"And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall
and stand in the breach before me for the land ... ."
The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on December 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese's 1.1 million Catholics.
I begin this letter with a clarion call and clear charge to you, my sons and brothers in Christ: Men, do not hesitate to engage in the battle that is raging around you, the battle that is wounding our children and families, the battle that is distorting the dignity of both women and men. This battle is often hidden, but the battle is real. It is primarily spiritual, but it is progressively killing the remaining Christian ethos in our society and culture, and even in our own homes.
The world is under attack by Satan, as our Lord said it would be (1 Peter 5:8–14). This battle is occurring in the Church Herself, and the devastation is all too evident. Since AD 2000, 14 million Catholics have left the Faith, parish religious education of children has dropped by 24 percent, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19 percent, infant baptism has dropped by 28 percent, adult baptism has dropped by 31 percent, and sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41 percent. This is a serious breach, a gaping hole in Christ's battle lines. While the diocese of Phoenix may have fared better than these national statistics, the losses are staggering.
One of the key reasons that the Church is faltering under the attacks of Satan is that many Catholic men have not been willing to "step into the breach" — to fill this gap that lies open and vulnerable to further attack. A large number have left the Faith, and many who remain "Catholic" practice the Faith timidly and are only minimally committed to passing the Faith on to their children. Recent research shows that large numbers of young Catholic men are leaving the Faith to become "nones" — men who have no religious affiliation. The growing losses of young Catholic men will have a devastating impact on the Church in America in the coming decades, as older men pass away and young men fail to remain and marry in the Church, accelerating the losses that have already occurred.
These facts are devastating. As our fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, and friends fall away from the Church, they fall deeper and deeper into sin, breaking their bonds with God and leaving them vulnerable to the fires of Hell. While we know that Christ welcomes back every repentant sinner, the truth is that large numbers of Catholic men are failing to keep the promises they made at their children's baptisms — promises to bring them to Christ and to raise them in the Faith of the Church.
This crisis is evident in the discouragement and disengagement of Catholic men like you and me. In fact, this is precisely why I believe this Exhortation is needed, and it is also the reason for my hope, for God constantly overcomes evil with good. The joy of the Gospel is stronger than the sadness wrought by sin! A throw-away culture cannot withstand the new life and light that constantly radiates from Christ. So I call upon you to open your minds and hearts to Him, the Savior who strengthens you to step into the breach!
Purpose of this Exhortation
I offer this Exhortation as an encouragement, a challenge, and a calling forth to mission for every willing man in the diocese of Phoenix: priests and deacons, husbands, fathers and sons, grandfathers and widowers, young men in preparation for your vocation — that is, each and every man. With this Exhortation, I want to clarify for you the nature of this mission from Christ, for which I will rely on the clear guidance of the Holy Scriptures, the Magisterium of the Church and the example of the saints.
In this Exhortation, I will address three primary questions:
Before addressing these three basic questions, it is important to put them into proper context. In the following section, I will explain three important contexts that help us understand the main questions.
Context #1: A New Apostolic Moment — The "New Evangelization"
First, a new apostolic moment is upon us at this time in the history of the Church. The Holy Spirit is bringing about what recent popes have termed the "New Evangelization." By evangelization, we mean the sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by all means available, such as preaching, teaching, witnessing a fruitful and faithful family life, living celibacy for the sake of God's Kingdom, employing media and other arts placed at the service of the Gospel. And what is new? The newness of our times is this: In the West, we find ourselves in the midst of competing cultures, particularly in cities and neighborhoods where the Gospel once permeated quite deeply. Jesus Christ's Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20) to go out to the whole world and share the Good News has already happened where we live! This permeation of Western culture was once so deep that in a sense, it became part of the soil, and we still stand on that soil in certain ways. It is evident in current assumptions about life, which come directly from the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian framework; assumptions regarding "fairness," "equality," "virtue," "human dignity," "compassion," "representative government," "the Golden Rule," the "Ten Commandments," the "hospital," the "university," and other clearly positive developments in the history of civilization. All this is our patrimony and inheritance from our spiritual ancestors. We find ourselves standing on this rich soil, where blessings are many because the Gospel has been taught here, received in faith, and put into practice.
Yet, at the same time, termites are hard at work in this soil. Here, in the developed desert of Arizona, we know termites well. Homebuilders know that no home built in our climate is entirely immune from these hungry, subterranean insects. Likewise, no culture — deeply Christian though it may be — is immune to the corruption of half-truths and hidden sin. Many fruits of our Christian heritage still exist, but the roots below the soil are under siege. Much about our culture remains good and must be preserved, but it would be foolish to ignore the current and growing trends that threaten the remaining good, and dangerous to risk squandering the patrimony with which we have been blessed.
The answer and only ultimate solution is the New Evangelization of which we speak. Pope St. John Paul II, with whom I was blessed to work closely for nine years and who has inspired many men, reminds us of this needed response: "There is no solution to the social question apart from the Gospel." With this Exhortation, I gladly make his words my own; there is no solution to our cultural decline apart from the Gospel of Jesus.
This is daunting, perhaps, but surely an adventure. In the Book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus tells us, "Behold, I make all things new" (21:5) — that all things old and tired, sinful and broken, are renewed in His Incarnation, death, and Resurrection. Could this possibly be true? The answer is a resounding Yes! A true Catholic man stakes his whole life on this proposition — that all is made new in Jesus Christ. Our Lord has promised that He is and will always be with us. Thus, Catholic men across the centuries have responded to the call to enter the battle, ever ancient and ever new, and I have confidence that you will respond alike to fill the breach in our time. Be confident! Be bold! Forward, into the breach!
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