Dear Father N.,
Thank you for coming across town from your parish to ours to celebrate Mass for us as often as you do. As one of the few parish members (if not the only one) who doesn’t speak Japanese as a first language, I very much appreciate your written English translations of your homilies.
This past Sunday in your homily, you asked us to imagine traveling back to the 18th century in a time machine. You had us imagine trying to explain to the people of that time period certain 21st-century things with which they wouldn’t be familiar. You mentioned things such as TVs; surfboards; automobiles; stock markets (they actually did exist in those days, by the way); and last but not least, nuclear weapons. You posited that 18th-century people would think us “absolutely crazy” for even conceiving of such destructive weapons.
You also asked us to imagine being paid a visit by someone who’d traveled backward in time from the year 3000, and who described a future society without violence, poverty, and war. The lesson you were conveying, you said, is that we shouldn’t think it impossible to put an end to such social ills. “If we approach life with the attitude that something is impossible,” your English-version homily reads, “we’ll probably fail to achieve it.”
No decent person would disagree, Father, that the thought of nuclear war is horrible. And we all understand that violence, poverty, and war are important issues for the world, and the Church, to tackle.
But I have to wonder, Father, why you limited your comments to such temporal issues.
I can guarantee you that no one in attendance at this past Sunday’s Mass has ever been guilty of waging war on anyone. No one at the Mass has ever impoverished anyone by making him lose his job and home, or by cheating him out of his life savings. It’s a safe bet that few, if any, of the Mass attendees have ever committed an act of serious violence. And, of course, none of us owns a nuclear weapon or would ever be in a position to use one.
So why such an exclusive focus on such things, which we all have known since at least adolescence are bad? What about things that really affect the spiritual life of Catholics both here in Japan and abroad, as well as society in general in Japan and elsewhere in the world?
Your homily was all about imagining a world without violence, poverty, and war. But should we, as Catholics, not also imagine a world without abortion? Catholic teaching sees abortion as an intrinsic evil, after all, as Article 2271 of the Catechism clearly states.
So when imagining a world without grave social ills and articulating such wishes in a homily, Father, why did the killing of unborn babies go entirely unmentioned?
Well over one and a half billion unborn babies have been slaughtered worldwide in just the last three decades, over 60% of them right here in Asia. That easily dwarfs the number of people lost in whatever combination of wars we put together. War and violence? To call abortion a war on the unborn is completely accurate, and I can think of no worse form of violence than to crush or dismember a baby to death. I think you’d agree that infanticide is a far worse thing than poverty.
But it seems few priests anywhere, including here in Japan, want to speak out against it very much. It seems to go ignored in homilies, and neither the Japanese nor the English version of our bishops’ conference’s website contains very much condemnation of it in either language.
What about other areas of morality, Father? Imagining a world without poverty, violence, or war is nice — but even women competing to be Miss America routinely do that. As Catholics, we have to go deeper — a lot deeper.
What about sexual sins? While no one to whom you were preaching this past Sunday has ever been actively complicit in promoting poverty or war or major violence, many of us have been at one time or another guilty of moral transgressions in the sexual realm. Fallen human nature being what it is, we are at least conceivably prone to relapsing into it again at any time.
And it goes without saying, I think you’d agree, that sexual licentiousness and a hyper-obsession with sex are rampant in society, both in the West and in Japan. So why not encourage resistance to it by painting a vocal image of a world without it, as you did with poverty and war?
Why not also ask us to imagine a world where everyone treats sexuality as the great gift from God that it is and behaves accordingly?
Why not imagine or wish for a world where sexual behavior is consistently limited to the marital bedroom? You and I are both old enough to remember a time when TV shows would never show an unmarried couple in bed together — even the entertainment industry, never especially known as a beacon of solid morality, knew not to show certain sexual scenes on screen. Is sexual restraint according to the Christian ethic not worth wishing for on a society-wide level?
Even leaving aside the moral aspect of that issue, isn’t abstinence until marriage better even from a temporal standpoint? After all, it virtually immunizes people from the many sexual diseases out there and guarantees that children will be brought into the world with both biological parents present in their lives from day one. It also fosters a societal attitude of respect between men and women as dignified human beings, as opposed to modern society’s tendency to engage in sexual objectification.
Why wouldn’t you want to imagine or wish for that, Father? Why wouldn’t anyone who truly believes in the Catholic faith?
As you said yourself, if we approach a problem — including Christian sexual morality — with the attitude that it’s unrealistic or impossible, we’ll never achieve it. But we should at least value the beautiful Catholic sexual ethic enough to give it a try — and as a priest, you’re in a position to get the ball rolling by addressing it in your homilies.
As a Catholic, I also imagine and wish for a world where there is no longer so much lukewarm Catholicism. I imagine a world where (among other things) all Catholics attend Mass regularly, go to Confession at least a few times a year, and actually believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As it is now, most Catholics these days do not attend Mass or go to Confession regularly, and if recent U.S. research is any indication, most don’t even believe that the Eucharist is actually Christ’s Body and Blood.
It doesn’t have to be this way. At one time — just a few decades ago, in fact, so not really all that long ago — it wasn’t this way. And a return to regular Mass attendance, frequent Confession, and true belief in the Eucharist on the part of all baptized Catholics is possible. It’s certainly far more possible than a world totally free of poverty or violence.
But it won’t happen if we don’t, at least as a start, wish for it and pray for it. Actually hearing about it in a priest’s homily once in a while would definitely help.
Sorry to say this, Father, but your homily this past Sunday was representative of too many homilies given by priests these days here in Japan and around the world — totally focused on worldly matters, social justice issues, and all-around “feel-goodism,” to the total exclusion of anything about morality, devotion, Heaven and Hell, or salvation and damnation.
Yes, poverty and war and other social justice issues are important. They are a key focus of the Church’s mission and always have been. But they are not why Christ founded the Church. They are not the prime reason why Christ became Incarnate, or why He suffered and died and rose again. His mission, and the mission of the Church that He established, was to save souls.
So instead of focusing on exclusively worldly concerns while imagining ourselves either time-traveling to the past or being visited by time-travelers from the future, let’s imagine this: someone who’d never even heard of the Catholic Church before decides to attend one of your Masses and pays particular attention to your homily. What will he learn from it? Judging from this past Sunday, he would come away with the idea — the false idea — that the Catholic Church isn’t really a church at all, but a social activist organization that’s completely focused on worldly concerns but doesn’t give one flip about day-to-day morality or our eternal spiritual destiny.
I humbly ask that you make some changes in that regard, Father. I humbly beseech you to remember why you were made a priest in the first place — not to effect social change, at least not primarily, but to serve as an alter Christus and lead souls to Heaven, first your own and then those of the rest of us.
The Church today, here in Japan and worldwide, needs shepherds — not social justice warriors. Heaven knows there are plenty of the latter all over the place. But the former, sadly, are few and far between. So, Father, please do your part, however small, to turn that situation around.
Ken Foye is an American Catholic living abroad, teaching English writing, reading, presentation, discussion, and conversation classes at a four-year university in northern Japan. He is an Oblate of St. Benedict and is married to a Japanese convert to Catholicism. Among his academic research interests is the inclusion of faith and religion discussions in the English language classroom.