On Being and Staying Catholic in the Modern World

Editor’s note: The following is an address delivered June 7, 2014 to the graduating class of St. Michael the Archangel High School in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

I love being here at this school. I love what you are trying to do.

I am moved by the faith of your parents, and the generosity of your families, and the self-sacrifices of your teachers, grade by grade, room by room….

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Now a period of huge decisions hits you in the face. First, what to do after high school—work? a career? enlist in the Marines? go to college? But then, which college? You also face the choice of committing yourself to a spouse, your lifetime-best-friend, over the next few years. It is a wonderful time in life. But it sure hits hard, and fast.

And another big choice: You must make your adult commitment either to become a lifelong Catholic, on your own, or to leave that faith behind. That is a perfectly normal choice. Every human being must make it. More on that in a moment.

First, let me tell you a story. Once, I was given an honorary degree by a well-known Catholic university, and the class valedictorian said the most important thing his class had learned in its four years of university education is that everything is relative.

I could hear hundreds of parental hearts sink. Why did they spend scores of thousands of dollars on this smart lad’s Catholic education, when they could have had him come out a relativist at the much cheaper state university? One thing I assure you. They did not want him to break from his faith. They love their faith too much. May I tell you one secret? There is no fear greater in the hearts of the last two generations of Catholic parents than that the invisible gas of relativism, of unbelief, will seep into the minds of their children, and steal from them what we parents consider the most precious inheritance we can pass on.

May I pry into your personal affairs, dear graduates? Does each of you know for how many decades your own family has passed on the faith from generation to generation, even, for how many centuries? Are you going to be the one who breaks the link?

The iffy thing about the Catholic faith is this: that it must be chosen afresh in every generation. It cannot be inherited. It must be chosen. You yourself must choose it freely. Or you—you by yourself—may reject it. We parents may have broken hearts about your choice. But we know the rules of the game. Christian faith must be inalienably personal. It must be personally chosen. The root of all the world’s freedoms comes from that one. As the great historian of Liberty, Lord Acton of Cambridge University, concluded: “The history of liberty is coincident with the history of Christianity.”

St. Michael’s has respected that liberty. Acts of personal liberty are beautiful works, as radiant as the best days of June. It is a privilege to be with you, educated in this most personal of all liberties.

Still, I bet that most of you are not Christians, not yet. There are two immense dangers in becoming a Christian. First, they put people like us in prison, make fun of us, taunt us, and kill us. A young woman in Sudan has been sentenced to 100 lashes. Why? Because she has married a Christian, and had their child baptized Christian. She has been given a chance to renounce Christianity before the court and has refused. Therefore, after she has been whipped 100 times, she must be killed. She has blasphemed Allah, turned away from Allah.

The last eighty years have seen by far the bloodiest years for Christians, the most ruthless persecution, in the history of the Church. Nazism and Communism recently carried out the deaths of millions of Christians and Jews, often in most horrible ways. In Nigeria today, young Christian girls are being kidnapped by the hundreds for sale as slaves. Throughout Pakistan, bombs are set off in Christian churches, men with machine guns swing church doors open and mow down everyone in sight. Long, long lines of Christian refugees are being driven out of their homelands with nothing of their own but their strength of soul.

Don’t you dare think that the persecution of Christians will never come to America. Oh, for a long time it will not be that severe. First you will be called names. Then, when you voice your public beliefs, you will be punished for what you say. “You are on the wrong side of history,” they will say. “You are a bigot.” The things you believe must not be said, ever, in an enlightened era. A priest here and a nun there will be banished when they preach the gospel on controversial matters—unless they confess the opinions of secularists.

In sum, one reason not to be a Christian today is that it may bring bad things on your head if you actually believe what Catholics have always believed, and then say so, even at a dinner party with fellow workers whom you had thought of as friends. Try it and see.

A second powerful reason is that television, Hollywood, and music-makers intend with all their lures to entice you into a way of love and sex that is not only not Christian, but positively destructive of those who fall into it. The media do not report the damage.

In France seventy years ago (as we remind ourselves this weekend), and on Iwo Jima and Okinawa and Tarawa, our grandparents did not fight bitter and bloody wars for liberty, only so that we could live like pigs. Most of the world looks at how we live, in our films and television shows and during our Super Bowl halftimes (in the whole world, the largest television audiences of all time), and says in disgust that we are decadent. Vladimir Putin said that just last week.

Well, you personally can live however you wish. But think through the consequences. For yourself. For the world of your friends and families. For the whole of American society.

Look. The only reason you should choose your Christian faith, and become more thoughtful and serious about it, is because you judge it to be true. Because you hold firmly that its vision of who you are, and how great you are called to become, is more true to your experience than anything else you know. Christian faith speaks truth, not doubletalk. None of this: “I’m all right, you’re all right. It’s all good.”

When you examine your conscience, you know exactly where you have sometimes done things you know you should not have done. And other times when you deliberately did not do what you know you should have done. You know from experience, and I know from my experience, that Christian faith begins with the sinner—you, me. Original sin (the fact that every human being ever born sometimes sins) is one doctrine that no one needs to take on faith. All we need is to look coolly at some of our own past behavior.

Christian Faith is a Common Sense Faith
Where would this country be, if it had not been constituted by Christians? For Christians know from experience, their own experience first of all, that no man should be trusted with too much power. Every power must be limited by checks and balances. Why? Because every man sometimes falls. Our Constitution is not written for saints. It is written for us, as from our bitter experience we know ourselves. There is no use for building a Republic for saints. There are not enough saints to fill a Republic. And the few there are, are difficult to live with.

