There’s a scene in the middle of the Lord of the Rings, a fantasy series written by Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkein, where the quest to destroy an evil, all-powerful ring seems to be utterly hopeless. Darkness and danger have surrounded and hounded Frodo, the little hobbit ultimately given the mission to destroy the ring, ever since he set foot out of the Shire, the idyllic and safe home he left behind for this quest.
This was the scene Archbishop Charles Chaput set for students at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, as he spoke to them about their vocations and the purpose of their lives on Wednesday evening.
In a moment of despair, Chaput noted, Frodo turns to his most faithful friend, Samwise Gamgee, a hobbit who has refused to leave Frodo’s side, and asks him whether it’s even worth continuing with the seemingly impossible mission.
Sam says yes: “Because there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
The Dakotas, Chaput noted earlier in his address, are much like the idyllic Shire from which those hobbits hail: safe, in many ways idyllic, and almost never the center of attention.
“I’ve served as bishop in three different dioceses, and each has been a great blessing of friends and experiences. I’ve loved them all. But my first love is the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota,” Chaput said.
“There’s a beauty and sanity to the Dakotas that you can’t find anywhere else. I also think the devil tends to focus on places like New York and Washington and to see places like Bismarck as less important – which is his mistake. It means a lot of very good things can get done here, right under his nose,” he said.
But just as the Hobbits did not remain in the Shire, Chaput noted, so too are Christians eventually called to go out from their homes and places of formation to engage the world and spread the Gospel.
“The day comes when (the Hobbits are) called out of their homes and into a great war between good and evil for the soul of the wider world – a war in which they play the decisive role, precisely because they’re small and so seemingly unimportant,” he said.
But the outside world is in desperate need of remaking, Chaput noted, including from within the Catholic Church.
The recent barrage of sex abuse scandals in the Church can make these seem like very dark times, he said.
“A lot of very good people are angry with their leaders in the Church over the abuse scandal, and justly so. I don’t want to diminish that anger because we need it; it has healthy and righteous roots,” he said.
But the right response to that righteous anger is not a poisonous resentment, but rather a response of humility and love that purifies the individual as well as the Church, he said, much like St. Catherine of Siena, who through her holiness and persistence convinced the Pope to move back to Rome.
“God calls all of us not just to renew the face of the earth with his Spirit, but to renew the heart of the Church with our lives; to make her young and beautiful again and again, so that she shines with his love for the world. That’s our task. That’s our calling. That’s what a vocation is – a calling from God with our name on it.”
There is also much darkness in the world that comes from outside the Church, Chaput noted.
“American life today is troubled by three great questions: What is love? What is truth? And who is Jesus Christ?” he said. “The secular world has answers to each of those great questions. And they’re false.”
The world defines love solely with emotions and sexual compatibility, while it defines truth as something that can only be observed through objective, measurable data, he said. The world also says Jesus Christ was a good man in a long line of good teachers, but is ultimately just a nice superstitious belief rather than a real person who is the Son of God and Savior of the world.
“The key thing about all these secular answers is this: They’re not only false, but dangerous. They reduce our human spirit to our appetites. They lower the human imagination and the search for meaning to what we can consume. And because the human heart hungers for a meaning that secular culture can’t provide, we anesthetize that hunger with noise and drugs and sex and distractions. But the hunger always comes back,” he said.
The secular world offers easy answers, he noted, but it does not offer satisfying answers to some of the most deeply human questions one could ask: “Why am I here, what does my life mean, why do the people I love grow old and die, and will I ever see them again? The secular world has no satisfying answer to any of these questions. Nor does it even want us to ask such questions because of its self-imposed blindness; it cannot tolerate a higher order than itself -- to do so would obligate it to behave in ways it does not want to behave. And so it hates, as Cain did, those who seek to live otherwise.”
The answer to all of these questions, Chaput said, is not some theory or equation but the person of Jesus Christ.
“He’s the only reliable guide for our journey through the world. Christians follow him as the Apostles did because in him and in his example, God speaks directly to us and leads us on the way home to his kingdom. To put it another way, Jesus is not only the embodiment of God, but also the embodiment of who we are meant to be.”
And Jesus’ message is that each life is “unrepeatable and precious [and has] a meaning and a purpose that God intends only for you. Only for you,” he said.
For many people, this will mean living out the vocation of marriage, and witnessing to Christ among family, friends and places of work, “and you’ll make your mark on the world with an everyday witness of Christian life,” he said.
“Marriage and family are profoundly good things,” he added, and laypeople are called not just to be “helpers” of holier clergy, but to share an equal responsibility in furthering the mission of the Church.
“Remember that as you consider your future,” he said.
God also calls some to be radical witnesses of holiness in the priesthood or consecrated religious life, he said.
“Religious are a living witness to radical conversion and radical love; a constant proof that the Beatitudes are more than just beautiful ideals, but rather the path to a new and better kind of life,” he said.
“And priests have the privilege of holding the God of creation in their hands. Without priests, there is no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there is no Church. And without the Church as a living and organized community, there is no presence of Jesus Christ in the world.”
The keys to finding one’s vocation and purpose in life are silence and prayer, which make room for God’s voice, he said.
“Making time for silence and prayer should be the main Lenten practice for all of us – but especially for anyone seeking God’s will for his or her own life.”
So rather than bemoaning the fact that times are bad, Chaput urged the students to remember that they are living at this time for a reason, and can by their holiness and witness of their lives reshape the times.
“As a bishop, St. Augustine lived at a time when the whole world seemed to be falling apart, and the Church herself was struggling with bitter theological divisions. But whenever his people would complain about the darkness of the times, he’d remind them that the times are made by the choices and actions of the people who inhabit them,” he said.
“In other words, we make the times. We’re the subjects of history, not merely its objects. And unless we consciously work to make the times better with the light of Jesus Christ, then the times will make us worse with their darkness.”
“There’s some good in the world, and it’s worth fighting for,” Chaput reiterated, again recalling the Lord of the Rings. “That’s a pretty good description of the vocation God asks from each of us.”