By Charlie Johnston
At the Easter Vigil in 2008 Our Lord appeared to me and said, “Now the hour of darkness comes upon the world. But be not afraid. The darkness shall not prevail.” When I reported this visitation to my Priests, I told them not to over-interpret it, for the feel I had was that it was like we had entered the Garden of Gethsemane – not the passion of the world, but the prelude to it. It is not just the words that are important to interpretation when I am visited. There is much more than words – which I cannot explain – that are vital. Sometimes the actual words are just like the headline of a very detailed story.
I spent this last Lent up in the mountain cabin I have access to. It was largely dry and mild the whole time. Then the night before I was to come back to Denver for Easter, two feet of snow fell. So I celebrated Easter via EWTN where Fr. Anthony Mary, who I visited and had lunch with last year, celebrated Mass. I always feel a little rush of joy when the celebrant at an EWTN Mass is one of the friends I made there and at Hanceville. Late in the day on Easter Sunday, after the sun had set, the Lord informed me that the world has entered the fullness of the Storm. (His actual words were, “Now the world enters the fullness of its passion.”)
I have spent the last three weeks contemplating how to convey the import of this message. It is tricky because many people have a little disaster-movie scenario in their heads – and that is the filter through which they see such things. It is not entirely wrong, but it badly misses the point.
The important thing as we enter this stage is not what happens without, but what happens within us and how we respond to the Lord’s call. In my piece, “I Proclaim the Rescue,” I said I think there will be a lot less violence than many people think and a lot more confusion and chaos in the fullness of the Storm.
There are actually two things that come to the fore in this intense period. First, it is the passing away of the old temporal order. The damage we have done is now fully terminal. Every new outrage (and there will be plenty) is just the clatter of another section of the wall falling, regardless of how it looks. You will now see many striking convulsions in the temporal sphere as the death spasms of the old order play out. Second, and far more important, it is the Springtime of the Gospel that St. John Paul spoke of for the 21st Century. As showy and booming as the passing away of the old order is, the Springtime of the Gospel is what is in our hands – and is dependent on our response for the fullness of its fruit.
So we have the moment of the authoritarian secularists collapsing in on itself before our eyes. It is a very messy business as they frantically try to re-assert control even as the walls cave. They are like a frightened man who, going into a skid on a snowy road, loses all control by braking hard and over-steering in an effort to keep absolute control. The situation has gotten beyond him and can only be salvaged by loosing a little control, not tightening it. The outrages visited ancillary to that fruitless effort can only distract us.
Juxtaposed to that secular crumbling, those of us of faith are entering into our moment, the Springtime of the Gospel. It is not a triumphal moment, not primarily a reward for trusting God. It is a call to action. I often say at presentations that “God wants all His kids back,” – and that we are called to behave so as to become a sign of hope to the very people who are tormenting us when they have lost all hope in human machinations. That will happen very quickly as the old order visibly passes away. It is a lot harder to do than to say, I well know. What we are called to is a stretching out of our hands, both to God and to our neighbors, to become more and better than what we are. Paradoxically, that is accomplished primarily through simplicity, through learning a childlike trust that, though not blind to frightening temporal events, sees beyond them to the spiritual reality God calls us to.
I was overjoyed at my visit to New England. I gave three public presentations and participated in 10 private gatherings. Last year, when I went around the country, there was a certain nervousness at the beginning of most presentations. Some was because of things folks had heard of me, but overwhelmingly it was due to the clearly deteriorating state of the culture and the world. Those presentations always ended with people reacting with great hope and joy. I was grateful for that, but prayed that it would spread, that my friends in the crowds would become carriers of that sure hope. In New England earlier this month, the crowds were joyful from the start, even though the world is already much darker than it was when I set out last year. It is because little groups have sprung up across the region, meeting regularly with each other and committed to acknowledging God, taking the next right step and being a sign of hope to each other and those around them. As people have reduced the scope of what they need to do and concentrate on the little they can right in front of them, hope and joy are blossoming like roses and tulips after a spring rain. They are giving it to Jesus – and this same Jesus, who once accepted two little fish from a boy and fed a multitude with them, is doing the same with the little joyful efforts of those who are giving their little fishes to Him.
