Welcome to the Arena

[I had the honor of being invited to address the graduates of The Montfort Academy. This high school is a gem — a truly, entusiastically and unapologetically Catholic school that focuses on classical learning and guiding the personal and spiritual growth of their students. May God bless those grads and the faculty and staff of Montfort. This is the text of my address.]

I would like to thank the faculty and staff of the Montfort Academy for inviting me to speak to the graduating class today. It is an honor to be able to participate in this great enterprise of Catholic education.

We all know that high school graduation is a significant milestone in our lives. No matter how old we are, we probably remember our own graduation very clearly. We tend to look at it as the dawn of adulthood and our entry into the world at large. I hope and trust that your school and family have been safe and nurturing environments, in which you were respected and valued. Unfortunately, I have to tell something that you probably know already — you are stepping into a world that is not like that at all.

Welcome to the arena. I use the word “arena” very deliberately. It has particular significance to us Christians, calling to mind the early martyrs and confessors, heroes in the face of the hostility of the world. They were people of great courage and virtue. I also use the word “virtue” deliberately, because I know that your classical education has been deeply immersed in the development of virtue. So you have an excellent foundation for the challenges that lie ahead.

That’s good, because the arena is a tough place. Our modern world is very hostile to the message of the Gospel and to those who bring it. We see it every day in the news. Threats to religious liberties by our government; open hatred and contempt towards our faith and our Church in the media, and probably in most of the universities that you will be attending; threats to human life at the beginning, end and every point in between; attacks on the very meaning of what it is to be a man and a woman; and when we look beyond our borders, bloody persecutions in other lands. Powerful forces in our culture want people of faith to sit down, shut up, and leave their faith at home in private. And they are using the force of law and social pressure to make sure that we either conform to their views or we pay the price.

We have to be clear, though, that our battle is not just with the forces of the world — governments, media, entertainment, etc. It is a spiritual struggle as well. In fact, this is the most serious and difficult part of being in the arena. As St. Paul said, “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but… with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12) We cannot opt out of this spiritual battle. And we are called to choose whose banner we will follow – God’s or His Enemy’s.

Make no mistake, once you step into the arena, you’ll will feel it in your heart and soul – because that’s where the real battle is taking place. I recall once being in the State Capitol, going to a meeting with a high-ranking and hostile legislator about an abortion bill. I could feel the sense of opposition as I went to the meeting, as if I was walking into a strong headwind or swimming upstream. Just the other day, a colleague and I were at a conference run by assisted suicide advocates, and we could feel the evil in the room. In times like these we really need to listen to St. Paul’s advice, and draw our strength from the Lord and from his mighty power, and put on the armor of God so that we can stand firm against the Evil One (see Ephesians 6:10-11).

In the face of all these challenges, the worst mistake we could make would be to huddle together in small communities with only people who think like ourselves, and hope that someday somhow things will get better in the outside world. No. That’s a response of despair and defeat. Too much is at stake to do that.

We are called to build the kind of society that God wants us to live in. And so we need to arm ourselves with certain virtues that I’d like to talk about.

To illustrate this, I’ll call on the example of two of my favorite people from history – George Washington and Joan of Arc. Two soldiers who fought for great causes against overwhelming odds in a hostile world. They have a lot to teach us about how to fight our fight.

First and foremost, they had the virtue of trust in God.

I think of George Washington on Christmas Eve 1776. His army had suffered a series of defeats by the most powerful army in the world. He faced the likelihood of his army melting away. It would have been easy to think that defeat was inevitable. But Washington had absolute confidence that God supported what he called “the Glorious Cause”. As he put it once in a letter, “as far as the strength of our reason and religion can carry us, a cheerful acquiescence to the Divine Will, is what we are to aim at”. With that attitude, he trusted in Providence and went on the attack, turning the tide of the war at the Battle of Trenton, and saving the cause of independence.

Think also of Joan of Arc in 1429. Her homeland was torn and devastated by civil war and foreign invasion. She had been receiving private revelations for years from St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. They had assured her that God had a special plan for her, and she believed them. But it was an astounding plan – God wanted this illiterate peasant girl, perhaps 17 years old, with no military experience at all, to lead the French Army to victory and make sure that the king was crowned and anointed with sacred oil. If ever there was something to scoff at, that was it. Imagine if one of you ladies went to the Pentagon and said that God had sent you to win our wars. But Joan never doubted, she trusted God. She pursued her mission with passion and tenacity, overcoming all skeptics and opponents and obstacles. She achieved a remarkable series of victories in battle, and she stood beside the king as he was crowned and anointed, just as God had promised.

