Even after a few weeks in Rome, where I was able to have some tremendously fruitful meetings and plenty of prayer time with brother bishops and the Holy Father, at the tombs of the Apostles, I simply can’t tell you how happy I am to be back here in the diocese, where indeed I have been sent as a successor to the Apostles, to maintain unity with the Bishop of Rome.
Please be assured that all of you were remembered very regularly in my prayers, especially at the holy places, during those days in Rome. I thank you for keeping me in your prayers — I could tell that I was being lifted up. And I bring a particular greeting from Pope Benedict XVI, our Holy Father, who offered his love and his Apostolic blessing to the whole diocese.
Now we find ourselves together at the beginning of Lent — Lent which leads up to the great Resurrection celebration. One of the greatest moments of that celebration of the Resurrection comes through the Baptism of new Catholics coming into the Church, where they put aside their old selves and come to be filled with the life of the Risen Christ, and so we get some lessons about Baptism in the readings of this past Sunday — the First Sunday of Lent.
Baptism is an appeal for a clear conscience
In the second reading from this past Sunday (1 Pt 3:18-22), St. Peter tells us that the washing with water in the Sacrament of Baptism is not a matter of cleaning off physical dirt, but is an appeal to God for a clear conscience. We don’t usually hear about Baptism in that way — directly connected to a clear conscience, and so it brings us to the question, “what is a clear conscience?”
A clear conscience is one that is inwardly at peace, and which has locked on to the Truth of Jesus Christ. Remember that our conscience never creates the truth; it doesn’t simply make up what is “true for me.” Rather, conscience locks on to the Truth of Jesus Christ as it’s taught in the Scriptures and in the doctrines of the Church.
If something is not clear from the Scriptures or the Doctrine of the Church, then conscience has to look for the proper course of action for one to take in one’s own life. But, if something is clear from Scripture and/or the teaching of the Church, that IS the Truth of Christ and the clear conscience can lock on to it, like radar locking on to its object, coming over the horizon.
So, St. Peter says, Baptism is an appeal to God for a clear conscience — and that is how one gets incorporated into the Catholic Church. One gets incorporated into the Catholic Church by receiving the gift of a clear conscience, formed according to the teachings of Christ and His Church.
Casting out the leaven of malice
If we look to the Gospel (Mk 1:12-15) and we consider our Baptismal promises, we consider the question, “do you reject Satan?” Baptism has everything to do with rejecting Satan, just as we see Jesus do during the 40 days and 40 nights in the desert.
The Preface prayer from this past Sunday’s Mass also said it very beautifully (and this is another gift of the new translation of the Latin!): Our Lord, the prayer says, “by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent, taught us to cast out the leaven of malice,” from our lives and from our world. By overturning the snares of Satan, Jesus taught us to cast out the leaven of malice — leaven is like the yeast that gradually affects the whole loaf of dough; and in this world there is a leaven of malice that needs to be cast out. There is something in the heart of man, and in our culture that needs to be cast out. And what is the leaven of malice?
The leaven of malice is forgetfulness of God, turning myself into God and thus forgetting that God is God. The leaven of malice in our society is the absence of God, which is another way of saying secularism, a world left to itself without God. That is the leaven of malice which is to be cast out.
Lent: A time of struggle against evil
And so, in Baptism, in rejecting the ancient serpent and his snares, we are freed from original sin and we are destined for salvation through the Blood of Christ because we have appealed for, and hopefully received, the gift of a clear conscience. The leaven of malice is secularism, the absence of God in the world, and Lent is a time of struggle with the leaven of malice, a time of struggle with the ancient serpent, a time of struggle against evil. As Cardinal Dolan said so beautifully the other day, Lent is our Catholic Spring Training for battle with the devil.
The devil, the ancient serpent, has taken on a new form; he has attacked us from a new front and we all know that. In our own time, there is a secular, Godless attack on our freedom of religion. We know what the Church teaches about abortion and we know what the Church teaches on contraception — that’s not the issue here.
The issue is much broader. Every human being, just because he or she is human, has a basic right to freedom of religion — that’s a right given by God which no one can take away. And right now our government is trying to take away the freedom of religion in a rather serious way, because this new regulation, which the government is trying to force on us, makes it impossible for a Catholic employer, who has his own business and who wants to follow the teaching of the Church, to follow the teaching of the Church. He cannot follow the teaching of the Church. If a Catholic employer is to obey the law, he has to violate his Catholic conscience. That beautiful gift of Baptism of a clear conscience is seriously undermined by government regulation.
Likewise Catholic institutions —hospitals, colleges, etc. — cannot follow their Catholic consciences without violating the law. If they violate the law, they pay big fines; if they pay big fines, they go broke and out of existence. That is the threat we face — the individual has to decide between following his Catholic conscience and obeying the law. It’s untenable and unconscionable for the government to put us in that situation. Catholic institutions will have to pay fines so as to go bankrupt, or violate their Catholic conscience. This is an all-out divide and conquer attack on the Catholic Church.
Restore freedom of religion
It has already been said, and it’s going to be said over and over again, “but most Catholics are in favor of practicing artificial contraception . . .” That is not the point; the point is freedom of religion. And though it may well be a fact that most Catholics accept artificial contraception, the reality is that, as Cardinal George recently pointed out, the bishops do not speak for individual baptized Catholics who may no longer have a clear conscience, the bishops speak for Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit and the Church. And it can be that a majority of Catholics are simply not in tune with Jesus Christ and His Church for lots of reasons that one can understand, but nonetheless we cannot allow those reasons to mislead us.
If we’re going to overturn the snares of the ancient serpent and if we’re going to cast out the leaven of malice, then let’s get to it. There is plenty in print, including in the Catholic Herald in recent weeks, about what must be done and how to do it. But what we do must be done with prayer, and it must be done with charity. As Cardinal Dolan said, we’re not simply turning into a bunch of “Obama haters” — that is beneath our dignity. With charity and with prayer we seek to have this regulation repealed, using every tactic at our disposal, and in the end, if it is not repealed, we cannot obey it — whether the consequences are fines, or jail, or both.
Nothing brings out the best in disciples of Jesus Christ, like a straightforward persecution; and so with all of the troubles we have, we have tremendous hope that it might be the best Lent in our lives as Catholics. Let’s hope and pray that with God’s grace, that’s what happens.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. May you have a very blessed start to your Lent! Praised be Jesus Christ!