“Reading Signs of the Times”
Address of the Supreme Chaplain
Knights of Columbus Mid-Year Meeting
Nov. 23, 2019
Reading the Signs of the Times
As you know, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World was one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council. Although it was issued more than fifty years ago, it continues to be studied and quoted, not only by scholars and historians, but also by Catholic journalists, homilists, and now, by myself. One of its most often-quoted lines goes like this: “In every age, the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes, № 4).
Like many phrases from church documents and leaders, this particular phrase often has been misunderstood and misused. In the years immediately after the Council, the late sixties and seventies, the Church’s duty to “read the signs of the times” was all the rage. For some, it meant that the Church had to conform to the times “lock, stock & barrel”, and to do so by changing its language, rituals, disciplines, and even its teaching to suit modern tastes and mores. For some, reading the signs of the times meant, more than anything else, getting in tune with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.
To be sure, the II Vatican Council meant to set a new direction for the Church. The Supreme Knight already mentioned that the Council opened the way for greater lay involvement and responsibility in the Church’s life, and as Knights we have shown ourselves more than willing to step up to the plate. But the Council also steered the Church away from the tendency merely to react against the culture and its errors to a stance of scrutinizing the signs of the times – and to do so – in order to see, not only where the problems and challenges lay, but also to see where opportunities can be found to evangelize the culture, to find openings into the heart of the culture for the Gospel so as to transform it from within. Thus, the phrase, “reading the signs of the times” should be understood in light of St. Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Romans: “Do not conform yourselves to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
An Honest Appraisal
In the midst of an epochal crisis in the Church’s life, we have reason to regret such shallow interpretations of the II Vatican Council, the Council which, in fact, called the Church, not merely to modernize itself, but rather to relate more robustly to ambient culture and to do so, first and foremost, by a thoroughgoing spiritual renewal centered on the Person of Christ and carried out by the power of the Holy Spirit, a renewal that is pivotal to the Church’s ongoing mission to spread the Gospel.
As we look about today, as indeed we strive to “read the signs of the times”, we see that the crisis in the Church is not about sexual misconduct, egregious and disgusting as such misconduct truly is. Sexual misconduct, however, is an alarming symptom of a much deeper problem, viz., a failure on the part of some bishops to shepherd rightly, that is, with integrity, a failure to read the signs of what was unfolding within the Church itself, in the clergy, among families, and in the hearts of the young, coupled with a corresponding failure to hear and heed the call of the Holy Spirit to lead the Church boldly and courageously in proclaiming and living the Gospel. There was indeed a failure of leadership as an aggressive and godless secularism gathered strength and took root in the halls of government, in academia, in the news and entertainment industries, and in the means of communication upon which we rely. New forms of secularization made inroads into the hearts and homes of many of the people sitting in Church on Sunday as also in the hearts and homes of those who had already begun to depart from the Church, beginning as early as the mid-1950’s and extending to the present moment when the exodus, especially among the young, has accelerated. If I read the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel, I find no cause to point fingers at anyone else…I must examine my own conscience.
To be fair, this crisis is not entirely manufactured by the bishops. There are other powerful forces and currents both in Church and society, that contributed to a weakening of the Church, most especially a process whereby many Catholics were not only assimilated into the culture, they were engulfed by it as well. Thus, in spite of all that has been said and written about the role of the laity in the new evangelization and in the formation of a just and tranquil society, many lay Catholics were ill-equipped to be that “salt and light” which these times call for, times in which there are unprecedented assaults on the dignity of human life.
The Crisis Is Real
If I am sounding dire, it’s not because I got up today on the wrong side of the bed. No, it’s because I want to underscore the Supreme Knight’s assertion that the crisis in which we find ourselves is real and long-lasting. If you were charged, as I am, both with leading and managing a local church, you would inevitably find yourself looking at this crisis through a statistical lens, and indeed, a fiscal lens. You would monitor Mass attendance in parishes from month to month and you would also monitor from month to month and year to year the contributions of those who do in fact come to Mass with some frequency. When the offertory income or the annual appeal bounce back (as it has this year), you might be tempted to think that the worst of it is over and that your diocese would be able return to “normal levels” of activity – all the while ignoring the steady downward trend. Thus, you would bracket the crisis and breathe a sigh of relief that, in the short term at least, your parishes, schools, and charities would survive. Instead of aiming for a turnaround, you might find yourself managing decline.
Something similar can happen to us in the Knights of Columbus, especially those of us who hail from the United States and Canada. In each of our jurisdictions, we can find ourselves monitoring our membership figures, year over year, or looking at the median age of our members, year over year, only to conclude that, in spite of downward trends, we’re holding our own. Perhaps in a given year deaths were not as great as we may have expected, or perhaps a number of councils succeeded in recruiting new members, or perhaps there were fewer council suspensions than the year before … But all the while we may ignore the overall downward trends that parallel the downward trends of many of the parishes to which our councils are attached. Instead of aiming for a turnaround, we find ourselves managing decline, even as we prepare to hand on the reins to someone else.
Managing decline cannot possibly be the right answer to the crisis. It ignores the fact that the crisis in which we find ourselves has deep roots. It is not merely the result of human sinfulness and complacency, indeed a massive failure to read the signs of the times, but it is also the work of the evil one, the father of lies, who delights in undermining the Church’s mission. As St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians, “…our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12). But lest we say that all this is the devil’s work and that we are thus absolved, St. Paul goes on to say: “Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day, and, having done everything, to hold your ground” (Ephesians 6:13).
