Junipero Serra and His Witness for Today: Part II of II

Blessed Pope John Paul II saw the outline of our new “new world” more than 30 years ago. And following his lead, the Church has been calling Catholics to the work of a “new evangelization” ever since. But there’s a natural human tendency to attach magic powers to slogans, which then replace serious thought and effort – as if saying the slogan, or talking about it, actually makes mission work happen.

In practice, the words “new evangelization” are overused and under thought. Unless we reconfigure our lives to understanding and acting on it, the “new evangelization” is just another pious intention – well meaning, but ultimately infertile.

Today – just as in Father Serra’s time – all evangelization begins with two questions: Why should we do it? And how should we do it?

The “why” has two answers: First, as we’ve already seen, Jesus commands it. We can’t call ourselves Christians and not be missionaries. We need to be active witnesses of our faith.

Second, the stakes are real. The blood and brutal suffering of Jesus on the cross were the cost required for our redemption. Christ bought us at a very high price. We needed to be saved from something terrible.

We needed to be ransomed from an Evil One bent on our destruction. Which means that evil is more than just a metaphor; more than just the sum of our human moral or psychological deficiencies; but rather something real and conscious and murderous.

Baptism involves us in a struggle for the soul of the world, whether we choose to see the struggle or not. And the world today makes it very easy to delude ourselves. The hard and social sciences have weakened man’s ability to believe by exalting the material world and implying that human knowledge alone can explain reality – but without actually disproving anything about God or the supernatural.

Yet people still suffer and die. And because they suffer and die, they hunger ultimately for a higher, comprehensive meaning to their lives. Which means they still can be, and still need to be, reached by the Word of God.

The “how” of a new evangelization, or any evangelization, needs to begin with our own repentance and conversion. That hasn’t changed since Father Serra walked the Camino Real, the trail that linked California’s missions. We can’t give what we don’t have.

As individuals, we control very little in life; but we do control what we do with our hearts. We can at least make ourselves available to God as his agents. Personal conversion is the essential first step. It immediately affects the people around us.

The “how” also requires us to understand the real human terrain we’re called to convert.

Christian Smith, Notre Dame’s distinguished social researcher, suggests that the de facto dominant religion among American teenagers today is “moralistic therapeutic deism.”[i] And he frames the creed of this new religion in this way:

First, a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.

Second, God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other as taught in the Bible and most world religions.

Third, the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

Fourth, God doesn’t need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he’s needed to fix a problem.

And fifth, good people go to heaven when they die.

Teen religion largely derives from the world of adult religion, especially parental religion, and it flows naturally from what the parents of these teens actually practice. Old patterns of religious faith among many adults have faded into a kind of vague “spirituality,” which then shapes the world into which American adolescents are socialized.

For many young people, the moralistic part of “moralistic therapeutic deism” simply means being pleasant and responsible, working on “self-improvement,” taking care of one’s health and doing one’s best to succeed.

“Therapeutic” means focusing on feeling good and happy, being secure and at peace. It’s about subjective well-being and getting along amiably with other persons. And “deism” means that God exists – he created our world – but he’s not particularly involved in our affairs, especially when we don’t want him around. He’s available to meet our needs. He’s not demanding on us, but we can be demanding on him.

Obviously very little of this has anything to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ or the faith of the martyrs. And that’s a problem.

In practice, American society now breeds a kind of radical self-focus and practical atheism – not by refuting faith in God, but by rendering God irrelevant to people’s needs and urgencies of the moment.

As Christopher Lasch saw in The Culture of Narcissism, consumer culture tends to create weak personalities dependent on group behavior and approval, and therefore more susceptible to advertising and product consumption.[ii] The hard and social sciences replace the clergy as a source of guidance and meaning. And social media and mass entertainment abolish solitude and personal reflection.

So in an age of massive self-absorption, the result is that real individuality and self-mastery are withering. Why? Because the communities that root and shape an individual in distinctive moral codes and histories – in other words, our families, Churches, synagogues and fraternal organizations – can’t compete with the noise and flash of consumer society.

Here’s what that means for all of us as believers. A “new” evangelization must start with the sober knowledge that much of the once-Christian developed world, and even many self-described Christians, are in fact pagan. Christian faith is not a habit. It’s not a useful moral code.  It’s not an exercise in nostalgia. It’s a restlessness, a consuming fire in the heart to experience the love of Jesus Christ and then share it with others – or it’s nothing at all.

Mastering the new social and demographic data that describe today’s world, and the new communications tools to reach it, are vitally important for the Church. But nothing can be accomplished if we lack faith and zeal ourselves. We – and that means you and I – are the means God uses to change the world. The material tools are secondary. People, not things, are decisive.

The irony, the glory and the joy of faith in Jesus Christ is that the more we give it away to others, the stronger it grows, and the more we have for ourselves to feed our own hearts. George Bernard Shaw once said that “When I was young, I observed that nine out of every ten things I did were failures, so I did ten times more work.” Shaw was never a friend of Christianity, but that just makes me happier in borrowing his words.

Young or old, we need to live our faith as Junipero Serra did – all in, 100 percent, holding nothing back, with charity, endurance, passion and hope. That kind of faith changes lives and remakes the world.

Junipero Serra heard the Gospel, and believed, and acted on it. Today, here, beginning now, God calls us to the privilege of doing the same.

Read Part I here.

Editor’s Note: This is an abridged version of an address given by Archbishop Chaput at the Serra International Convention in Mallorca on 22 June 2013. Reprinted with permission.


[i] See Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005

[ii] See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, W.W. Norton, New York, 1979

Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., Cap., D.D. was installed as the 13th bishop and ninth archbishop of Philadelphia on September 8, 2011. Archbishop Chaput was ordained Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota, on July 26, 1988. Pope John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Denver on February 18, 1997, and he was installed on April 7 the same year. As a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe, Archbishop Chaput was the second Native American to be ordained a bishop in the United States, and the first Native American archbishop. He chose as his episcopal motto: “As Christ Loved the Church” (Ephesians 5:25). He is author of two books: Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics (Servant, 2001) and Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday, 2008); and numerous talks, articles and pastoral letters. His writings, discourses, and homilies are available here.
Articles by Archbishop Chaput: