Catholics At Work Lecture Series

Remarks by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
October 9, 2018
St. Raymond Parish
Dublin, California

Thank you, Bishop Barber and Tom, for your kind welcome and the chance to address the people of this diocese. It’s an honor to be a part of this distinguished lecture series, which has helped form the faithful in the Diocese of Oakland for 18 years.

I’ve been asked to speak this evening about the experience of the Archdiocese of Denver in promoting the new evangelization and to answer the question: ‘What has made us a hub for apostolates?’ As Tom Loarie puts it: “What’s Denver’s secret sauce?”

Before I share our experience, though, I think it’s necessary to briefly address what some are calling the “summer of scandal” that the Church has been suffering through.

To help orient us, I’d like to tell you about a Nigerian novelist named Chimamanda Adichie (CHIMA-MANDA / AH-DEE-CHEE). Most of you have probably not heard of her, but she describes herself as a storyteller and novelist. One talk that she gave in 2009 as part of the Ted Global talk series has the provocative title, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie recalls times in her life when she only knew one story about a person or country and this story caused serious misperceptions.

One anecdote from her upbringing and then her time in the U.S. for college is illustrative of the problems the Church is experiencing as a result of the abuse crisis we are confronting. Adichie recalls:

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight, we got a new houseboy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family. Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe.[1]

Right now, many Americans and people in other parts of the world – people who otherwise might be attracted to the faith – are hearing one story about the Church. To be blunt, they think that it is a place that is filled with pedophiles and abusers.

But you and I know that’s not true. We know that the overwhelming majority of priests are good men who love their people. We also know that Jesus Christ can and does radically changes people’s hearts, families and communities.

If we know some history, we also know that the Church has made numerous practical contributions to the common good in addition to bringing the Good News to countless peoples. To quote from Thomas Woods’ excellent book “How the Church Saved Western Civilization”…

One can scarcely find a significant endeavor in the advancement of civilization during the early Middle Ages in which the monks did not play a major role. As one study described it, the monks gave “the whole of Europe… a network of model factories, centers for breeding livestock, centers of scholarship, spiritual fervor, the art of living… readiness for social action – in a word… advanced civilization that emerged from the chaotic waves of surrounding barbarity.[2]

And that’s just naming a few stories about the contributions of the Church over the centuries.

Today, the Church is active in bringing the Gospel to people around the globe, making an eternal spiritual impact, while also serving the poor, sick and hungry out of love for Christ in these souls.

The Church is so much more than a single story, just as you are so much more than a single story plucked from your life history.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been asked to speak tonight about the “secret sauce” that has made Denver such a vibrant archdiocese. Now, to be honest, I don’t think there is a secret sauce whose recipe I can share with you that will magically change the Diocese of Oakland or any other diocese.

But what I can share with you is a series of things that have happened in our archdiocese, with the hope that it will help you hear how the Holy Spirit might be leading you to “put out into the deep” in Oakland.

To accomplish that task, I am going to break our experience down into three categories: 1) providing spiritual sustenance and inspiration, 2) cultivating a dynamic missionary culture, and 3) maintaining faith in difficulty.

Let me begin by giving you a 30,000-foot overview of how God has been worked in Denver.

For Catholics in northern Colorado, the spiritual energy that has powered our archdiocese over the last 25 years comes mainly from the visit of Pope Saint John Paul II in 1993 for World Youth Day. Building off that momentum, the bishops and laity of our archdiocese have, with the grace of God, cultivated an entrepreneurial spirit that has led to many active apostolates. Coupled with this dynamic culture of evangelization is a realism about the challenges the Church is facing, which gives us a sense of urgency, and helps us focus on deepening our faith, hope and charity to confront the challenges we are facing.

This has been our experience in broad brushstrokes, but I’d like to dive into this more deeply.

I am frequently asked by people what it is about Denver that has led to there being so many apostolates being founded there. With over 40 active apostolates in the archdiocese, it’s no surprise that the question gets asked, especially when one realizes how many of them have a national and even international impact, such as FOCUS or the Augustine Institute.

Just like you need nutrient-rich soil, sun and adequate water to succeed in gardening or farming, spiritual nourishment and inspiration was necessary for the formation of these apostolates. If you talk to the people in Denver, you will at some point in the conversation hear about World Youth Day 1993 and the visit of St. John Paul II. This event, in a place that was not on the U.S. Catholic map before it occurred, infused our local Church with the grace, energy and vision it needed to bring us to where we are today. It planted the seeds of inspiration in the hearts of many of the people who now lead apostolates like Amazing Parish, Christ in the City, or Endow.

