Faith Flourishes When Culture Turns Away

This week I’m in Ireland, as I wrote about in my column last time; and was in Ukraine last weekend.

In Ireland I’m helping get our Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal settled; in Ukraine I joined in the celebration of the 1,025th anniversary of Christianity there, as well as the dedication of the new Cathedral of the Ukrainian Catholic Archdiocese of Kiev.

Actually, it was a fine young Ukrainian, whom I met in my doctor’s office a couple of weeks ago, who pointed out to me, when I told him I’d be going to his home country, “We Ukrainians and you Irish have a lot in common!”

He then pointed out that both the Ukrainians and the Irish have suffered for their Catholic faith; both have been historically oppressed by their neighbors; both lost millions of people in famines; and both have proud emigrants throughout the world. You’re right, I replied.

The Catholic faith in Ukraine has not had an easy time at all. Stalin tried his best to liquidate it, and even today, Ukrainian Catholics report overt harassment. Yet, I was near tears in the inspiration they gave me last weekend. They love their faith, and the depth of their religion is more profound and pure because they’ve suffered for it.

Same with Ireland. It’s hardly news that the Church is in a crisis there. People here tell me the clergy sex abuse scandal took an awful toll on the Church’s credibility—like here at home—and that, perhaps, decades of a comfortable, privileged, culturally dominant status of the Church led to shallowness, corruption, and lethargy. I’m no expert on the Church in Ireland, but that’s what folks here tell me.

Some report that, while it used to be culturally expected that one would support and defend the Church, now the tone is that an “enlightened, liberated” person would attack and dismiss the Church. The enemy, they tell me, is no longer the island to the east, but within!

Yet, as I get around, the faith of the people seems hopeful and alive. As one woman whispered to me, “We’ve been through worse! In the long run, it purifies us!”

Which validates a biblical principle: in hardship, persecution, and tough times, faith prospers! In prosperity, ease, and social acceptability, faith shrivels up!

The example of Israel demonstrates that, right? In the Old Testament, when God’s chosen people were under attack, or suffering a lot, their faith was usually vigorous and pure. But, in times of wealth, peace, security, and comfort, look out!

The Ukrainians and Irish would agree!

What about here at home? I need not tell you that our values are today questioned, dismissed, and snickered at.

A “good Catholic” down in Texas wrote that, “You bishops should shut up about immigration and gun control, ’cause I’m embarrassed at my hunting club.”

While a prominent Catholic and generous benefactor here asked me to “tone it down” on pro-life and defense of marriage, “because I’m uncomfortable with my friends at cocktail parties.”

Soon-to-be Pope Saint John Paul II coined the term “counter-cultural.” The days when “culture” could be counted upon to transmit and bolster the faith are gone. Maybe some Irish ask if such a culture was that helpful anyway. Now, our culture, here and in Ireland, is often at odds with our religion.

But the Bible would suggest that’s healthier for the depth and purity of the faith.

The Ukrainians and Irish I was honored to meet these days tend to agree. Faith can no longer be presumed or taken for granted. It’s a free, loving decision, which has life-changing implications.

It was Pope Paul VI who expressed it rather well: “When it’s easy to be a Catholic, it’s actually hard to be a good one; when it’s hard to be a faithful Catholic, it’s actually easier to be one!”

Thanks, Ireland and Ukraine, for reminding me of that!