The Easter Effect today

George Weigel

Some two millennia ago, a ragtag bunch of nobodies learned what their tortured and executed friend, the rabbi Jesus from Nazareth, meant by “rising from the dead” (Mark 9:9-10) — because they met him again, the same but utterly transformed, as the Risen Lord. The Easter Effect upturned all they had once thought about time, history, and God’s promises to Israel; it also transformed these nobodies into extraordinary evangelists, for the missionary project they launched converted perhaps as much as half the Mediterranean world over the next two and a half centuries.

That Easter Effect is worth keeping in mind in this season of Catholic discontent. Even amidst anger and embarrassment, Christians can do the work of evangelization because the first Easter told us that, for the truly converted disciple who has met the risen Lord, despair never gets the final word: God will vindicate his plan for the salvation of the world. And if we momentarily filter out media bias, political posturing, and social media vitriol, Catholics can see the Easter Effect at work in the Church in 2019.

The best sign of Catholic vitality will be found at the Easter Vigil on April 20 when tens of thousands of adults, fully aware of the current crisis, will be baptized or will enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. Their primary act of faith is in the Risen Lord. By accepting baptism or reception into the Catholic Church today, however, these men and women are also making an act of faith in the Church and its capacity for reform. Let the desperate among us take heart and courage from that.

There are also great conversion stories being written today. If you’re feeling glum about the Catholic future, try Sohrab Ahmari’s memoir, From Fire By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (Ignatius Press). My friend Sohrab, one of the brightest young lights in the contemporary commentariat, has already lived a few lifetimes, six years short of his 40th birthday: ex-pat Iranian atheist becomes Marxist (of sorts) in Utah (I’m not making this up) before discovering the beauty of the Mass and the intellectual magnetism of all-in Catholicism. His story, told with verve and good humor, ought to make anyone despondent about the current Catholic situation think again.

This Easter, there is also good news at the contentious crossroads where Catholic truth meets the ever-more-aggressive sexual revolution: St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Christianity’s most compelling response to that cultural and social upheaval, is now being “translated” into educational tools for elementary and secondary schools. Check out the materials being produced by Ruah Woods Press in Cincinnati (www.ruahwoodspress.com) and the Theology of the Body Evangelization Team (http://tobet.org). Then suggest that your local Catholic school or parish religious education program adopt them.

Catholics stuck in the slough of despond might also visit one of America’s many reformed seminaries, or the novitiate of one of its growing religious orders (the Dominican Sisters of Nashville; the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan; the Sisters of Life in New York). There, you’ll find deep Eucharistic and Marian piety, serious grappling with the fullness of Catholic truth, and an apostolic determination to be Christ’s healing presence in a society where addiction and suicide rates are rising ominously.

Catholic intellectual life is flourishing — if not always on big-brand-name Catholic campuses — thanks to initiatives like the Thomistic Institute, sponsored by Washington’s Dominican House of Studies. Over the past five years, the Institute’s strategy of bringing top-notch, vibrantly orthodox Catholic scholarship to high-leverage campuses has met an enthusiastic response, demonstrating that, while Catholic Lite is dying, the symphony of Catholic truth speaks powerfully to today’s cultural confusions. This month alone, the Institute is sponsoring events at Carnegie Mellon, UC-Berkeley, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Hillsdale, Kansas, George Mason, Ole Miss, New York University, Ohio State, Princeton, South Carolina, SMU, Stanford, Tulane, UCLA, West Point, and Yale.

And then there are our reformist bishops. Let me invite those who groan at the very thought of a bishop to spend four minutes with the Bishop of Spokane, Thomas Daly (https://vimeo.com/286946305). Here is the Easter Effect manifest in bracing honesty, clear analysis, pastoral concern, and zero clericalism.

These signs of renewal and reform are as much a part of today’s Catholic story as the things that make us angry, or disgusted, or desperate. Think on them this Easter with gratitude and hope.

 

COMING UP: Creation, redemption, martyrdom: A Lenten reflection

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A Lenten quiz: Which came first, God’s creation of the world or God’s covenant with Israel? If we think in terms of mere chronology, the answer is obvious. If we think theologically, however, we get a different answer — and the drama of creation, covenant, and redemption comes into clearer focus.

In Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week, Pope Benedict XVI teaches that God’s covenant with Israel is not some sort of divine afterthought, an add-on or remedy for something that had gone wrong. No, the covenant and its fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of a son of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, who inaugurates a new covenant including both Jews and Gentiles, are the very reasons why God created the world: “According to rabbinic theology, the idea of the covenant — the idea of establishing a holy people to be an interlocutor for God in union with him — is prior to the idea of creation and supplies its inner motive. The cosmos was created, not that there be manifold things in heaven and earth, but that there might be space for the ‘covenant,’ for the loving ‘yes’ between God and his human respondent.”

God creates and redeems the world so that God’s holiness might be shared by a people empowered by grace to live holy lives. God’s thirst for the holiness of his people is liturgically manifest on the Fourth Sunday of Lent in Jesus’s thirst for the faith of the Samaritan woman, from whom he asks a drink of water. And God’s thirst for a holy people with whom the Trinity can be in a covenant of love continues today. That is why the Church, the continuation of Christ’s presence in the world, is a communion of disciples in mission.

That mission often carries heavy costs, and it is appropriate to be reminded of that as the Church walks the Way of the Cross these last weeks of Lent.

During last year’s Synod in Rome, I had the good fortune to befriend a true missionary disciple who is also the Bishop of Mamfe in Cameroon, Andrew Nkea. During our work together, I discovered in Bishop Nkea a man of deep Catholic faith, wholly persuaded that the Gospel his people have embraced is the greatest liberating power in the world. I also found someone whose exceptional calm amidst horrific circumstances in his homeland testified to his conviction that God remains with the people he has called to holiness, even when he can seem far distant.

And God can indeed seem distant in contemporary Cameroon, a country beset by deadly civil strife in which the government is complicit.

During the Synod, Bishop Andrew told me of having to close 15 parishes in his diocese, because large gatherings of Anglophones were an excuse for Francophone government thugs to commit atrocities in the name of suppressing spurious “terrorism.” A few weeks after we said farewell in Rome, a 33-year old Kenyan Mill Hill missionary priest in Bishop Nkea’s diocese was the victim of a random, drive-through shooting by the quasi-military Gendarmerie Nationale in the village of Kembong, to which Father Cosmos Omboto Ondari had returned with hundreds of refugees after much of the village had been burned down by government forces.  Bishop Nkea was in Kembong the next day and counted 21 bullet holes in the church building in which the refugees were taking shelter and saw Father Ondari’s blood on the cement at the entrance to the building.

In my mind’s eye, it was not easy to imagine the bishop who was such an articulate, joyful proponent of the truth of Catholic faith in Rome standing where a priest he had welcomed into his diocese had just been murdered for no other reason than to terrorize the people Father Ondari served. Yet they were one and the same man, the Andrew Nkea I came to admire in Rome and the grieving but resolute bishop who demanded justice from a corrupt government while calling his people to intensified prayer for peace.

If the rabbinic theologians cited by Pope Benedict were right, Father Ondari and Bishop Nkea were “in the mind” of God before creation, embodiments of the holiness for which God thirsts in his people. Catholics in safer environments should ponder their example and live in spiritual solidarity with those who may sometimes think themselves forgotten by the world and the Church.