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Men Without Chests

7/13/2003 - 8:05 AM PST

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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, ...

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