If those Madison Avenue television execs are good at anything, it’s playing the culture for profit. During the 60s America’s baby boomers were becoming teenagers. Their heads were into the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and anyone else who rocked. A sitcom about a rock band could attract lots of audience, and sell lots of advertising. For NBC, it was a no-brainer. In 1966 the Monkees, band and eponymous show, were born.
The Monkees’ music was mostly fluff stuff. But their 1967 cut Pleasant Valley Sunday, named after a street in West Orange, NJ, offered a timely commentary about comfort and the complacency that follows. “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, charcoal burning everywhere. Rows of houses that are all the same, and no one seems to care. See Mrs. Gray she’s proud today because her roses are in bloom; and Mr. Greene he’s so serene, he’s got a TV in every room.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Gray and Mr. Greene were perfectly oblivious to what was happening off Pleasant Valley Way. Streets across the country were exploding in war protest and literally aflame in racial violence.
It would be marvelous if our most demanding tasks were sitting on patio chairs watching the roses bloom. With Adam’s sin, we lost that gig. Our lives are physically, mentally, and emotionally burdensome. But our greatest burden is dealing with the effect of sin on our weak natures. Life is often a battle between good and evil, a battle we often lose. That may not change any time soon. But mindful of our needs, Jesus instituted His Church and established as its ultimate mission the salvation of all people.
That mission won’t be easy. Jesus’ assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church portends battle against an enemy hell-bent on driving us into hell. Knowing that he cannot prevail against God, Satan’s plan is simple: to bring with him as many souls as possible. Misery loves company. Satan understands our weaknesses, and he knows how, when, and where to attack.
Throughout human history, the master of deceit has successfully used every trick in the book to capture souls. The twentieth century saw the rise of Communism, a political system that viewed God and Church as unwanted competition. The once “Holy Russia” became atheistic Russia. The Soviet state forced the closure of churches and indoctrinated the people in the ways of godless life. Many gave up their faith, and many others never came to know it.
But God has his warriors. A teenage bully in a Shenandoah, PA street gang, in 1928 Walter Ciszek surprised family and friends with his plan to become a priest. While a Jesuit novitiate, God’s called him to accept Pope Pius XI’s request for missionaries to flood Russia, where thousands of priests had been killed. In 1940, he and two others slipped through Poland into Russia to begin their religious ministry. One year later, Soviet police arrested Ciszek for espionage. He was thrown into solitary confinement for five years at the infamous Lubianka prison. There he was beaten, repeatedly threatened, starved, drugged, and ultimately coerced into giving a false confession. Convicted as a “Vatican spy,” Ciszek was shipped to Siberia for fifteen years to provide slave labor in oppressive work camps. He was once made to stand in front of a firing squad, rifles aimed at his head.
For Fr. Ciszek, life was not meant for complacency. He understood that God had called him to carry the cross for the oppressed souls of Russia. In imitation of Jesus, he brought Christ’s light in the midst of the darkness. Ciszek’s love for God intensified his love for his fellow man. He ministered to the spiritual needs of the oppressed even at great personal risk. The salvation of their souls was worth more than his life.
Today, the great battle in human history may be here at home. We have been willing to sacrifice anything at the altar of personal convenience, gain, and pleasure including the unborn, who are dying by the millions with no end in sight. Like an unchecked cancer, the evil of abortion has spread throughout our culture. We give school children condoms and teach how to use them. Abortions follow. We fund organizations that kill but refuse funding for those teaching abstinence. We create life only to destroy it in mindless experiments. We deny people the right to object and jail people who do. We even seek to re-program genes to create designer children, as if God doesn’t matter. By removing God’s way from our way of life, we are losing our fellowship with man. And we are plunging into deep spiritual and cultural darkness.
Yet we can be so indifferent to it. All too often we live as Catholics in name only. On Sundays we are more mindful of sports, parties, or shopping than of the cross that Jesus carried to save our souls. Not seeing Him, we fail to see the need to minister to others. We choose complacency over involvement. We’d rather watch television, do something easy, or just do nothing. We are content that abortion is “not my issue,” convinced that “I’m not the problem here.” Another Pleasant Valley Sunday, this one ours.
None of us get to choose the time and place of our birth. We don’t choose the world problems that we will face. Those choices belong to God, and He undoubtedly has His reasons for them. But we can choose how we will respond. October is Respect Life Month. For Catholics, it must be more than the general remembrance of an issue that we will promptly push aside. Instead, it must be a call to all Catholics to see the darkness and ask God how He wants us to shine His light. He may call us to act out of our comfort zones. But then, it couldn’t have been easy to stare into the business end of a firing squad. Or carry a cross up a hill.
God’s Church will prevail. Will we be able to count ourselves among the victors?