Some of you probably saw a film that came out last year, The Children of Men. The story is set in Britain in the year 2021, and the premise is that there hasn’t been a child born on the planet since 1995. Nobody knows the reason why. Humans have somehow become infertile. And all the efforts of all the world’s governments and scientists to find a solution have proved futile. The drama, of course, involves a “miraculous” pregnancy and the journey of the expectant mother and her companion as they try to bring the baby into the world. It’s a film worth seeing. But unfortunately, it’s only very loosely based on the P. D. James novel of the same name. I say “unfortunately” because James’ book is a deeply Christian fable about our times.
The “signs of our times” for us priests
And that’s what I’m here to talk to you about today – the signs of our times and what they mean for us as priests. We could choose dozens of different trends to discuss, but I want to focus on six specific signs: the confusion of priestly identity; globalization; the worship of science; the diminishment of the human person; the rise of practical atheism; and sex as a cheap substitute for transcendence.
I start with some prior assumptions. Here they are: Being a priest means being a man of God among the children of men. It means being a spiritual father to the children of God. It means knowing yourself to be a child of man and a child of God like all others – yet a man set apart to lead others by a personal calling from Jesus Christ himself: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.”
1. He who sees you sees the Father
Now, the first key sign of our times is that everything I just said about the priesthood is disputed. Of course, it shouldn’t be. It’s the teaching of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Church. But ever since the Second Vatican Council, there’s been a real confusion about who we are as priests and what we should be about. We’ve “functionalised” the priesthood, reduced it to the performance of certain tasks.
But being a priest isn’t a job. It’s a new way of being. A real transformation took place when you and I were ordained. Like that of the bread and wine in the Eucharist, this transformation can’t be explained by physics or biology. We have a new identity. We can call it an “incarnational” identity. We’re still men. We’re still sinful clay. But we’re men called, and given the grace, to make God incarnate through our words and actions. Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” You stand in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. And whoever sees you, sees the Father.
In the course of these talks I want to speak to you brother-to-brother and father-to-father. The first thing I want to say is that we need to support each other. We need to remember who we are. We are fathers.
“The apostles were sent as fathers,” St. Augustine said. You have been ordained to continue the apostles’ mission, the mission entrusted to them by Christ. You, too, are sent by the Father to be fathers to his children. To raise them up in holiness through the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance. To guide them through the problems of this world until one day they reach their Father’s house and see him face to face.
To be good fathers, we need to know the world we’ve been sent into. We’ve got to know the lay of the land. Our mission territory isn’t simply the parish we serve, or the city we live in. It’s also the geography of the human heart, mind, body and soul. It’s a culture. We have to know what our people are up against. We need to understand what’s going on around them and what’s going on inside them. That’s what it means to know the signs of the times.
A second sign of our times is globalisation. I can stand here in Melbourne, having travelled nearly 9,000 miles from the United States, and presume to start my talk by mentioning a movie made in Hollywood based on a book written by a British woman. And I can presume that most of you have either heard about that movie or seen it, and that some of you probably even read the book. That’s a kind of everyday description of what’s been wrought by globalisation. Globalisation is a defining sign of our times. Globalisation could be a good thing, an expression of our common humanity and solidarity. But right now, globalisation is too often about money and power. Whatever material benefits it may one day bring, globalisation to date has produced a new kind of colonialism of the intellect and spirit.
What do I mean by that? On the outside, globalisation is about “stuff” – the making and moving of products and services. On the outside we see that, despite vast differences in history, culture and language, the different peoples of the world are now wearing the same clothes, listening to the same music, drinking the same soft drinks, and watching the same movies and TV shows. And most of this “stuff” either comes from American-related companies or is driven by American-influenced sensibilities and financial interests.
This has led to a peculiar vision of human life and happiness. Globalisation’s biggest impact is “anthropological.” It’s creating a new kind of secularised man. Men and women who are very often friendly, open and adaptable; but also pragmatic and thoroughly materialist. It’s a vision of life that both appeals to and repels us at the same time.
That’s where P. D. James comes in. James is known as a great writer of detective mysteries. But she’s also a serious Christian, an Anglican. And The Children of Men is an anti-utopia comparable to Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. James asks us to imagine what the world would be like if we knew we were the last generation to inhabit the planet. What would we do? How would we behave? What would we believe? Like Huxley and Orwell, she uses an imaginary future to help us see the present more clearly, to suggest where we’re likely to wind up if we keep heading down the path we’re on. So I want to use James’ critique as a kind of touchstone for looking at the signs of our times.