It was a profound sign of hope to me, for I reasoned that if this is happening around the country then we are well-prepared with a cadre of people who, even as things get darker and more fearsome, will get more steady and deliberate, rooting their trust in the Lord of Hosts and spreading that calm and confidence to those around them.
How, then, do we prepare to spread hope and joy as temporal things visibly crumble before even the most willfully blind? Actually, the debate over Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation has been very helpful to me. Here at this site, we have had a wide array of opinions expressed, often in pointed contrast to each other, but respectful of the Pope and each other even when vigorously expressed. I have been, as usual, horrified to read through some of the toxic vitriol that passes for debate on some other sites. Meantime, I have seen three pieces on it that strike me as deeply insightful. One is by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, another by Cardinal Burke – both men who always have something to say that is worth hearing. The third, perhaps surprisingly, is a piece in the Wall Street Journal. I was less surprised when I saw it was written by Nicholas G. Hahn III, a young man who worked with me in a campaign a few years back and who I pegged as an up-and-coming intellect. My friend, the late Tom Roeser, had told me to keep an eye on the fellow as he had some real promise. Glad to see young talent blossoming. Though these pieces have significantly different points of view, they are all stated in a way that builds up the faith and the faithful rather than in bombastic tones of denunciation.
I always used to tell candidates to “never give counsel to your fears.” It is easy to say – and heaven knows that every pundit who has little at stake is always strikingly brave in theory. But it is brutally tough when you are under both the gun and the microscope – when a miscalculation can have devastating public consequences. Your mind starts making a frightening inventory of all the things that could go wrong, all the ways that you could be tripped up, all the ways in which your career could suddenly crash and burn. But that way lies paralysis, a state which makes you useless.. You can recover from error, particularly if you own up to it as soon as it’s clear – and do it without mealy-mouthing. You can’t recover from being perpetually frozen in place, trying to cover your hide.
I have said that confusion and chaos will rise like a tide…and so it already has. Though I often gripe about it, I well understand the motivations behind both the folks who are perpetually searching for the flaw in every statement for error – and the folks who are constantly trying to abandon principles out of charity. Many of those who search for the flaw in everything have seen the havoc wrought by such things as the “spirit of Vatican II” from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s – and by indifferent formation by leaders who should have cared better for the souls entrusted to their care. They rightly fear more erosion of the faith – and so are hyper-vigilant. Some of those who are constantly wanting to loosen and change the rules were seared by a hyper-legalism that drove people away, that laid heavy burdens of despair on them without helping them to bear those sorrows. They rightly fear driving more people to despair and away, and so want to give what comfort they can. Now some who always search for the flaw just like to have something to condemn in order to feel righteous. Like the old song, they are only happy when it rains. Some who always try to loosen the rules just want to destroy the foundations of the Church – and like it when “lesser” mortals are dependent on them that they may feel righteous. It is not to either of these that I speak to now.
Both those who sincerely want to protect the integrity of the Deposit of Faith, but express it through a hyper-vigilance and those who want to call the lost back but do so by an excessive permissiveness that deforms the foundational doctrines of the faith are giving counsel to their fears. Protecting the integrity of the Deposit of Faith and effectively calling the lost back in a time of massive disorder is not an ‘either-or’ proposition: it is a ‘both-and’ endeavor. We need the dynamic tension of both perspectives – and all of us need to be better, to make our cases with vigor yet without giving counsel to our fears, to listen to each other while assuming each other’s good will.
The last three Popes, St. John Paul, Benedict XVI and Francis are the three chapters of the Book of the Storm in my mind. St. John Paul was a modern-day St. Paul, boldly re-evangelizing a world that had gone functionally pagan and church leaders who had badly mangled doctrine under the false “spirit of Vatican II,” an effort to conform to a pagan world rather than evangelize and renew it. St. John Paul, an architect of Vatican II, defined the authentic spirit of the council against the many abuses that had risen in its wake – and raised an army of fervent new believers from the swamps of despair. Pope Emeritus Benedict is a modern-day St. John the Evangelist, supremely wise and steady, taking sound doctrine and expressing it with a high elegance, raising it to a profoundly poetic refinement. If you read nothing else by him, get his magnificent ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and see if you don’t agree with me on this. And now comes Pope Francis, a modern-day St. Peter, often brash and impulsive, but ever driven by a profound love and restless eagerness to bring all into the safety of the Barque of Peter.
