Recently, my diocese — the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana — held its annual men’s retreat, where more than 1,500 Catholic men gathered to be spiritually rejuvenated through fellowship, prayer and the words of inspirational speakers, including Marcus Grodi, best known for starring in EWTN’s “The Journey Home,” and Father Mike Schmitz, best known for starring in every single Catholic’s social media feed.
On the surface, other than being professional Catholics, they would seem to have little in common. With a warm, wry sense of humor, Grodi endeared himself to the audience, telling stories like a Catholic Garrison Keiller, only instead of tales from Lake Wobegon, Grodi’s setting was a long drive across Ohio in his pickup truck, weaving in and out of an analogy about how Catholics are called to comport themselves while playing the game of life (be kind, considerate, fair, etc).
Father Schmitz grabbed hold of the audience immediately with his energy and enthusiasm. He reminded the audience how we as a Christian culture — a Catholic culture — seem to hold in such high esteem the concept of religious freedom, and he looked out into the sea of men and told them, without pulling a punch, that “if our religious freedom was taken away tomorrow, it wouldn’t make any difference to us at all. It wouldn’t change our lives at all. Because for almost all of us, religion is something we practice on Sunday mornings and then forget about the rest of the week.”
He ended his talk with a story he heard secondhand about the power of faith and how quickly that faith can disappear if one is not carefully tending to it. He spoke of a man in China — a husband and father who clung to his faith in spite of the challenges of being Catholic in an atheistic and communist society, where the sacraments were hard to access and never guaranteed. There was one priest available to the community, and Mass was held in secret. Still, every week, the man and his family would carefully — secretively — walk the treacherous route to the underground church, where Christ in the Eucharist awaited them.
But there, religious freedom was only a concept they’d read about in books, and amid a crackdown of religious practices, the man was taken prisoner by the government, which was trying to snuff out the local church. He was held in prison for weeks, naked and chained to a wall. He could be free, his captors said, if he would give them the name and location of the priest. He was tortured with water, with hot pokers, with an electric cattle prod, but he wouldn’t give them the information they sought. He knew that if he did, he would cut off his family’s access to Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and their salvation was worth dying for.
Eventually, when his captors realized he would not confess, they let him go free. Once home, he escaped with his family to the United States. He was shocked to find a Catholic Church a few blocks from his home that celebrated Mass multiple times a day. He wondered if his new community knew what a precious gift they had available to them. He and his family walked to daily Mass, but soon he got a job and realized that, in the United States, hard work was rewarded. To support his family, he began to skip daily Mass in order to work more hours. Soon, he was working weekends and missing Mass altogether. But his income was rising, and his worldly comforts were growing.
Just a few short years after being tortured and imprisoned to protect the Eucharist, this man, Father Schmitz said, was now only attending Mass on Christmas and Easter. He had lost his faith in pursuit of the American dream — in pursuit of what our society values most: comfort and success.
“This man was a hero for the Eucharist,” Father Schmitz said. “And just like that, his faith was robbed by our culture — and it didn’t even need to try.”
With this story, the jaws of 1,500 Catholic men hit the floor, but it served as an important reminder as to what it is we’re fighting for — and what it is that we can no longer take for granted.
Father Schmitz talked about how easy it is to slip from the Faith. It can happen gradually and without us even realizing it. But it doesn’t work the other way. We can’t slip into salvation.
Christ is waiting to save us. He’s waiting to save our families. Salvation is a gift, but only if we’re willing to receive it. And in the end, we have to want it, more than anything else in the world.
Scott Warden is managing editor of Our Sunday Visitor.