In 1962 and 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings that forbade praying or reading the Bible in public schools. Since those decisions, teen pregnancy has gone up by 700%, sexually transmitted diseases are at an all-time high, the United States leads the entire world in the rate of divorce, the number of single-parent families has skyrocketed, instances of couples living together without marriage has increased tenfold, and violent crime has gone up by over 470% (Gene Conti, Satan’s Gambit, Vol. 3, p. 247). One of the leading instigators in the effort to remove God from public schools was an atheist named Madalyn Murray O’Hair. In 1960 she and her teenage son, William J. Murray III, filed suit claiming prayer and Bible reading in public schools were unconstitutional, and eventually the Supreme Court agreed, despite strong support for them on the part of most Americans. Madalyn Murray O’Hair went on to create the American Atheist magazine, assisted by her sons William and Jon. Some years later, however, something completely unexpected happened: at the age of 33 William underwent a religious conversion. He gave his life to Christ, publicly apologized for his role in the Supreme Court decisions, and wrote a book describing his spiritual journey (Mark Link, S. J., Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series II, p. 19). William, who later went on to become a Baptist minister, was disowned by his atheist mother, who wanted nothing more to do with him.
Our Lord once said His followers must be totally committed to Him, even to the point of renouncing or being rejected by their families, if necessary—a step William Murray III had to take. This former atheist underwent the type of wholehearted conversion Jesus is speaking of in the Gospel of Mark (1:12-15), and this is an appropriate message or reminder for us as we begin this season of Lent. Truly following the Lord and believing in His words means, among other things, acknowledging our need for God, admitting our sins, and asking His forgiveness. Only if we’re willing to do this is our faith life-giving and real.
The great flood during the days of Noah (Gn 9:8-15) cleansed the earth of sin, and St. Peter (1 Pt 3:18-22) tells us this flood prefigures baptism, through which each of us is personally freed of original sin and made part of the family of God through our membership in the Church. However, none of us remains free of sin—and that’s why, even as practicing Catholics, we need to repent of our sins on a regular and ongoing basis. Jesus Himself was baptized—not to be cleansed of sin, but to make baptism a holy sacrament. After this, the Holy Spirit led Him into the desert or wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Our Lord wanted to give us an example and a reminder that, through God’s grace, it is possible for us to successfully resist temptation; just as angels ministered to Jesus, so our guardian angels stand ready to help us overcome the devil. Our Lord spent forty days preparing for His public ministry; we now have a similar forty-day period to deepen our faith and renew our baptismal commitment to living as followers of Jesus in a world that so often denies or rejects God.
There was once an atheist who vehemently denied the existence of God and denounced religion as nothing but a sham. He was visiting his sister when her little girl—the man’s favorite niece—became seriously ill. His sister insisted he watch over her daughter while she hurried to fetch the doctor, who was some distance away. From her sickbed, the girl begged, “Uncle, pray that I may get well again.” The atheist was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say. The niece said, “Uncle, please pray!” He tried to calm her, but she insisted, “Uncle, if you don’t pray I shall have to die.” Unable to resist, the atheist fell to his knees and said aloud, “O God, if there is a God, hear me and heal this child.” The girl smiled and fell asleep, and her breathing became more regular. When the mother and doctor arrived some hours later, they found her covered in perspiration—a sign the deadly fever had broken, and the doctor announced, “The child is saved.” The atheist went into a different room, knelt on the floor, thanked the God he now believed in, and emerged from the room a new man (Knight’s Master Book of 4000 Illustrations, p. 119).
Most Christians don’t undergo such a sudden and dramatic conversion, but all of us are meant to heed Our Lord’s call to repentance and spiritual renewal. This is true for three reasons in particular. First of all, we should continue growing spiritually for our own benefit. God created us to become spiritually perfect and completely happy and blessed. This will only completely happen in Heaven, of course, but we may not make it there if we settle for a half-hearted, “go through the motions” type of religion. The Lord isn’t calling us to become decent people, but to become saints—and if we’re willing to settle for less than this, we’re cheating ourselves. Secondly, we should continue growing closer to God for the sake of those we love, just as the former atheist finally agreed to pray on behalf of his beloved niece. God has placed certain people in our lives so that we can help one another reach Heaven. Sometimes their example inspires and encourages us— but other times it’s meant to work the other way around. I’m sure you can think of people who’ve made a difference in your life and helped you become a better person. Each of us is also supposed to perform that same service for others. Thirdly, we’re supposed to help spiritually heal and renew our society—and the statistics I cited earlier help demonstrate why our Christian witness is needed now more than ever. A major reason our country is in such turmoil and distress is that Christians have largely abdicated or abandoned their God-given mission to be a transforming leaven, or salt for the earth and light for the world. This has to change—and God expects you and me to part of this process.
The words of Jesus are more urgent than ever before: “Repent and believe, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” This summons to repentance is addressed not only to people like William Murray, other atheists, and terrible sinners, but also to each of us. The course of our lives, and quite possibly, the lives of other people and the future of our country, may very well depend on how seriously we take this message. This season of Lent is meant to remind us that mere words aren’t enough; we have to embrace and live out our faith in a genuine and heartfelt manner. Let us make this our goal during these forty days. If we do, our observance of Easter will truly be a celebration not only of Christ’s victory over sin and death, but also of our own personal share in His triumph.