3. Worship of science
One of the signs she sees – the third sign on my list today – is the worship of science. “Western science has been our god,” her main character, Theo, says. He continues, “In the variety of its power [this deity] has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us … the anaesthetic for the pain, the spare heart, the new lung, the antibiotic, the moving wheels and the moving pictures.”
Pope Benedict XVI has also talked about science and technology as one of the signs of our times. We can manipulate the human genetic code and the physical composition of matter. We can change the course of rivers and travel into space. We can “create” new life in a lab and destroy it there as well. Benedict says, “Because we live in a world that almost always appears to be of our own making” there’s no room left for God. And that’s true, materially speaking: We don’t have any real “need” for God. We feel like we’ve got things under control. We’re self-sufficient.
For you and me as priests, this “sign of the times” means we’re ambassadors of God sent to a world that thinks it’s getting along quite nicely without him. We have to deal with a defacto atheism. We also have to grapple with a strange sort of anti-humanism. Because when God is out of the picture, our image of man loses focus, too.
It’s a curious irony. We replace God with science and technology. We enjoy our achievements and relish the works of human hands and minds. But we forget that we ourselves are the “works” of our Creator. When we do that, we lose our own true identity. The Western tradition is founded on the biblical truth that the human person is created in the image of God. Without God, the human person becomes nothing unique; simply another creature.
As Benedict says, “A radical reduction of man has taken place. [He is] considered a simple product of nature and as such not really free, and in himself susceptible to be treated like any other animal.”
4. Diminishing the human person
Here’s another irony, and the fourth sign of our times. We reduce man to the status of an animal. And yet we proclaim ourselves to be great humanists. In fact, the reigning ideology of our times is what the Canadian Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, has labeled “exclusive humanism.” In this way of thinking, “human flourishing [becomes] the unique focus of our lives,” as Taylor puts it. But that flourishing is defined in strictly materialist terms. This world, and only this world, is presumed to be real. All that’s good, all that life can mean, is to be found contained in this world, in this life.
As a result, religion comes to be viewed as a reactionary enemy of human progress and freedom. Talk of God or transcendent values or aspirations that aim beyond this world are treated as a threat to humanitarian goals and progress.
We have a casebook example of this in the current Australian debates about stem-cell research and cloning. In this one debate we can see some of the most unsettling signs of our times. We see the worship of science, which is given the power to create and destroy new life. We see the degradation of the human person, who becomes simply biological matter to be manipulated in a laboratory. And we see the efforts of a materialist society to ban the memory of God and authentic Christian conscience from the public square.
Creating human embryos for the purpose of extracting their stem cells is a form of barbarism, whether it happens here, in China or in the United States. It’s the work of a culture bent on its own extinction. To do that kind of work, to make laws that promote that kind of work, shows contempt for the sanctity of human life. And so I want to urge you as strongly as I can: Don’t let anyone silence the voice of the Church in Australia on this issue. Please support Cardinal Pell and your bishops on these crucial matters.
I’m reminded of a line by the Dominican Father Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire. Lacordaire was once a militant atheist, well on his way to being an influential barrister when he converted to the faith and was ordained. During the persecutions in post-revolutionary France, he fought for the Church’s right to freely preach the Gospel. He said once: “The priestly word has been entrusted to me, and I was told to carry it to the ends of the earth, no one having the right to silence me on a single day of my life.” The priestly word, the Word of God, has been entrusted to us too, brothers. And no one, not even a member of Congress or Parliament or even an Attorney General, has the right to silence that Word.
5. Practical atheism
The fifth sign of our times is that the society we live in breeds a practical, workaday atheism. People go about their days as if God doesn’t exist. Because they live in a society that denies any presence or need for God, people learn to live without him. The deeper questions of human existence – where do I come from, what am I here for, what should be the purpose and direction of my life – these questions no longer seem relevant.
Theo, the P. D. James’ hero, expresses the sum total of his metaphysical beliefs in these few words: “That once I was not, and that now I am. That one day I shall no longer be.” I’m afraid that’s the unspoken creed of many of the people we serve, even many who sit in our pews every Sunday. But the human heart is made for worship, to serve something or Somebody beyond itself. There’s a hole now in the modern heart. It’s a void left by the absence of God. People fill that hole with all the sights and sounds and trinkets of our consumer culture. James’ character calls these things “my consolations.” But there’s something vampiric about the way consumerism works to “console” us for the loss of God. It keeps us absorbed in the unimportant while it drains out the life of the soul.