St. John Paul II said that he chose Denver as the location for World Youth Day because he wanted to make Christ known in the modern metropolis.

Of course, his plan was not without its challenges. Because it was being held in a place that didn’t have a large Catholic population, the organizers expected a maximum of 100,000 people to attend.[3] At the same time, in the months before the event, the City of Denver experienced a string of drive-by shootings between teenage gang members that killed scores of people, even claiming the lives of some children. The randomness of the shootings, which occurred at places like the city zoo and claimed victims who were clearly not gang-affiliated, caused fear to spread through the city. The press dubbed it: “The Summer of Violence.”

The arrival of hundreds of thousands of World Youth Day pilgrims in Denver could have been tragic, but amazingly, the violence ceased. The chief of police said that no felonies were reported during the five days the pilgrims were present. In addition to this sudden peace, the locals were struck by the joy of the young people who came to Denver from over 70 countries.

It was these young people who St. John Paul II challenged with the Gospel and to whom he gave a sense of purpose and mission. He gave them spiritual food, telling them:

“The Spirit has led you to Denver to fill you with new Life: to give you a stronger faith and hope and love. Everything in you – your mind and heart, will and freedom, gifts and talents – everything is being taken up by the Holy Spirit in order to make you ‘living stones’ of the ‘spiritual house’ which is the Church. … This Church today, in the United States and in all the other countries from which you come, needs the affection and cooperation of her young people, the hope of her future.”[4]

St. John Paul II didn’t just point them to the mission of building up the Church and tell them they were an invaluable part of her life, he also challenged them to live that role with courageous love. At the closing Mass, he told the 750,000 people in attendance:

At this stage of history, the liberating message of the Gospel of Life has been put into your hands. And the mission of proclaiming it to the ends of the earth is now passing to your generation. Like the great Apostle Paul, you too must feel the full urgency of the task: ‘Woe to me if I do not evangelize’ (1Cor 9,16). 

Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel (Cf. Rom 1,16).[5]

Those five August days in 1993 produced many vocations to marriage, the priesthood and religious life. They also showed the Church in the U.S. that young people were thirsting for the joy and faith that they saw in the Holy Father and experienced in their peers. They knew from those days, that they were not alone in loving Christ and his Church.

About two months after World Youth Day had concluded, Denver’s Archbishop Stafford discovered that the Pope believed something profound and unexpected had happened during his visit to Colorado. When Archbishop Stafford visited the Vatican in October 1993, he was able to meet with the Holy Father. The first words St. John Paul II said upon seeing him were, “Ahh, Denver, Denver – una rivoluzione! (a revolution).”

Archbishop Stafford wasn’t quite sure what John Paul II meant, so he asked the staff of the Papal Household and was told:

“In the past before World Youth Day 1993 in Denver, Pope John Paul II had expected that the spiritual revolution within the Church would be initiated by the young people of the Catholic Churches in Eastern Europe. After Denver, he expected the anticipated spiritual ‘revolution’ to also be emanating from young Catholics of the West, especially the Americas. ‘Lux ex oriente et etiam ex occidente – ‘Light from the East as well as from the West.’”[6]

This moment provided the spiritual nourishment and inspiration that has made and continues to make Denver a place that is vibrant, even though we of course have our challenges.

But Denver has become a hub for new evangelization-oriented activity for more reasons than World Youth Day. Many places have hosted World Youth Day, but not all of them have seen the same groundswell of lasting enthusiasm and faith happen.

One possibility for that occurring is what I see as the second category of our experience – the intentional promotion by my predecessors of a culture of bold ideas – a kind of entrepreneurial approach – in response to the call for a new evangelization.

St. John Paul II first mentioned the need for a new evangelization in an address to the Latin American bishops’ conference in 1983. Then, he began to give it more definition in Redemptoris Missio, saying that it involves the re-evangelization of communities with Christian roots. In John Paul II’s later years, and subsequently in the pontificates of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, the new evangelization has come to be more fully understood as including both people who have fallen away from the faith and non-believers, as well as how the Church presents the Gospel in secular cultures.[7]

Every Catholic is called to participate in this effort by bringing the Gospel into our families, work, communities and relationships – a fact that this lecture series recognizes.

For many people in Denver, the moment that sparked a desire within them to boldly set out into to the deep was World Youth Day. But the good news for other places is that Jesus can use any moment of encounter and conversion to awaken this desire. Moreover, the people who attended World Youth Day speak about how they were moved by the challenging message and witness of St. John Paul II and their experience of the joy and community they found with their fellow attendees.

