Faith: The most essential thing

What is truly essential? This has become a pressing question in our country, especially as churches have faced many government restrictions, even as pot shops and casinos have operated more freelyWhen John Paul II returned home to Communist Poland after his papal election, the enormous crowd gathered in Warsaw, formed of people who had faced over 30 years of restrictions on worship, chanted continuously, “We want God! We want God!” They were telling their totalitarian leadership that God was essential.  

The key crisis facing the West, according to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (Josef Ratzinger)is a crisis of faith. If we were already struggling to keep Catholics engaged in the Church, it’s now become even more difficult. Some have speculated openly that the ongoing secular trajectory of our culture has been sped up by at least ten years due to our current crisisThings will never simply return to the way that they were before, but, on the other hand, would we even want that? Above all, the “return” that we need is a return to a deeper faith in Christ, one that profoundly shapes our everyday life.  

Father Daniel Cardó, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Sheridan, has pointed us to what matters most in his new book What Does It Mean to Believe? Faith in the Thought of Joseph Ratzinger (Emmaus, 2020, with a foreword by Gerhard Cardinal Müller). It’s a short book that packs a punch, navigating important theological issues in an accessible and compelling way. He recognizes the increasing challenge of communicating faith in modern culture: “Undoubtably to speak of faith is something more and more foreign to ordinary people; it would seem that it’s lost its pertinence and importance. At best, it is limited to being [brought] up every now and then; at worst, one might try to avoid it all costs (20). In fact, a void has moved into the soul even of Christians, as Ratzinger speaks of a practical atheism that entails living as if God does not exist.   

In the face of the prevailing agnosticism and relativism, faith can still arise, received as a gift of the Holy Spirit moving our minds and hearts. We have a “God-given thirst for the infinite” that leaves us unsatisfied by alternatives (37). Fr. Cardó quotes Ratzinger on the great need for faith: “Belief signifies the decision that at the very core of human existence there is a point that cannot be nourished and supported on the visible and tangible, that encounters and comes into contact with what cannot be seen and finds that it is a necessity for its own existence” (41). Without faith, there is a great emptiness and flatness that cries out, sometimes desperately and even violently, pointing to the need for God.  

Faith opens up a new path, one of light and joy. “Having looked at faith as a free gift from God and as our concrete response to that gift, we arrive at an understanding of the change that the act of believing entails: to see life in a different way, to be open to conversion, to take on a new attitude toward reality, and to stand firm in the meaning that sustains our life” (50-51). This gift is not vague or abstract but is focused on a person: “The meaning that we grasp and in which we remain is a real and living person: Jesus Christ. He is the basis for the personal character of faith; He is the person who has chosen us and called us friends (see John 15:15-16), and in whom faith is experienced as a relationship of friendship. He is the person that goes to meet us and invites us to respond to His call with all of our being, in openness to an experience of personal communion” (54). Jesus truly leads us on the path of genuine freedom that comes from living the truth in love.   

The devil tempted Christ to rely on himself and to turn stone into bread. He replied that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). It can be tempting to focus on physical security above all else, but it is faith that makes life truly meaningful. We cannot live a full and complete life on our own. Faith gives us the courage and strength to face every difficulty because it opens us to God’s own life. It is truly the most essential thing, the one thing necessary (Luke 10:42), as it leads us into the true purpose of life: to live in communion with God and others. We need more faith; we need God to enter more deeply into our life; we need the nourishment of the Eucharist more than ever. We truly cannot live without them. We have to be willing to stand up and even suffer to show that faith is the most essential thing in our lives.  

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”