Here, St. Paul reminds us that we are Knights – not those who wear a suit of armor, but rather, those whose “loins are girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate,” …those whose “feet [are] shod in readiness for the gospel of peace.” “In all circumstances [Paul goes on to say], hold faith as a shield to quench the flaming arrows of the evil one, and take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:14-17). What St. Paul is urging us to embrace as Knights is no cowardly spirit, no giving in to discouragement, no bureaucratic strategies, but rather a robust and manly Christian faith and a new boldness in living and proclaiming the faith. We are not called to be warriors for a mere ideology or a political cause but rather, with apologies to William Wordsworth, to be “happy warriors” – those who are happy to be surrounded by the strength of the Holy Spirit, those who have a bold and confident and living faith that generously does the works of justice and mercy. This is the right response to the crisis.
The Knights of Columbus Is Positioned to Respond Rightly to the Crisis
Under the leadership of our Worthy Supreme Knight, our beloved Order, the Knights of Columbus, is prepared and is positioned to respond rightly and robustly to the crisis that overshadows us:
For example, as we saw last evening, the Order has embraced and made its own Bishop Olmsted’s magnificent exhortation on men’s spirituality, Into the Breach, a prophetic call to men in our times to become who we are as men, as followers of Christ and members of the Church, as husbands and fathers, and by extension as spiritual fathers – bishops and priests. So too the Order has embraced and made its own Bishop Olmsted’s exhortation to married couples, Complete My Joy, which shows the way for husbands and wives to embrace their vocation joyfully and with generosity of spirit to create strong and loving homes where the faith is handed on from generation to generation. This complements the many programs of the Knights to support and sustain family life and indeed to make the Knights a fraternal organization that offers mutual support to couples who are striving to make a go of their marriages in a spirit of fidelity and love.
Another prime example was the decision to replace the “Surge with Service” program with the Knights of Columbus “Faith in Action” program, a program which brings together under one heading the various ways members of the Knights of Columbus can be formed in their faith, live their faith prophetically, live their vocations with unwavering fidelity and joy, defend life courageously, especially vulnerable unborn human life, and serve the needs of the Church and wider community with a godly generosity. Under the headings of “Faith, Community, Family, and Life”, Faith in Action gives each Knight, each Council, each District, and each State a vision, a vision by which to read and understand the signs of the times and then to respond to them as befits a man, a Christian, a Catholic, and a Knight, and indeed the world’s largest lay Catholic organization.
The New Degree Exemplification
And that brings us to the new ceremony. Yes, they are updated and yes, they are streamlined, yes, some of the archaic language from the previous ceremonials has been altered, and yes, they are now “public” so that wives and families and parishioners can witness the commitment which a new Knight makes before God and the Church. But we would be badly mistaken if we were to think of the new ceremony merely as an attempt to accommodate the Order to the times in which we live, much as people tended to see the reforms that followed after Vatican II.
Rather, this new ceremony draws its lifeblood directly from the Gospel and from the Tradition of the Church and from the holiness of Father McGivney. It is a vigorous and full-bodied expression of the Gospel principles that form the very foundation of the Knights of Columbus – charity, unity, and fraternity – principles that sum up and point to the inner life of the Trinity, principles that sum up and point to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ our Savior, principles that sum up and point to the mystery of the Church as founded by Christ, principles that sum up and point to our calling to share in God’s life, to be redeemed by the Savior, to be an active and loving member of the Church, principles that sum up and point to the call to holiness you and I received at Baptism.
When a man stands up before his wife and family, his soon-to-be fellow Knights, his pastor and his fellow parishioners, his friends and acquaintances – when he stands up as befits a Knight and makes his own these principles in living his faith, providing for his family, doing his daily work, and serving others, he is not merely accepting membership into the Knights of Columbus. No, he himself is evangelizing by way of example. He is confirming the faith of those who continue to participate in the Church’s life and he is setting a good example for men who are “on the fence” about the faith, to men who know they need to do something good for faith and family but until now didn’t really know what to do about it. In other words, in coming up with this ceremony, the team that worked so very hard on them and who road tested them and took them back to the drawing board again and again – this team, I sincerely believe, “read the signs of the times in the light of Gospel” and in the power of the Holy Spirit put together this new ceremony which was presented to you earlier this morning. I give my enthusiastic and unqualified endorsement to the new ceremony and I urge you to give it your enthusiastic and unqualified support as well.
The Moment Is Now
Dear brother knights, we are at a crossroads: the crisis which has beset the Church is indeed real and will not disappear overnight, but now is the moment which the Lord has given to us and to our beloved Order to respond to it, and to do so in the power of the Holy Spirit, to do so with the leadership and courage so evident in Father McGivney’s life, confident that we have been called as brothers bound together in charity to play an historic role in helping the Church, the whole Church, not only to read the signs of the times but to respond to them in a way that wins over the minds and hearts of individuals, cultures, and nations to Christ our Savior, to Christ our King, to Christ the lover and redeemer of our souls. Thank you for listening. May God bless you and keep you in his love! Vivat Jesus!