Men Without Chests
Faith and Culture
"Men without Chests"
(C) Third Millennium, LLC
Deacon Keith A Fournier
How well I remember the day that Congress voted to award Pope John Paul II the Congressional Medal of Honor. I had just awakened, grabbed the paper, and read the delightful--but ironic--news. By a vote of 416 to 1 the U.S. House of Representatives voted to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to Pope John Paul II. This medal is the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. Government. The last recipient of the honor had been the late and great champion of the faith, John Cardinal O'Connor.
After almost inhaling my morning cup of coffee, I began my morning prayer. As a Catholic clergyman (a deacon) I am committed to reading and praying the "Office" or the Liturgy of the Hours (formerly--and still affectionately--called the "Breviary" by some priests) Especially since the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church, all the faithful have been encouraged to use this wonderful framework as both a backbone of their own devotional life, and a means of experiencing their solidarity with the universal Church.
Deacons, like priests, vow at their ordination to do so. I have been praying the Hours for years, having begun the practice long before my ordination. It is the backbone of my prayer and helps frame my life as a Catholic Christian. It helps me breathe and live with the Church and continually shows me the prophetic timeliness of the Catholic faith to every age and culture. We humans have not changed that much in spite of all of our claims at advancement. We are still only a Savior away from barbarism.
That day, as is so often the case, I experienced the timeless relevance and universality of the Christian message and mission. In the liturgical cycle it was Wednesday of the fifth week of Easter. The texts presented an excerpt from an ancient Christian manuscript entitled the "Letter to Diognetus." Historians tell us that this letter was written by an anonymous Christian leader to a Roman inquirer to the Christian faith. Ancient Rome prided itself on having attained the heights of civilization and sought to spread its "splendor" throughout the known world. Yet, like contemporary America, ancient Rome had succumbed to a hedonism and barbarism, license disguised as liberty.
Romans in the highest echelons engaged in serial infidelity. This "enlightened" world power had become a culture of death and hedonism. People had, in their unrestrained lust, given over to the use of others for their own self gratification. The society had become homosexualized. Human life was no longer valued. Though primitive abortion was practiced, the practice of exposure was actually championed. That practice entailed leaving unwanted babies on rocks to be picked up by traders, sold as slaves or prostitutes, or eaten by birds of prey. Roman "civilization" had no understanding of the dignity of every human life and, therefore, the nation had no foundation upon which to build a truly civilized and free society - no matter what claims they made to the contrary.
The anonymous author in this piece told the inquirer that "Christians are indistinguishable from other men ... yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as if they were only passing through. ... Like others they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals but not their wives. ... To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body."
This is still true in our age--in our modern Rome--that, like its ancient ancestor, is given over to the excesses of its own various forms of lust and the idolatry of self. Ancient pagan Rome finally succumbed to the irresistible appeal of what Pope John Paul has called the "splendor of the truth", the claims of Jesus Christ proclaimed by and demonstrated in the lifestyle of those who bore His name and His likeness. Christianity triumphed because it was so compelling and attractive.
Pagan Rome had growing numbers of desperately unhappy people, broken by excess and disillusioned by the siren song of hedonism. They heard the truth that set them free. That same ancient but fresh and ever new truth has been tirelessly proclaimed in word and deed in our contemporary culture by Pope John Paul II. It must now be courageously proclaimed and lived by the followers of the One who claimed - and still claims- to be the Way, the Truth and the Life.
It took a long time for the Christians in ancient Rome to turn the tide of darkness and it involved extraordinary sacrifice. But they knew then, and we must rediscover, that this is the mission of those who carry on the redemptive work of the One who hung on a tree for the sins of the whole world. Through our lives, He still proclaims and demonstrates the only truth that still sets men, women, children and entire cultures free.
The anonymous author wrote: "It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. ... As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian's lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself."
John Paul II has certainly not excused himself. Having recently celebrated his eighty third birthday, he presses on in his task. Though racked in pain and bearing the "disability" of Parkinson's, he continues on a global redemptive mission. This prophet in the chair of Peter has dedicated His life to demonstrating the truth of the Gospel message and building what he calls a new "culture of life" and "civilization of love". He is a prophetic sign of what he proclaims in both word and deed.
