Commentary

How to Nurture Saints and Citizens

By Rev. Michael P. Orsi | July 17, 2020 | 12:13pm EDT
A cross stands against the sky. (Photo credit: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
A cross stands against the sky. (Photo credit: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

In his famous Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) Jesus draws an analogy between spreading the Word of God and casting seed onto the ground. What happens to the seed (which is to say what impact the Word has) is dependent on the soil receiving it.

Where it comes into contact with good, rich soil, it takes root and grows plentifully. Where the soil is shallow or lacking nutrients, the seed fails to sprout or is choked off with little effect.

Today the “soil” on which we live is very shallow and lacking in the nutrients required to grow holy people, to grow patriotic people, to grow people with values. And that depletion is evident in both religious and civic life.

How many folks today really know the basics of their Faith? Surveys reveal that shocking numbers of Catholics are unclear about such a fundamental teaching as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

This is the central premise of Catholic worship — what the Church calls the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians — the focus of every Mass. Yet we see great confusion about what the phrase “Real Presence” describes.

There’s no question that this demonstrates a significant deficiency in Catholic education (for those who have attended parochial schools), as well as an alarming collapse of religious awareness in general. We shouldn’t wonder that the Church struggles to survive in such poor soil.

Ignorance of the Faith finds a parallel in ignorance of the heritage and principles on which our country is founded. Partly because of the perverse distractions of pop culture, and partly resulting from intentional misrepresentations of our history, young people tend to have a seriously distorted view of the nation.

Seemingly endless protests, growth of so-called “cancel culture,” and increasing violence all reflect a view of society as hopelessly mired in racism and injustice. The idea of America as a nation striving to fulfill the ideals of Judeo-Christian virtue is something they would never conceive of, much less accept.

You could acknowledge that our progress has been uneven and we still have a long way to go. But they would insist we haven’t even started — dismissing all the effort and sacrifice of the past. Our revolution, the Civil War, the crusade against Nazism, the Civil Rights Movement, and the landmark legislation that came from it all mean nothing to them.

But it would be wrong to just rattle off a litany of our current deficiencies without at least suggesting some of the answers which God has provided. And answers do exist. After all, the Gospel is the good news, not the bad news.

Answers to questions about doctrines of the Faith can be found, with minimal effort, in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. And if that weighty tome strikes you as a lot to pore through, the most basic points are spelled out simply and clearly in the brief and highly accessible Baltimore Catechism, a reference book for children first published in 1885.

As a child, I memorized the Baltimore Catechism. In its later, updated editions, it’s still a handy resource — for adults as well as kids. Both catechisms are readily available. You should have them in your home, and children especially should be exposed to them.

You can buttress these basics with family viewings of some classic films, made back when Hollywood recognized a market for religion-based movies.

Films like “The Ten Commandments,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” or the TV movie, “Peter and Paul” provide wonderful introductions to our Faith story, from the Old Testament, through the Gospels, and beyond.

Then there’s “The Cardinal,” which deals with Catholic contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the South. “On the Waterfront” tells of the Church’s defense of workers against exploitative corporations and corrupt union bosses.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a classic musical, connects our religious heritage with our civic life. It tracks the career of Irish Catholic songwriter George M. Cohan, who wrote a song that would become the anthem of World War I, “Over There.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” tells the story of an Austrian Catholic family that escaped Nazi tyranny and eventually became noteworthy in American musical entertainment.

In the citizenship arena, we have ample resources for gaining an understanding of our history and national character. You can read America’s founding documents — indeed, you must read them — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution (especially the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights), the Federalist Papers, and other key writings, such as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address.

More recently, there are President Eisenhower’s farewell message, President Kennedy’s inaugural address, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Ronald Reagan’s 1975 discourse, “A Time for Choosing.”

Given current tensions, it’s risking some people’s anger to recommend reading Donald Trump’s speech at the March for Life. I waited a long time to hear the President of the United States defend unborn human life. But whether you like him or not, quite often the words which a prominent individual leaves behind are bigger than the person. This speech is an example of that phenomenon.

Then, there are any number of great books that elucidate the American character: the works of Mark Twain, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”

You can get a vivid picture of America’s colonial period by reading “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fennimore Cooper. And if you want to truly understand the horror of slavery, read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a deeply Christian novel that helped to change the course of history.

We have a long and full history which we must understand in order appreciate this country and its character. But the list of resources is endless; material to enrich the soil of our religious and civic life is all around us. God has given us what we need to survive and to bring us to his Kingdom.

We have to do our part, however. We have to put forth some effort, and we should accept that it’s not necessarily going to be easy. We start by informing ourselves and making sure our children are educated — in spite of the deficiencies of our schools, Catholic, public and private alike.

If we build up that good soil, the seed will have a chance to sprout and yield abundantly.

A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. His TV show episodes can be viewed online here.

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