the archbishop in areas of ministries outside of the parish,” Deacon Donohoe said. “And this is in addition to their secular work and family obligations. So they’re very dedicated, and they do this for love of God. They’re not paid, their obligation is to the archbishop and the Church.”

Deacon Kevin Heckman of Blessed Sacrament Parish spends much of his ministry in Children’s Hospital. After getting a job there in 2009, he introduced himself to the hospital chaplain and asked if there was anyone doing Catholic ministry or communion service, and the chaplain “jumped at it.”

“I developed a relationship with the chaplains and got called to visit patients and bring communion to people. I’ve done about 50 emergency baptisms and praying with families. It’s been really rewarding, and I know that I have a special call to hospital ministry,” Deacon Heckman said.

Deacon Heckman has had the privilege of praying with a mother and her stillborn baby — just one of many experiences that he “won’t ever forget” in his service as a deacon.

Quite frankly, I am in awe of the deacons in the diocese, they are so dedicated to their ministry, and each time I talk to one of them, I get inspired and filled with awe over some of the things they do.”

So what does the call to the vocation of the diaconate look like?

It’s different for everyone, Deacon Donohoe said.

“Some guys get beat over the head. Others are less clear, it’s really just a continuous conversation with God, wanting to do his will. And if his will calls them to the laying on of hands by the archbishop, then he allows God to lead him in that direction,” Deacon Donohoe said.

If a man feels what he suspects may be a call to the diaconate, the process of discernment is years-long, similar to that of a priestly or religious vocation.

“They need to be called by God, and they need to be called by the Church. So it’s a four year process, from the time of the applications to the time they’re ordained, and it’s a discernment process,” Deacon Donohoe said. “There’s an intense amount of prayer involved, as well as a looking into their soul and spirit to discover what God is calling them to. Sometimes God is just calling them to the formation, and not ordination, and many times, they are called to ordination. It’s really a powerful experience.”

The stories of Deacon Tracy and Deacon Heckman are just a few of many men who are offering their lives to Christ through their vocation as a deacon.

“Quite frankly, I am in awe of the deacons in the diocese, they are so dedicated to their ministry, and each time I talk to one of them, I get inspired and filled with awe over some of the things they do,” Deacon Donohoe said. “They all have these stories that are just tremendous, because they’re all in prayer. They all want to listen, and they want to love God and the people of God.”

Not only are these men faithful to God’s will and serving his people, their families are tremendous witnesses to the world as well.

“Deacons in this diocese are tremendously dedicated to their ministry and to their family and they set a very positive example to the secular world in witnessing the true presence of Jesus Christ and the Church to a world in need of [him], including their marriages,” said Deacon Donohoe. “It’s not just the deacons, it’s their families. Their families give up much for their husbands and dads to be deacons, but they also do that for love of God.”

For more information about the deacons of the Archdiocese of Denver, visit archden.org/office-diaconate.