We need trust in God in our struggles today. Don’t ever forget that God has a specific design and plan for each one of you. He has a design and plan for our nation. God cares what we do, how we live, what our laws are, how we are governed. Discerning His plan is difficult, but when we understand what it is, we must hold firm to it and place our trust in Him.

The second virtue is a purity of heart. By this, I don’t mean the theological virtue of detachment from sin (which we all need). I mean a kind of selflessness and humility that puts other people and the cause ahead of our own self-interest.

Whenever Washington was asked to assume a new office he spoke of his sense of unworthiness, and his fear of disappointing those who were entrusting him with his duties. At the end of the Revolutionary War, and again at the end of his second presidential term, Washington didn’t seize ultimate power, as many victorious military leaders have done. Instead, he put the nation above himself, and he gladly returned to private life. When hearing that Washington might retire voluntarily, King George said that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!”  But so he did, and so he was.

Joan, too, was a great example of this virtue. Having come from poverty, she never asked for riches or titles or honors. Her greatest wish was to complete her mission and then return home to her parents. Surrounded by ambitious and conniving courtiers, she stood out for her simplicity and lack of egotism. Serving God was the entire purpose of her mission and her life, not personal glory. As a sign of this, she wore only one piece of jewelry, a simple gold ring, a gift from her mother, with the plain engraving of the names of Jesus and Mary. That was enough honor for her. At the trial that led to her unjust execution, Joan offered a statement that sums up her purity of heart: “I came from God. There is nothing more for me to do here! Send me back to God, from Whom I came!”

Purity of heart is essential for our leaders and for the success of our cause.
But it is in short supply. Think of the public figures who revel in their celebrity status or constantly resort to bragging or self-advancement. That erodes trust and breeds suspicion and cynicism. It also encourages division in our ranks. We need purity of heart to stay strong and united. As the Bible says, One person standing alone can be overcome, two together can resist, but a cord of three strands is hard to break. (Ecc 4:12)

The final virtue is boldness. This is a form of courage, but it’s more than that. It’s a sense of freedom and honesty, being able to act on one’s deepest beliefs, unrestrained by fear or self-consciousness, certain of the truth and justice and inevitable triumph of one’s cause.

Washington repeatedly showed boldness in battle, both in his personal conduct and in his strategy. Several times he exposed himself to enemy fire in order to rally his soldiers. On that Christmas Eve in 1776 when all hope seemed lost, he led his men on an impossible venture – crossing a frozen river and marching through a blizzard to surprise and defeat the enemy at Trenton. A bold stroke, and a decisive one.

Joan’s boldness was legendary. She took a defeated, disheartened and demoralized French army and galvanized it into action. She rejected counsels of caution and attacked the enemy directly and decisively. She led her troops from the front of every battle, with her standard in her hand. When things were going badly she refused to retreat, but rallied the troops and attacked again. When asked if she was afraid, she said: “I fear nothing for God is with me!” Old hardened soldiers, with years of battle experience, willingly followed this young girl – they followed her up the battlements and they would have followed her anywhere. So would I.

Every generation faces its own battles. Washington and Joan fought for freedom and justice for their nations, against steep odds. The battle we face is similar, and just as daunting. We are in a struggle to define our culture and our nation, to determine what kind of people we are, and how we are going to live together. We defend human life at every stage against what the Holy Father calls a “throwaway culture” that would just get rid of inconvenient lives. We stand for authentic masculinity and femininity, and the truth about human love and sexuality. We stand up and fight for poor, powerless, sick and suffering people in a culture that would rather avert its gaze and ignore them. We speak the truth of God’s will in a culture that rejects the very idea of truth.

Pope Francis once said: “Even today the message of the Church is the message of the path of boldness, the path of Christian courage… [and] the path of Christian courage is a grace given by the Holy Spirit.” So when we step out into the arena, we are not alone. We stand with the Holy Spirit, with Our Blessed Mother, our guardian angels, the heavenly hosts and the communion of saints. With them, we can truly say with the Psalm, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts” (Psalm 28:7). We can also hold on to the words of Jesus: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (Jn 16:33)

This is a difficult time. But this is a time for trust in God. This is a time for purity of heart. This is a time for boldness. This is a time for heroes. This is a time for you.

Welcome to the Arena. Congratulations and God bless.

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