I see a divinely appointed mystical significance to the sequence of these three Popes. In his eagerness to bring all to the safety of the faith, Pope Francis often turns up with a few weeds in the bundles of wheat he gathers. Without the massive reform of widespread doctrinal abuse St. John Paul accomplished and the refinement of doctrinal expression Pope Emeritus Benedict brought to bear, there might be real danger in the sometimes scatter-shot approach of Pope Francis. But now is a time of gathering in. Pope Francis firmly grounds himself in the work of St. John Paul, Pope Emeritus Benedict and various Doctors of the Church. Better, I think, he should gather some things in that might better be left out than leave out anything that should be gathered in. And so, before God set Pope Francis out to gather in the lost, He set St. John Paul and Pope Emeritus Benedict to strengthen, fortify and renew the Church’s firm foundation.
Now comes the time to choose. As the convulsions that mark the falling of the old order move to center stage, you can do nothing to stop them – nor even much to influence them. Let them not distract you. As the tumult raises up great chaos and confusion, there will be many times you cannot see the way forward, when you do not understand the ways of the world or even the words of the Church. Let this not dismay you. Rather, choose to believe the words of Our Savior, His promise that the faith of Peter shall not fail – even when you do not understand. Amidst the tumult of economic, military, diplomatic, cultural, and global convulsions, choose to believe the promise of Our Lord that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church – and resolve to join the vanguard assaulting those gates by doing the little right in front of you, by spreading hope, by lighting the candle of those right next to you until the whole world glows in eager expectation of Rescue. Do this even when you cannot see the way forward because of the cloud of dust raised as the walls of temporal edifices fall. For those of you sent out to gather others in, give thanks for those, like Cardinal Burke, who man the desk of quality control that the integrity of the faith be maintained. For those protecting the integrity of the deposit of faith, give thanks for those who, like Pope Francis, go forth and get their hands dirty in the effort to pull every soul to safety they can. We need each other.
When my Archbishop, Denver’s Samuel Aquila, issued his formal statement concerning my writings and presentations, I received notes of congratulations from several officials from other Dioceses whom I have become friends with. They understood the formal language of the Church and that this was about as positive a statement as I could get at this stage of things. My favorite was a sort of prose poem built around a Gospel passage, sent to me by an official from an Archdiocese on the Coast. It read:
“Just read your post. Your attitude about the Archbishop’s determination is perfect.
Mt. 11:6 And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
You are not endorsed and not condemned.
Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
Christ himself would have considered this a victory! Still free to spread the Message he was sent to proclaim.
Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
While the ruler of this world holds sway, a little freedom can go a long way.
Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
Every grace and peace in Christ, Charlie.”
Above all, as we struggle to make our way through the wind and waves of this rising Storm, to gather our brothers into the safety of the Barque of Peter, let us reason together, let us work together, let us build each other up even in disputes – and let us take no offense at each other.
As the walls of the old order fall, revealing the barrenness of designs not built on the foundation of the Gospel, let us stand revealed as robust saplings grounded and growing in Christ – that as those who have vested their hopes in things that are passing away go into despair at what is lost, they see us and find new hope in what is vital and new, growing joyfully in the firm foundation of several millennia of truth.
The fullness of the Storm has begun. But it is a new Advent, the Springtime of the Gospel. You are not called to look back in fear at what is dying, but to participate actively in this Springtime, that you may help prepare the way for the Rescue. Put your hand to the wheel, your shoulder to the plow, and take no offense at each other as you, too, proclaim the Rescue.
What a joy to be alive in these times! May your children, your grandchildren, and their children speak with joy for many years of the work you did to usher in the Springtime of the Gospel. Let them rejoice that you had the vision and faith to understand that that is what the fullness of the Storm truly was. The Lord of Hosts is also Master of the Storm – and He calls you now to prepare the way.