In 1977 my parents came to the difficult conclusion that there was no future for them and their children in Iraq. Under the guise of vacation we left for Greece, where we lived as refugees for a year and a half. During our time there we met American Evangelical missionaries, who were kind to us. But they told us we would not be real Christians until we became “born again.” They informed us that my parents’ ancient faiths—Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox—were just dead traditions. My parents trusted them for guidance, so we became “born again,” and started attending Evangelical churches. I do not scorn this part of my past because I believe God uses such means to draw us closer to him. But after a short stint in such churches after we arrived in America, my parents returned to their small, poor Middle Eastern churches.
I was ashamed of them. I wanted desperately to become fully American, and in my mind that meant shedding all the vestiges of my Iraqi heritage, including our religion, and embracing the lingua franca of America: Evangelical Protestantism.
As soon as I could do that on my own, I did. Shortly after I turned 19, I headed for a nondenominational Evangelical church. I was catechized by an ex-Catholic pastor who railed against the Catholic Church almost every time he preached. From him I learned to love my Bible and loathe Catholicism.
I am an ecclesiastical mutt. After five years in the nondenominational milieu, I walked away from God for some time before meandering through Protestant denominations surveying various traditions of doctrine, liturgy, and music. I wanted the fullness of truth. And I also wanted goodness and beauty—to behold and uphold.
In my forties I read Mary Eberstadt’s book How the West Really Lost God. By that time I had drunk deeply of many bitter wells, but that volume drove me to Humanae Vitae. Reading Paul VI’s encyclical lifted the scales from my eyes and made me want to know what the Catholic Church had to say about everything. My path to the Catholic Church was arduous but glorious. Even now, in the midst of the current sex abuse scandal, I regret nothing.
When I look around at the laity on the local and national level, I cannot help but see its fervency. Lazy shepherds, beware: The laity of today is not the laity of the boomer generation, which you were able to lull into complacency. The Church may be smaller than it was a generation ago, but that is as it should be when God purifies. Do we believe what the Bible says about wheat and chaff, or silver and dross? Even while numbers shrink, we see God moving. St. John Paul II’s New Evangelization and his exhortation to laypeople has worked and continues to work. I see it in my conversion and in the conversions of others. I see it on the ground in my Phoenix parish, and I see it at the national level.
Today’s laypeople hunger to know the faith more intelligently. They thirst for rigorous catechesis, they have a strong faith, and they are more courageous. Today’s laypeople are working the Lord’s vineyard; weeding, tilling, planting, watering, tending, bearing fruit, and mixing the strongest of wines. We are not idle, Your Excellencies.
Let us consider some examples: The robust apostolate of Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire, the vibrant college campus ministry FOCUS. The Thomistic Institute collegiate chapters, the television station EWTN, and Catholic radio programs of all sorts. And the many other organizations and apostolates great and small: Hospitals, charities, soup kitchens, women’s medical clinics—hands and feet at every level of the socioeconomic spectrum. And let us not forget the countless journalists, popular speakers and writers, thinkers, professors, and a whole host of converts and cradle Catholics bearing great fruit in their personal and professional lives. There are Catholics on fire for Jesus everywhere I look!
I respectfully warn the shepherds: We smell the stench of iniquity among you, and we can detect it underneath the strange incense you offer. What you are dealing with now is Blessed John Henry Newman’s laity: Catholic men and women from every walk of life who are more faithful to Church doctrine than the Church’s hierarchy. You echo Monsignor George Talbot, that enemy of Newman and the laity. I see that you are attempting to keep us in check, and in some places you are insinuating that we are meddling cloven hoofs.
But, to paraphrase the Blessed cardinal, it is we who know our religion, we who enter into it, we who know just where we stand, we who know what we hold, and what we do not, we who know our creed so well that we can give an account of it, we who know so much of history that we can defend it. What Newman said of his day is also true of our own: “The Catholic people, in the length and breadth of Christendom, were the obstinate champions of Catholic truth, and the bishops were not.”
“Not the wise and powerful, but the obscure, the unlearned, and the weak constitute her real strength. It was mainly by the faithful people that Paganism was overthrown; it was by the faithful people, under the lead of Athanasius and the Egyptian bishops, and in some places supported by their Bishops or priests, that the worst of heresies was withstood and stamped out of the sacred territory.”
Then as now, the wicked paroxysms in our world are also in the Church, and, it is we the faithful who are clear-eyed enough to distinguish good from evil and truth from error. The Catholic faith is good and true and we will not yield it. Blessed John Henry Newman, ora pro nobis!
Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.