What was his message? It was to point to Christ as the source of abundant life and joy, as the Savior that the modern world longs for and searches for in so many other things but always comes up empty handed. In his person, St. John Paul II witnessed to that abundant life and joy as he sang along to songs with the youth, listened to their stories and celebrated the sacraments with them.

This can happen in Oakland, too. Jesus Christ calls each one of you his sons and daughters and has a plan for your life that is completely unique from anyone else’s. If he can do that for you, then he can do it for all of your fellow parishioners, your family, friends, and diocese.  Once you encounter Jesus and his Church in a life-changing way, the Holy Spirit will inspire you and others with courageous and innovative ideas to serve the Gospel and build the kingdom.

What we have seen in the Archdiocese of Denver is that the bishop needs to actively support those who have encountered Christ in a profound way and encourage any initiatives that they bring forward, exercising due prudence while also taking risks for the kingdom. Some endeavors will certainly come to nothing, but the reward for those that do succeed is great.

That means that with the right visionary leadership, support and reliance on God’s grace, it is possible to build a vibrant culture of missionary discipleship in Oakland. As people of faith, we must believe God’s story about our redemption and the possibility of holiness, not the single story that is told in the media.

To return to the analogy of good soil, this boldness in faith is an essential nutrient for creating and supporting an entrepreneurial spirit of evangelization. In God’s Providence, the Archdiocese of Denver has been blessed with faith-filled and visionary bishops in Cardinal Stafford and Archbishop Chaput in the years following World Youth Day, and their leadership has been instrumental in building a mission-centric culture.

In the six years that I have served as archbishop, I have worked to promote that culture and to cultivate an openness to new ideas.

I’ve been a priest of the Archdiocese of Denver for 42 years, so I know we have a long way to go. The number of people who are bravely stepping forward after having encountered Christ is not what it could be, and we know that future generations of Americans are drifting further away from any kind of faith, living a life that Pope Benedict XVI described as one of “practical” atheism, in “which the truths of faith or religious rites are not denied but are merely deemed irrelevant to daily life.”[8] Denver is a young city, and there are many, many young people living this way.

So the question we continue to ask is: ‘How do we maintain and deepen our faith and share it with others in a hostile cultural environment?’ The answer to this question could fill a book, but in the short time I have left, I will give at least the beginning of an answer, which is the third category of our experience in Denver.

I believe the first and most important thing we can do as Catholics, especially in these difficult times, is to renew our pursuit of the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. This is so necessary because these virtues orient us toward what truly matters – eternal life – allowing the disappointments, difficulties and even persecution we face to appear in context.

The Catechism describes the theological virtues as disposing us “to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have God for their origin, their motive, and their object – God known by faith, God hoped in and loved for his own sake.”[9]

The importance of faith is well demonstrated by the experience the disciples had fighting a deadly storm. You might recall from St. Luke’s Gospel that at one point Jesus told the disciples that he wanted to cross the lake. While they were sailing, Jesus fell asleep and they were overcome by a storm that made the waves so high that they filled the boat with water, endangering everyone in the boat.

St. Luke recalls: The disciples “went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’”[10]

We see from this interaction between Jesus and his disciples that he wants us to ask for the gift of deeper faith when it seems like everything is in disarray. This is not an easy teaching of Christ’s, but it is essential. Jesus does not invoke the strength of the ship’s construction or the closeness of the shore to assure his closest followers. No, he points them to their faith, to his saving power as the place to find their security. Similarly, our faith is not true because of the strength of our institutions, the members of the hierarchy, priests or lay people. Our faith is in Jesus Christ and the saving power of his Cross. He is the cornerstone of our faith!

It is certainly not easy to grasp on to this eternal reality with our minds and wills as we confront what appear to be more pressing, present concerns. But in the end, we are made for eternity, our souls are immortal, and their eternal fate is what matters most.

The Catechism explains the relationship between faith and hope. It says, with the foundation of faith, we can grow in hope, which keeps us from discouragement, sustains us during times of abandonment, and opens our hearts to the joy of eternal life.[11] It is precisely hope that we must cultivate and pray for in these times.

Finally, the most important of these virtues is charity. It is like the flame on a candle that gives life to what is otherwise a cold object. Charity, which is the love of God above all things and of our neighbors as ourselves, enlivens all other virtues and brings us into closer communion with the love of the Holy Trinity for each of us.[12]

So, let us resolve to freely commit ourselves to God, to believing his promises and receiving his love, to embracing his declaration that we are his adopted sons and daughters, [13] especially in trying times.