The rise of consumerist culture was one of the great worries of John Paul II in the later years of his pontificate. In his 1999 World Day of Peace message. John Paul writes:
“The history of our time has shown in a tragic way the danger which results from forgetting the truth about the human person. Before our eyes, we have seen the results of ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism, and Fascism…. No less pernicious, though not always obvious, are the effects of materialistic consumerism….” Those are strong words. John Paul argued that the habit of consumerist greed is “no less pernicious” in its effects than Nazism, Marxism, and Fascism. The effects are as deadly and as destructive as the murderous systems of the 20th century – ideologies that gave us the Holocaust, the gulag and the killing fields of Cambodia. John Paul finishes this quotation with a comment on what materialist greed entails. With this ideology, he says, there is an “exaltation of the individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations become the ultimate goal of life.”
This habit of consumerism forms the mind of the people we’re called to serve. It’s so damaging because it makes people prisoners of their selfishness. It invites them to create their own chains, to be willing addicts to their appetites and passions. It keeps them away from the only questions that matter: why we’re here, and where we’re heading.
6. Sex as a substitute for transcendence
I’ll mention a sixth and final sign of the times before I finish. It’s this. In a culture driven by selfishness, sex becomes a cheap substitute for transcendence. Malcolm Muggeridge once said of our age, “Sex is the mysticism of materialism.” He was right. Modern society chatters obsessively about sex. And if you listen carefully, you notice that the language used to describe sex is almost religious. Sex is portrayed as a kind of life force, the denial of which becomes a kind of mortal sin. The problem is that sex as a form of personal recreation is completely disordered. We’ve made it something utterly routine – a consumer commodity like everything else.
P. D. James describes how science and technology engineered away an essential dimension of sexuality – the power to create new life, to make babies. “Sex totally divorced from procreation,” is how she describes it. Through birth control and abortion, we’ve rendered sexuality both unnatural and infertile. The sexual sterility in the James novel is a metaphor for the spiritual barrenness of our world today. And make no mistake: The world she describes isn’t implausible. There are fewer children under the age of 5 in the world today than there were in 1990. If present trends continue, many people in the developed world will soon have no personal experience of having a brother, sister, aunt or cousin. Unlike any previous period in history, the depopulation of developed countries isn’t being caused by outside forces like wars, famines or plagues. We’re doing it to ourselves – destroying our young before they’re born; mutilating ourselves so we’re permanently incapable of creating new life. Modern birth control and abortion have wiped out more generations than all world wars put together.
The temptation of making the best we can
This is the world that you and I have been sent into as priests. The question then becomes: What are we to do? How are we to conduct our ministries as apostles and fathers? I’ll be focusing on that more in another of my other talks. Here I want to say only that the natural temptation is to try to make the best we can of a bad situation. There’s a certain misguided “realism” that tells us we should try to make whatever accommodations we can with the culture. That we should compromise in order to gain some small measure of influence over a culture that’s increasingly hostile to the Gospel. But that approach has been tried. It doesn’t work.
In her novel, James paints a ruthless critique of her fellow Christians. “During the mid-1990s,” she writes, “the recognized churches … moved from a theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism.” She describes one popular preacher who stopped preaching about the Cross altogether and turned the Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love” into a church hymn. Her caricature is useful. For more than a generation now, Christians have accepted the box that humanist ideology reserves for religion. With the best intentions, and often in the name of “dialogue”, we’ve contented ourselves with sentimental goals – helping the poor, comforting the hurting, offering people a space to pray. We’ve watered down our preaching, and replaced the Cross and the call to holiness with a “less judgmental” approach.
Rise up priests! We Christians – we priests – share the blame for the world we see around us. I’d like to quote Lacordaire again, words that were spoken in 1857, but should form a part of the priestly examination of conscience 150 years later:
Christian living is a rarity today, even among those who are Christians. The enfeeblement of character, the instability of conviction, the standardisation of personality, all seem to show that the power of the gospel is not impressing its mark on souls with sufficient force…. Easy morals have made their way everywhere; they have degraded many things and many men, even among the clergy. The clergy are perhaps even more lacking in inner resources than in theological knowledge or social conviction.
A world without children is a world without fathers. And the world is without children because the world has been left without a credible witness to God our Father. It’s significant that in P. D. James’ fable, the miraculous baby is conceived by the only two characters who try to retain some semblance of the true Christian faith. Even in the apocalyptic wasteland, every day they say the priestly prayers of the ancient Eucharistic service, asking their merciful Father to give them the bread of life. And the book ends with a priestly act – the baptism of their child. A child of man becomes a child of God. And like every new child of God, he is a sign of hope and the promise of God’s covenant.
Psalm 90 tells us that the same God who brings man to dust, calls the children of men to turn back to new life. He still issues that call today through you, his priests, his fathers. The children of men are waiting for their true fathers. They’re waiting for you!