Last week I had the opportunity to hear the great Archbishop of Philadelphia, the Capuchin Franciscan Charles Chaput, speak at a conference on St. Francis of Assisi hosted by the Dominicans in New York City.
Here he speaks on a really important point today. In our cultural wasteland, lots of young Catholics are eager to rebuild a Catholic culture. But Catholicism is not about building a culture; Catholic culture itself was not built on the desire to build a culture. It’s about Jesus.
The philosopher Rémi Brague once wrote that “Christianity was founded by people who could not have cared less about ‘Christian civilization.’ What mattered to them was Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence. Christians believed in Christ, not in Christianity itself; they were Christians, not ‘Christianists.’”
We need to remember that simple lesson. The Catholic faith is not an ideology. It’s a romance. It’s a love affair with God. We’re a people who believe in Jesus Christ – not the ideas, but the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for our sake purely out of his love for us. And living the Catholic faith should be an experience of gratitude and joy that flows from a daily personal encounter with God’s son and a communal relationship with God’s people.
There’s a reason the Church calls St. Francis the vir Catholicus, the exemplary Catholic man. Francis understood that gratitude is the beginning of joy, and that joy in this world is the aroma of heaven in the next. He reveled in the debt he owed to God for the beauty of creation, for his friends and brothers, and for every gift and suffering that came his way. He treasured his dependence on the love of others, and returned their love with his own. He gave away all that he had in order to gain the deepest kind of freedom – the freedom to pursue God, to share God with others, and to experience life without encumbrance or fear.
-“Without Gloss: Francis of Assisi and Western Catholicism,” Speech at the Catholic Center of New York University, April 25, 2014
One gloss: those who try to make this point today – including Pope Benedict, very frequently, despite the complete mis-characterization of him, especially by his fans, as a “culture” guy – often use the language of Chaput’s second paragraph above: “love affair,” “romance,” “personal encounter.” But I think the point is better made by the first and third paragraphs: especially, “Christ, and the reverberations of his coming,” but also, “the aroma of heaven,” “gratitude,” “the debt he owed to God,” “the pursuit of God.”
These phrases are, I think, much richer than the Protestant language of “personal relationship,” while making the same point.
“Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence.”