Pope Francis has named a retired bishop to serve as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese…
The best lack all conviction
I recently finished reading Walker Percy’s second novel, “The Last Gentleman.” I don’t remember having read it before, though the copy that I’ve owned since college some 30 years ago has marks in the margin that I recognize as mine.
I keep returning to the works of this psychiatrist-turned-novelist and convert to the Catholic Faith because no other writer, it seems to me, has understood so well the widespread loss of Christian belief in the modern world, and what is necessary to regain it — in a word, experience. Jesus Christ cannot be simply someone we believe in; he must be someone we know, as intimately as we know our father and mother, our sisters and brothers, our wife or husband, our children.
Why do we know our family as intimately as we do? The biological bond in itself cannot account for it; after all, the intimacy of spouses extends beyond that of parents and children (though the presence of a child not only transforms a marriage into a family but also deepens the connection between husband and wife).
The answer seems too simple, too mundane: Intimacy arises from time and ritual. And time and ritual themselves are intimately connected, because, as I’ve noted in my past few columns, human beings are creatures of habit. Habit is the same action repeated over time; and ritual is, at its root, just habit that has been formally recognized as such. The family meal, as much as the prayer we say before it, is a ritual.
We create our own rituals over time, and we adopt others as the people we spend time with change; but the rituals of our childhood occupy a special place in our memory. Deep down inside, even when we may rebel against them, we regard those earliest rituals as real and true, because the people who introduced us to them were people whom we trusted, and we could tell that those rituals meant something to them.
One of the themes running through “The Last Gentleman” is how others may sense our own loss of faith long before we do — if we ever do. And conversely, the certainty of our convictions, which arises from the knowledge gained from experience, may be all that is necessary to convince someone else of the truth of the Catholic faith.
In the climax of Percy’s novel, a priest is summoned to the bedside of a dying young man who, through the accidents of family history, has never been baptized. When the priest asks him, “Do you accept the truths of religion?” the young man responds by asking why he should believe them. The priest first replies with an answer straight out of the Baltimore Catechism: “It is true because God himself revealed it as the truth.”
But the young man is not satisfied. He wants to know how he is supposed to know that God has revealed that truth. And the priest replies, “If it were not true, then I would not be here. That is why I am here, to tell you.”
Through the certainty of faith, gained through experience, the priest speaks with conviction. The dying young man is still not certain of his own belief, but the certainty of the priest is enough for him to request the gift of faith through baptism.
When Percy published “The Last Gentleman” 53 years ago, he clearly saw the widespread loss of faith among Christians who did not yet know they had lost their faith. He knew what effect that would have on the following generations.
In many cases, the unaffiliated millennials known as “nones” have no faith, not because they have lost it, but because their parents did, even if those parents still sit in a pew every Sunday. The nones have left the ritual behind, but they’re living the experience they inherited from their parents.
And yet the ritual of their childhood remains, and it might become meaningful to them once again — if they should happen to meet someone who can speak with the conviction of Percy’s priest.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for Our Sunday Visitor.