“Let the games begin”–these were the words of Philadelphia’s articulate mayor–Mayor Nutter who spoke as part of the opening ceremonies this afternoon. After years of planning the big moment had finally come and Philadelphia was ready. The massive Conference Centre held about 4-5K people and the ambiance was electric. Accolades were spoken, gospel music was sung and gifts were presented. The City of Philadelphia even presented a specially made bicycle to Archbishop Chaput for Pope Francis. It was a specially made Breezer bike with a cross and coat of arms emblazoned on the frame and a chain guard in the shape of angel wings. It was referred to by Nutter as a ‘people’s bike’ for a ‘people’s pope’. Along with the pope’s bike there were 100 similar bikes donated to Philadelphia community projects–not only to reflect Pope Francis’s concern for the physical environment but also his deep concern for the spiritual, social and economic environment of all people .
In the morning before the opening ceremonies Don, Mitchell Kalyn and I went to visit the Liberty bell. It seemed fitting that the city that gave birth to the Declaration of Independence and rang a bell for freedom should be the site of the first ever North American WMOF. It was particularly interesting that it is particularly in the call to ‘freedom’ many former Catholic’s have rejected the faith. And it was very fitting that Bishop Robert Barron in the first keynote address spoke of the two ways we can understand freedom–one leading to ‘excellence’ and the other leading to ‘indifference’. To listen to the entire talk online Click here.
Bishop Barron began his talk speaking on the human person as the “image and likeness of God”– a notion which encompasses within it a profound mission and responsibility. This understanding which is foundational for our faith ( both East and West) is meant to be shared with the entire world as the answer to all humankind’s deepest desire and longings. However, he clearly recognized the current culture which is one of what he called the “privatization” of religion”–where I just keep my beliefs to myself. However, in an effort to call all the faithful forth to a holy mission of following our Lord in storming the gates of hell itself–oh my–he assured us that our Catholic faith was never intended to be, nor could it be, some sort of safe ‘hobby’.
Quoting the protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, Bishop Barron told the faithful from over 100 countries, that we discover who we are by answering the question, what or whom do we worship? Do we put God first or is it something else in our lives that comes first? Do we try to find our meaning and purpose in the things of this world that always and inevitably let us down? We know that making such things as wealth, power, possessions and pleasure our priority, and in effect our idols, leads nowhere. All of these things have the power to cause us to harm ourselves in there pursuit attempting to fill the emptiness within us. God on the other hand, will set us aflame but like the “burning bush” will never consume or destroy us as most of famous atheists from Freud to Hitchens feared. “If I follow God and adhere to the teachings of the Church I will not be free!” Not so says Bishop Barron, we just need to get back to the correct understanding of our freedom.
We were also reminded by Archbishop Chaput reflecting on the readings on the mass that we must always put God first–not family–in order that we have the capacity to really love our family. In this he echoed the words of Catherine Dougherty of Madonna House–“I am third”–first Christ, then my family,and from a Christian perspective that broadens out to mean all humanity and then me. It is this correct ordering of our priorities that reflects true love. But true love is always premised upon true freedom(we can never love if we are not free–as love cannot be forced), so what then is the correct way to understand freedom?
Freedom that leads to indifference, unhappiness and ultimately unfulfilled desires is the type freedom that sees all ‘law’ as an imposition and annoyance. ‘Do your own thing’ and define your own reality is the banner of this type of freedom, but as Bishop Barron clearly pointed out nothing great can be accomplished with this kind of freedom. Using the examples of excellence in sports or the arts, he very clearly showed that without the discipline of the rules no skill is ever mastered. No one hands a child a golf club or a violin and says–no worries just do whatever you want with this and then reasonably expects the child will ever be able to play a game or a piece of music with any finesse . Instead skill and discipline are slowly and methodically imparted. So too is it with our faith. It is through the Church that God “first makes the achievement of ‘the good’ possible and eventually effortless”–in this the ‘law’ is not the enemy of freedom but the “fundamental condition for the possibility of freedom” according to Barron. Furthermore it is in the family, the “domestic church” which needs to be ‘rebuilt’, as Archbishop Chaput reminded us in his sermon, in order that in the family, these virtues might be honed and realized.
It is this freedom that is the basic condition for the achievement of the Church’s “extravagant demands” on the faithful, not of mediocrity, but of holiness–that we might bring Christ’s sanctifying grace to the whole world. In the words of the Fathers of the Church –“Christ became man so that we might become God”. Not that we should become a deity but rather, that we, shining forth in God’s ‘image and likeness’ may proclaim this potential destiny for transformation and glory to all humankind. In particular we are called to the task of the ‘new evangelization’–the evangelization of the many many Catholics who have not heard the exciting good news and thus no longer bother to attend Sunday Mass or Divine Liturgy, which is a primary source of God’s Grace for the faithful.
There is much work to be done. As Don, Mitchell and Kalyn and I picked out which of the great breakout sessions to attend over the next few days we shared our excitement to learn from the ‘best of the best of the best’ on how we might participate in this great mission.