The following remarks were prepared earlier this year for the 2020 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast honoring Attorney General William Barr. Archbishop Chaput was originally scheduled as the keynote speaker; when COVID forced a rescheduling, the archbishop was unable to deliver them. Nonetheless, as the event approaches with a new date, he offers them here in support of the prayer breakfast and General Barr.
One of the great legacies of our cultural history is La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland). It was composed a thousand years ago, in the mid-11th century, and it tells the story of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. The battle took place on the border of Spain and France in A.D. 778, during the reign of Charlemagne. The story goes like this.
Charlemagne has been fighting in Spain against that country’s Muslim occupiers. The campaign has been a success. He now leads his army back to France to rest. But the pass he must use, Roncevaux Pass, is narrow and treacherous. So he leaves his favorite captain—Roland, a great Christian knight who’s beloved by his men—to command the rear guard and secure the entry to the pass. If there’s trouble, Roland will blow his horn, Oliphant, to signal his need. So Charlemagne and his army disappear into the pass.
What happens next is this. Roland’s stepfather betrays him. Roland is ambushed by a much larger Muslim force seeking to attack Charlemagne from the rear. Roland and his men fight heroically, and before they’re finally overwhelmed, Roland puts Oliphant to his lips. The sound of the great horn echoes along the pass. Charlemagne hears it, turns his army, hurries back, and crushes the enemy. But of course it’s too late for Roland and his men. They’ve done their duty and protected their friends, but they’ve given their lives doing it.
The Song of Roland is part of the Christian DNA of our civilization, the DNA of who we are as believers. Obviously we live in a very different place, in very different times. With Islam, the Church seeks mutual respect, not conflict, wherever that’s possible. And the poem is a romanticized version of the real battle. There’s nonetheless a lesson for us in the story of Roland. He and his men die in the poem because they honor their duty. But no duty can command a person’s behavior unless it springs from some deeper covenant. A husband is faithful to his wife because that’s his duty. His duty, though, is grounded in love, or it has no force. Love—real love—is never a transaction. It’s always a covenant, a gift of the self without strings or escape clauses.
Roland and his comrades fought because that was their duty. But they sacrificed their lives because their love was greater than their fear—their love of God, of their king, of their brothers in the pass, and of one another. The root of that word “sacrifice” is telling. It comes from the Latin words sacrum facere: to make sacred, to make holy. When we dedicate our lives to something, we acknowledge and reinforce the truth that it’s higher and more important than ourselves. We sanctify it—either with our blood, or with our time and the passion of our hearts.
It’s unlikely that any of us here today will be asked to die for our faith, or the things we hold dear because of our faith. But if we take our faith seriously, we all have the duty to live our faith and fight for the truths it teaches. We need to do that peacefully, with respect for the dignity of others, even when they’re bitter and wrong—but we still need to do it, without embarrassment and without excuses. A good spouse knows an alibi when he or she hears it. So does God.
We’re honoring Attorney General Barr today, and I have a word to say about that. It’s “amen.” I heard him speak at Notre Dame last October, and I was deeply impressed by two things: the content of his remarks, and the fact that he obviously meant them. Throughout my life, the men and women I’ve most admired have all had the same qualities: a thinking Catholic brain, a character of substance, and a moral spine. General Barr has all three. As an added bonus, he’s disliked by all the right people. I want to thank the various and interesting critics of General Barr for confirming me in that judgment.
When I first arrived in Philadelphia in 2011, the Church there had some difficulties; a lot of very good people with very serious problems. A couple of weeks after I was installed, Benedict XVI, who was then still the pope, gave an address in Freiburg, Germany. In it he spoke candidly about the decline of Christianity in the so-called “developed” nations, the falling away of believers, and the worldliness and mediocrity of the Church. My first reaction was: Thanks for the pep talk, Holy Father; it’s a big morale boost.
But as I read and reread the text, I found myself more and more moved by his words. It’s one of Benedict’s finest talks in a career of brilliant preaching and teaching. Benedict simply told the truth, and the truth—for those willing to listen and do something about it—really does make us free. As Benedict said, “the Son of God . . . took flesh and became man, not merely to confirm the world in its worldliness and to be its companion, leaving it to carry on just as it is, but in order to change it.”
There are times, these days, when each of us can feel a bit like Roland at the mouth of that pass. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. The Church in our country faces a great many challenges; both from within, in terms of her purity and simplicity, and from the culture around us, in terms of her liberty and her institutional integrity.
But don’t be fooled. God never loses. And his Church can never lose when we, as her sons and daughters, remember our history, our Christian identity, and our mission to speak God’s truth with love. We’re here to change the world in the name of Jesus Christ. And the people in this room have the talent and the influence to do it, by helping to shape the course of the most powerful nation in history. We serve that nation—our nation, our homeland—best when we serve God first. And we serve God best by living our faith with the kind of passion and joy that touches the hearts of others, and through them, reshapes the world.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia. His latest book, Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living, will be published by Holt in March 2021.
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