At a more practical level, we know from the early centuries of the Church how important strong, mutually supportive communities of missionary disciples were for the spread of the faith.

In that vein, I know that Bishop Barber has made the formation of missionary disciples within the diocese one of his three goals. We are also focused on this in Denver, since having people in our parishes who have encountered Jesus Christ and the Church in a life-changing way is at the core of creating these communities – their conviction and conversion forms the bedrock upon which works of charity are founded.

But in case this is too abstract, I would like to share a short story from a Spanish priest who was a missionary in Japan that Sherry Weddell recounts in her recent book, “Fruitful Discipleship.”

Father Alfonso Nebreda, S.J., shares a very moving experience at the end of his book “Kerygma in Crisis.” He had recently spoken about the meaning of life and death at a Japanese Catholic university and the next day a young female student called to make an appointment with him. She claimed to be an atheist. Her first stunning question was “Why can’t I kill my father?” Her father had been incurably ill for fifteen years and had recently asked his wife and daughter to hasten his death.

For over an hour, Father Nebreda listened deeply and prayerfully, seeking to understand her real concerns. Finally, she invited his response: “What do you really think?” He replied:

“You see, for me everything is different. … I also have my own sorrows and difficulties; I am in anguish too, by many things I do not understand. But for me, it is different because I believe firmly that behind everything is the hand of God and behind the hand of God is always the heart of God.”

As a result of that conversation, the student began to think seriously about “the mystery of God who is a Father, who has a heart.” Not only did she not kill her father, but she was eventually baptized as a Catholic.[14]

The difference that Father Nebreda made in the life of that Japanese family is a testament to the role that he played in making the community of faith he lived in stronger, holier and more life-giving.

In Denver we have begun a multi-year effort to create a culture that forms disciples like Fr. Nebreda in every parish. As a Church, we need to move from maintenance mode to a culture that expects missionary discipleship to be the norm.

In the words of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, we need “spirit-filled evangelizers” who “proclaim the good news not only with words, but above all by a life transfigured by God’s presence.”[15]

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution for the problems the Church is confronting today. But I do think that the extent to which parishes and dioceses can give throw their energy into encouraging a culture of discipleship, the more the laity and presbyterate will be willing to boldly step forward and take risks for the kingdom, out of love for Christ and in thanksgiving for how he was changed their lives.

At this point I would like to conclude by urging you to reflect on the fact that in God’s loving plan, you are more than you realize. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit desires an intimate relationship with each of you and within that relationship he will show you what he is asking of you.

The more that you can build positive momentum throughout the East Bay via discipleship-oriented events and grassroots efforts that promote an encounter with Christ and the Church, the more you will see a growth in people being moved by the Holy Spirit to advance the kingdom in creative ways.

At the same time, it is essential to develop the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity to sustain you, your families, parishes, diocese and the Church as a whole during these challenging times.

May the words of St. John Paul II the great evangelist inspire you in your efforts.

“Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. … Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man.’ He alone knows it.

So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”[16]

[1] “The danger of a single story”, TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2009. Accessible online at: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en#t-11899.

[2] Woods, Thomas E. Jr., “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization,” p. 5, 2005.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/13/us/pope-picks-denver-for-youth-rally.html

[4] Prayer Vigil, Part III, art. 1 https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1993/august/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19930814_vigil-denver-gmg.html

[5] Closing Mass for WYD Denver at Cherry Creek State Park, #6. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1993/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19930815_gmg-denver.html

[6] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/denver-archdiocese-world-youth-day-launched-spiritual-revolution

[7] Giszczak, Mark, The Strange Myths of the New Evangelization, May 2018. http://churchlife.nd.edu/2018/05/07/the-strange-myths-of-the-new-evangelization/#_ftn14

[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Nov. 14, 2012 General Audience, paragraph 4. http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20121114.html

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1840.

[10] Luke 8:24-25, NABRE.

[11] Cf. CCC, 1818.

[12] Ibid, 1822-29.

[13] Ibid, cf. 1814.

[14] Weddell, Sherry, “Fruitful Discipleship: Living the Mission of Jesus in the Church and in the World,” p. 60, OSV Press, 2017.

[15] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #259, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 2013.

[16] St. John Paul II, Inaugural Homily at St. Peter’s Square, Nov. 22, 1978. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1978/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19781022_inizio-pontificato.html