Thirty years ago today I made the best decision of my life. After praying the Rosary for just the third time in my life, I decided to join the Catholic Church. I’ll never forget the moment that so profoundly changed my life’s trajectory.
I’ll also not forget the Catholic optimism that was bubbling up in the Church at that time: Karl Keating’s Catholic Answers was starting to take off, Scott Hahn’s conversion talk was going viral (at least as viral as a cassette tape being copied and passed from person to person can go), and Pope John Paul’s global influence was reaching its heights. But I ask myself thirty years later: where did all that optimism go?
In 1992 Pope John Paul II had just defeated Communism, and he was turning his prodigious talents toward fighting the Culture of Death. Over the next few years he would produce an immense corpus of papal writings touching on the great debates of the day, from Veritatis Splendor to Evangelium Vitae to Fides et Ratio. The level of his moral authority in the world was likely the most significant of any pope since the middle ages.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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When the pope arrived in Denver in August 1993, I was overwhelmed: I had just entered the Church officially at Easter Vigil that year, and I’ll never forget the experience of being with hundreds of thousands of Catholics, all enthusiastic to welcome the Holy Father to America. This enthusiasm wasn’t just superficial: during each year of the 1990’s, more than 150,000 Americans were received into the Church.
Further, Cardinal Ratzinger was at the helm of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and we felt sure that the craziness of the 1970’s and 1980’s was soon to be a thing of the past. With John Paul II in charge and Ratzinger as his right-hand man, surely we would experience the “New Springtime” we had been promised. It seemed we were leaving the post-Vatican II dark winter for brighter days. It was a great time to be Catholic.
Of course, in hindsight we now know things weren’t so rosy under the surface. Soon after the decade was finished the abuse crisis exploded onto the public stage. While in the 1990’s we naively thought the problems in the Church were being put into the rearview mirror, there were priests abusing minors and being shuffled between parishes by weak and corrupt bishops trying to cover up these crimes.
The stench of abuse was even right under the noses of John Paul II and Ratzinger. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, was a superstar with the explicit endorsement of the pope and the Vatican. Too bad he was a monster, living a double life and abusing countless young people.
And in spite of the efforts of apostolates like Catholic Answers, heretical and bland Catholicism was still the norm at most Catholic parishes. In the rectories and chanceries around the country (and the world), a watered-down Catholicism was often the best you could hope for, a downright heretical version usually being the other option.
We also in hindsight can see some troubling issues with the pontificate of John Paul II, aside from the abuse crisis festering throughout the Church during his reign. His Assisi interreligious gathering helped foster a religious indifference among Catholics. Many of the bishops he selected to run important dioceses ended up being horrific shepherds who ran their dioceses into the ground. He kept the traditional Latin Mass in the ghettos.
While we were blinded at the time by the fact of hundreds of thousands of converts, the reality is that many of those converts soon left the Church, and many more cradle Catholics were going out the door in droves. Then, in the 2000’s that steady exodus became a stampede, as millions of Catholics left religion altogether.
So how do we today, perhaps more beat down and cynical, deal with our past? How do we learn from what happened during that time, in order to begin to turn things around?
First, we can’t do what most Church leaders do, which is simply ignore all bad news. If you listen to the typical episcopal homily, you’d think everything has been hunky-dory in the Church since Vatican II and it’s only getting better. So many bishops praise their “dynamic” parishes and “faithful” dioceses, you’d be forgiven for thinking the pews were full to overflowing.
Even when bad news happens, our bishops spin it harder than Jen Psaki talking about inflation numbers. A case in point are the names given to the efforts to close parishes in major dioceses. In Cincinnati, the drawdown is called “Beacons of Light;” in Chicago it’s “Renew My Church.” Orwell would be proud.
But while we’re being honest about historic shortcomings, we can’t be like advocates of Critical Race Theory who only see evil in the past. The many good things about 1990’s Catholicism shouldn’t be ignored or denigrated.
One of the best aspects of that era was that we had a pope who resisted the defective cultural currents of the time. He stood up to Communism, and he stood up to the Culture of Death. This inspired countless Catholics (and non-Catholics) to do the same. The pro-life movement was dominated by Catholics, and they were energized to have a Holy Father who was leading the charge.
There was also an infectious joyfulness to being Catholic. Yes, some of that sense came from ignoring the troubles lurking in the shadows—troubles that are much more in the open now—and some of it was influenced by the rockstar status of the pope, but there was real joy in being a follower of Jesus Christ in His Church. This is a joy that is often forgotten in the scandal-ridden Church of today.
The lessons of the 1990’s should be clear.
First, the Church is strongest when she sets her own path instead of imitating the world. With rising totalitarianism around the world, we must have the courage to resist it as John Paul II did.
We must also have a real enthusiasm for the faith. Not a surface enthusiasm that pushes our problems under the rug or is based on a superstar pope, but one that is founded upon the supernatural graces given to us by Christ in his Church.
We must also be willing to be critical of even heroes like Pope John Paul II, while still appreciating all the good he did. We aren’t “party Catholics” who slavishly follow—or slavishly reject—this leader or that leader. Our model is Jesus Christ, not any man or woman.
This means we must be transparent, allowing our dirty laundry to air at times, understanding that the truth will set us free. Even now we still have instances of abuse being covered up, and a refusal to recognize the poor state of the Church today. If we don’t see how bad things are, we can’t turn them around.
A final lesson is that we must take heresy seriously. In spite of his reputation as “God’s Rottweiler,” Cardinal Ratzinger’s CDF did little to curb the spread of heresy in the Church during his time. Of course, now we are in a time when heresy is originating in the Vatican itself, but ultimately we’ll never be able to truly renew the Church until we recognize the destructive effect heresy has on the Church.
Sometimes I’m asked, in light of today’s troubles, if I’m still glad I became Catholic. I will say this: it’s possible that if in 1992 I could have seen the future for the Church I might have hesitated in becoming Catholic. But that’s because I would have seen that future with human eyes and not with the eyes of faith. Living as a Catholic during that time has given me the graces to, well, live as a Catholic.
For converts like myself who came into the Church in the 1990’s, it was like Palm Sunday—the world was singing the praises of the Church. As the Church has drawn closer to Good Friday, many of those praises have ceased and many disciples have fallen away. But for converts today who are coming into the Church as she undergoes her passion, they know what they are getting into, and God willing they will be able to embrace the Cross.
And for all of us, no matter how bleak things may look at times, we must always remember that Easter will come.
[Image: World Youth Day 1993, Denver]