I remember as though it were yesterday, the vibrant mountain climber poet Pope who stood so boldly for the dignity of every human life from conception till natural death; the young energetic Pope who called contemporary cultures of death to cease from their barbarism, seemed to fill every room he entered and turned entire the heads of entire nations. I prayed back then that the Lord would allow him to serve for a long pontificate. Well, he has. Now, in the autumn of his life, he again shows us a face of the complex beauty of life, this time through the whisper of an old voice and a seasoned smile, less robust but still so very beautiful, surrounded with wrinkles. Carrying the crosier of the crucified Christ, whom he has served so well, he now presides over the Church from a wheelchair - how prophetic, and how fitting it all seems!
That smile that has captured so many souls for the Lord throughout his extraordinary pontificate still draws Gods children of every color, nationality, age and stage. He began his ministry with those now famous words "be not afraid", the same words that were spoken by the angel to the little virgin of Nazareth. Those words still bring heaven to earth. Towering over moderns, this man of the ancient - yet ever fresh - Christian faith proclaims the timeless truth without fear. Bravery such as his is only truly honored when it is duplicated in the lives of those who are continually touched by its example.
Congress made a wise and commendable choice that day by deciding to give him a medal of honor. However, we must pick up the cause because it has proven to be a hollow gesture. Though they gave him a medal of honor, the leaders of this nation have still not summoned the courage to end the brutality of even the most heinous of crimes against life, the infamous procedure known as partial birth abortion, a contemporary form of exposure.
Fortunately, the day seems closer now.
I remember being pained by the irony of that day. The Congress voted to bestow this prestigious civil honor to the one who stands for a kingdom "not of this world". The commendation from the House praised the Pope's commitment to "the freedom and dignity of every individual human being" and for "using moral authority to hasten the fall of godless totalitarian regimes." Yet, this was the same Congress that could not muster enough votes to override then President Clinton's veto of a bill that would have stopped the barbarism of partial birth abortion where a child is partially delivered and then has her brains sucked out.
I remembered my mother's sage words that morning as my last drop of coffee and my prayer ended. She would often ask when we kids had done only the "bare minimum" of basic chores like cleaning our room and then sought a reward of some sort. She would ask: "What do you want, a medal or a chest to pin it on?"
John Paul has both. He has a big courageous chest filled with the presence of God, a passion for truth and a thirst for souls; a chest so big that it took the bullet of an assassin and then embraced him in a prophetic act of healing. Yet many of those who awarded him that medal - and those who have succeeded them in office - are what the late great British author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, in his prophetic work The Abolition of Man, referred to as "Men Without Chests!"
I concluded my morning prayer that day with a closing petition--that when they pinned that medal on this Pope's chest, they would come to see the truth which he incarnates--and that these men (and women) without chests would change. That somehow they would reach deeply within themselves, to that place in all men and women reserved for truth and summon the moral courage to lead our modern Rome to a future of civility and compassion.
Well, it is now several years later and the task still waits. This October, we will honor this wonderful Pope for twenty Five years of service to the Church and the world. Perhaps by then, the legislation banning partial birth abortion will be signed by the current American President. Admittedly, this is only a miniscule step toward building a new culture of life and a civilization of love - but a step none the less. It would also be a wonderful gift for this champion of life.
America desperately needs to elect to public office men and women who, like John Paul II, recognize that the freedom and dignity of every human person, from conception to natural death, is the fundamental human rights issue of our age; men and women who will serve under the banner of authentic human freedom and reject the counterfeit of freedom as a raw power over others. We need public servants who can discern the difference between ordered liberty and license and who are not afraid to speak - and to lead - in accordance with timeless truth.
Only then will our nation recover the true moral authority to lead. We need men (and women) with chests.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a constitutional lawyer, policy activist, and the President of Your Catholic Voice Foundation. He is a graduate of the American campus of the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University.
Your Catholic Voice is a movement to promote faithful citizenship based on the fundamental truths of the Catholic Church relating to Life, Family, Freedom and Solidarity. For information go to Your Catholic Voice http://www.yourcatholicvoice.org
Your Catholic Voice Foundation
http://www.ycvf.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - President, 757 546-9580
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