Seventy years ago the great French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos published a little essay called “Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Théresè.” Bernanos deeply loved the Church, but he could also be brutally candid when it came to himself and his fellow believers. Above all, he had a piercing sense of irony about the comfortable, the self-satisfied and the lukewarm who postured themselves as Catholic—whether they were laypeople or clergy.
In his essay he imagined “what any decent agnostic of average intelligence might say, if by some impossible chance the (pastor) were to let him stand awhile in the pulpit (on) the day consecrated to St. Théresè of Lisieux.”
“Dear brothers,” says the agnostic from the pulpit, “many unbelievers are not as hardened as you imagine. … (But when) we seek (Christ) now, in this world, it is you we find, and only you. … It is you Christians who participate in divinity, as your liturgy proclaims; it is you ‘divine men’ who ever since (Christ’s) ascension have been his representatives on earth. … You are the salt of the earth. (So if) the world loses its flavor, who is it I should blame? … The New Testament is eternally young. It is you who are so old. … Because you do not live your faith, your faith has ceased to be a living thing.”
Bernanos had little use for the learned, the proud or the superficially religious. He believed instead in the little flowers—the Thérèses of Lisieux—that sustain the Church and convert the world by the purity, simplicity, innocence and zeal of their faith. That kind of innocent faith is a gift. But it’s a gift each of us can ask for, and each of us will receive, if we just have the courage to choose it and then act on it. The only people who ever really change the world are saints. Each of us can be one of them. But we need to want sainthood, and then we need to follow the path that comes with it.
Bernanos once wrote that the optimism of the modern world, including its “politics of hope,” is like whistling past a graveyard. It’s a cheap substitute for real hope and “a sly form of selfishness, a method of isolating (ourselves) from the unhappiness of others” by thinking happy or progressive thoughts. Real hope “must be won. (We) can only attain hope through truth, at the cost of great effort and long patience. … Hope is a virtue, virtus, strength; an heroic determination of the soul. (And) the highest form of hope is despair overcome.”
We can only attain hope through truth. And what that means is this: From the moment Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” the most important public statement anyone can make is “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
This Wednesday—Ash Wednesday—marks the beginning of Lent. For Catholics, this is a time to be honest; to take an unblinking look at the truth of our lives. Every year God offers us this great season of humility as a chance to remember who we are as believers, reflect soberly on our actions and refocus ourselves on the source of our hope, the only real hope of a bloody and despairing world: Jesus Christ. We do this through prayer, silence, the sacrament of penance, seeking out and reconciling with those whom we’ve hurt, forgiving those who’ve hurt us, generosity to the poor, and—as Pope Benedict reminds us in a special way this year—fasting, not just from food, but from all those many things that distract us from the God who made and loves us.
If we call ourselves Christians, then let’s live like we mean it—beginning today, with this Lenten season; so that people who look upon us will see the presence of Jesus Christ instead.