Don’t you think experience shows Christianity is right about this fact of human life, the way even those people trying so hard to be good sometimes fall? Christian faith is just straight about things. No pretending we are better than we are.

As a great Protestant thinker once put it: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Another truth on which Jewish and Christian life is based is this: God made us all, every one of us, to suffer. Even the good people, like Job, suffer. In fact, the Lord directly tells us, looking right into our eyes, what to expect from Him: “Those He loves, He makes to suffer.” Look at His Son, the Suffering Servant Who best shows us what the inner life of God is.

Why does God do this? Why does He make the good suffer? I remember the sweetest person in our family, a cousin with a difficult husband and darling children, who quite young was stricken with cancer, and for months and months wasted away in front of our eyes. She was as thin as a child when at last she was released from her pain. Very little left of her.

Are there any families in this assembly that have not experienced pain in the family like this? Any?

My own dear, dear wife died in that way, over a period of four years. It was almost unendurable for her to have her life end so, so many dreams not yet accomplished, so much painting and sculpting she had planned to get done. Now those hopes were sliding away from her. She never complained, not once. But at her side it was extremely hard to watch.

Our God, the Jewish and Christian God, is not a “nice” God. He treats us like adults. He expects us to be brave, and to go on loving others even under the lash of great pain. He set the example Himself. He told us that each of us, too, would have to take up our own cross, and die with Him. He didn’t beat around the bush. He told us exactly what to expect.

That’s one thing I really love about the Catholic faith. It talks straight. It does not sugar-coat. It offers us Christ on the cross right up front, right up on our school walls, right at the highest point of our steeples. As if to say quite quietly: “Look, dear ones, this is what the Christian life is like.”

Why does our faith speak like that? Because that is the truth. We are made in God’s image, and when He sent His Son to show us what that ball of fire inside himself is like, that love which is His inner energy, He showed us His Son being beaten and cursed on the way of the cross, and then dying, out of love for us.

Jesus Christ showed us how a Christian loves, and how a Christian dies. “Not my will, Father, but Thine.” A Christian dies with love and forgiveness for others. That sort of love is an odd sort of love. It is a love above every known human form of love. It is God’s form of love.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Now no sensible woman or man even likes his enemies. But the Lord has His own reasons for emphasizing love. He made every single woman and man in his image. Even those who choose evil, those who wrong us, even slay us. Even those who spit in His face. God loves every creature He has made, even when they raise their arm against Him. He made them free. Their choice: They reject his friendship. Their hell is their isolation. Which they themselves have freely chosen.

Well, I meet a lot of people who hate everything I fight for. It doesn’t seem they like me much, either. In fact, some have moral contempt for me.

Because God said so, I believe that each of them is made in the image of God, and that God sees something in each of them that He loves. So I study all my critics carefully. Sometimes things they say actually help me, and I change course. Sometimes I can’t see a thing in them to love. So I take it on faith. Sometimes, I just don’t see what God loves in some of the people I meet. But, I figure, God doesn’t say I have to like them. He just says I have to “love” them, with His love and His insight into their worth. So I just leave it up to Him. I don’t see your image anywhere in him, Lord, so you just go ahead and love him for me. I think that is called an “infused” virtue. It doesn’t come from our own power.

Why God Allows Suffering
But why on earth is the world made this way, not some nicer way, without evil persons, without some horribly evil outcomes? Without so much suffering? Without little girls sobbing in their beds all night? That’s what Ivan Karamazov asked.

I notice this in all literature and in all history: Heroines and the heroes suffer greatly. Often, to prove the height and depth of their humanity, they have to die.

Our lives are a little like a smoldering twig fallen down inside a fire. Sometimes the ember has to die, to give out one last brilliance, before going cold forever. As the priest-poet writes—the poet I love best—in our fireplace we watch “blue-bleak embers fall, gall themselves, gash gold-vermillion.” To show a very great beauty, to prove an overpowering love, to force up a goodness refined by fire as gold is fired, the hero, the saint, the lover cannot—cannot—“gash gold-vermillion”—except in suffering and death.

That is certainly the rule that God Himself follows, that He laid down for His own Son, that nearly every great love has proved. That is the only way the Lord Creator could see a way to teach us that the inner secret of all of creation, the way that creation “shows forth the glory of God,” is by suffering love, by death. In dying, beauty “gashes gold-vermillion.”

According to our Catholic faith, clasped tight, held onto down a thousand years, and taught to others by the way true lovers live, life’s deepest secret is to spread everywhere the news that God is Love, that all things that are, begin in love, and end in love. All things spring from God. All things end in God. And God is suffering love.

Not even abandonment, and emptiness, and painful death are what they seem to be. By God’s own love flaring out from within them, even desolation and death are transmuted into unspeakable beauty.

Dear, dear graduates, it is normal to think about abandoning this faith. For it must be free. It must be tested. No one else has been exempt from testing. Why should you be?

Last word: Think twice before abandoning this great teacher of reality, this faith of ours. It is trustworthy. It holds up against all hardships, all darknesses, all sufferings. Compared with it, everything else is cheap.

Therefore, no matter what anybody else in your family does, or how many around you turn away from God’s friendship, don’t you break the long line of faithful suffering servants in your family’s history. You will suffer for this faith. But keep the sap of life—the zest of love—going through you, so it can flow on to the next generation, and the next. On you depends the faith of thousands yet unborn.

God bless you very, very much! All the days of your life.

You are very lucky to have graduated from here.

Editor’s note: The image above titled Christ of Saint John of the Cross was painted by Salvador Dali in 1951.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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