On the Sermon of an Agnostic

Published February 14, 2024

The Catholic Thing

Ash Wednesday each year brings me back to one of my favorite writers: Georges Bernanos. I’ve written about him in the past, and especially on the threshold of this liturgical season, as has my former boss, Archbishop Charles Chaput. Author of the novels Diary of a Country Priest and Under Satan’s SunBernanos was one of the truly great Catholic writers of the last century: brash, ironic, and moving. He ignored the theologically puffed up; loved the everyday believer; and wrote for the simple, faithful Catholic. Which he did with astonishing brilliance.

In his essay “Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Thérèse,” Bernanos imagined an honest unbeliever taking the pulpit in a prominent French church, and delivering the homily – a portion of which follows:

Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t share all your beliefs, but I probably know more about the history of the Church than you do, because I happen to have read it, and not many parishioners can say that.

I know you’re not inclined to worry much about what people of my sort think. And the most pious among you are even very anxious to avoid all discussion with infidels, in case they were to “lose their faith,” as they put it. All I can say is their “faith” must be hanging by a thread. It makes you wonder what the faith of the lukewarm can be! We often call such poor creatures shams and hypocrites; but we can’t help feeling rather sad about it all. For though you’re not interested in unbelievers, unbelievers are extremely interested in you. There are few of us who at some point in our lives have not made a tentative approach in your direction, were it only to insult you. After all, put yourselves in our place. Were there but one chance, the smallest chance, the faintest chance of you being right, death would come as a devastating surprise to us. So we’re bound to watch you closely and try to fathom you.

You may snigger, my dear brothers, but it isn’t the Communists and Blasphemers who crucified Our Lord . . . Aren’t you a little disturbed by the fact that God should have reserved his most stringent maledictions for some of the very “best” people, regular church-goers, never missing a fasting day, and far better instructed in their religion – saving your presences – than the majority of parishioners today? Doesn’t such a huge paradox attract your attention? We can’t help noticing it, you know.

[D]ear brothers, many unbelievers are not as hardened as you imagine. Need I remind you that God came in Person to the Jews?. . . .[Yet when] we seek him now, in this world, it is you we find, and only you. It is you, Christians, who participate in Divinity; it is you, “divine men,” who ever since his Ascension have been his representatives on earth.

The Saint whose festival it is this day will not mind my speaking as a child. For I am but a child grown old and burdened with inexperience, and you haven’t much to fear from me. Fear those who are to come, who shall judge you. Fear the innocence of children, for they are also enfants terribles. . .and you will never disarm their irony save by simplicity, honesty, and audacity.

Sobering words. And worth some self-reflection.

In 1955, a few years after he died, Greenwood Press published a collection of his works with the title, The Last Essays of Georges Bernanos, translated from the French. It was long out of print when I finally found a copy, more than a decade ago.  It’s now my most treasured book. I reread another of his essays, “Our Friends the Saints,” several times a year, but especially during Lent. And I always pause on one particular passage:

We are created in the image and after the likeness of God because we are capable of loving.  Saints have a genius for love. . .the saint is the person who knows how to find in himself, and to make gush forth from the depths of his being, the water of which Christ spoke to the Samaritan woman: “Those who drink of it will never thirst.”  The water is there in each of us, a deep cistern under the open sky.  Undoubtedly the surface is cluttered with debris, broken branches, dead leaves. . . .But immediately under that pernicious layer, the water is so limpid and pure.  Still a little lower and the soul finds herself again in her native element, infinitely purer than the purest water, in that uncreated light that bathes all Creation – in [Jesus Christ] was life, and the life was the light of men. . .

For Bernanos, “ordinary” Christians simply didn’t exist. God created each of us, no matter how seemingly gifted or lowly, to be a saint. There are no exceptions. And while one may think “that the era of the saints has passed,” the opposite is true because as Bernanos stressed, “it is always the era of the saints.”

Here’s my point: The task of any purifying “re-formation” of our Church and world, begins with each of us. We don’t really want to hear that. The personal sounds too small, too slow, too pious. And the reason “personal conversion” seems so irrelevant to the Really Big Issues of life is that nobody wants to do it. It’s brutally hard to know and speak the truth to ourselves; to acknowledge our own sins and hatreds; to make ourselves useful in the needs and suffering of others. But it’s only when we do these things that life becomes rich; a magnet for the broken and lost; the beginning of a new world. . .and the seed of sainthood.

Several years ago, Cluny Media released a new version of some marvelous Bernanos essays with the title, Liberty: The Last Essays. Buy it this Lent. And read it. It will enrich your life.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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