Final part of an interview with Archbishop Charles Brown, Papal Nuncio to Albania

Archbishop Charles John Brown. On March 9, 2017, Pope Francis named him the Apostolic Nuncio to Albania.

Charles John Brown is an American-born archbishop of the Catholic Church who has been apostolic nuncio to Albania since 2017. Before entering the diplomatic service of the Holy See, he worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Inside the Vatican correspondent Barbara Middleton interviewed Archbishop Brown at the monastery of the cloistered Carmelites in Clinton Township, Michigan, U.S.A., in July of 2019, of which the following is the last of three parts.

In the 20th century, we had more martyrs than in the 19 previous centuries combined. Why has martyrdom become more prevalent? Should the Church focus more on the martyrs’ courage and devotion, as a lesson to inspire both young and old to live lives of greater faith?

Archbishop Charles Brown: Well, to that question, I would say, you know, the famous line of the early Church Fathers, like Tertullian: “In the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.”You know it’s almost the case that where the blood of the martyrs is poured out, new Christians spring up — it’s almost literally true! In the state where I’m from, New York, and from Ossernenon, New York, where St. Isaac Jogues, the Jesuit missionary, was martyred — on the spot where he was martyred, later on was born Kateri Tekakwitha, a convert, and literally the place where he was martyred is the place where she was born. So you see that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. And I think, why is there more persecution now? You know that the devil knows that the demons know his time is short, and he’s kind of raging furiously against the children of the Church in these last days.

We’re seeing across the world there are many cultures that are becoming more secular, with young people confused by the material world and focusing more attention on self. As a result, the Church is shrinking… How can we turn this around?

Secularism is a huge problem in large parts of the world. And I think that you know it’s a complicated phenomenon, and it takes different forms in different countries, but I think that materialism is definitely part of it. Consumerism is part of it; capitalism is part of it, where we are in a situation of constant stimulation by the different facets of capitalism — enticing us; addicting us; buying stuff or to play video games or to surf the Internet constantly or to go on social media and spend all of our time doing those things — and a lot of these things, I think, prevent us from asking the deeper questions, you know, and it’s a way of life. It’s like a continuous permanent distraction, and we are unable to, certainly have no time to, pray — but even ask the question, “What am I doing here on this earth? Where did I come from?

“No one asked my permission before I was created; I woke up, I opened my eyes, I was here — how did that happen?” I mean, if you’re constantly going, you’re just trying to buy the next thing or go to the next party, you don’t ask those questions…Where did creation come from? All of these deeper questions, I think secularism basically tells us, “Don’t ask that. Buy more stuff and don’t bother your pretty little mind with those big questions and just buy more stuff and you’ll be fine.”And that’s what we need to resist…we need to resist that mentality and not live our lives on a superficial level and, if I might say, indeed, on the level of stupidity and spiritual insensitivity.

As a nuncio, what can you do to try and bring people back to the Church?

When I say, “as a nuncio,” I say this with a little bit of regret, as it is not really directly a pastor. He is really essentially a diplomat and as I said earlier, a liaison, a link between the Holy See, between Pope Francis, and a given country. The nuncio’s job is to inspire the pastors, who are the bishops and then under the bishops, the priests, to be faithful and to evangelize. I was delighted to be here in the Archdiocese of Detroit and to see the Pastoral Letter from Archbishop Allen Vigneron on “Unleash the Gospel.” This is exactly what we need to do. We need to evangelize and evangelization means asking people, bringing people; to encounter the person of Christ, and that happens essentially through prayer, through the experience of prayer. It happens when people realize that living their lives on a superficial level is not enough. It doesn’t satisfy the deepest desires of the heart; one needs to look deeper. If we begin to look deeper we’ll begin, we will find. We will begin to ask the right questions and we’ll begin to find the answers in there — the answer to the deeper questions of the human heart. The answer has a name and a face, and it’s Jesus of Nazareth. God made man who came into this world to save us and to show us the way that leads to life eternal.

You were in Ireland and I’m sure you saw a massive exodus from the Church. What has led a very Catholic country astray?

To be honest, I think most of the exodus of the Catholic Church in Ireland took place before I arrived there. But there probably was some exodus while I was there, going on as well. Every country is different. Ireland has a peculiar history. And I think that one could — and it’s always difficult to generalize or to talk about complicated things in broad strokes — but I think what one could say in Ireland, is that you basically have three periods with respect to the Catholic Church, three historical periods that are impacting the present moment. One is the period of the persecution of the Faith in Ireland which took place over centuries and which rooted the Catholic faith in the hearts of the Irish people. The persecution of the Faith and the amazing fidelity of the priests of Ireland to their mission as priest, the service of the priests to the Irish people during the times of persecution and suffering — it built up a, how should we say, a patrimony of goodwill towards the Church. That’s the first period. 

Then we have the second period after independence in the 1920s, when all of that goodwill that was built up over the centuries, really of persecution, gets translated into a lot of political and social power for the Catholic Church, with their culture the Catholic Church didn’t have when she was being persecuted. That political power and social prestige leads, inevitably, to some degree of corruption. And it’s almost inevitable that when the Church is comfortable and greatly esteemed, people become priests for perhaps not the best reasons. And that leads into the third period, which was a period of reaction to the second period. So we’re now living a reaction period, a reaction against the time in which the Church was powerful socially and politically in Ireland… And that is a painful and difficult experience for Irish Catholics and especially for Irish priests to bear.

But I think what will happen is that through this, we will go back, in a certain sense, to the first period of a kind of persecution which will purify the Church, purify the priesthood and re-root, if you will, the Catholic faith in the hearts of the people of Ireland because it’s in their DNA. And even now, I was recently in Medjugorje on a little pilgrimage and I was impressed by how many Irish people were there — I would say at least half the English-speaking pilgrims in Medjugorje were from Ireland. And so there is still this faith in Ireland. It’s been under siege and the situation is not easy, but there still is faith there and I believe that the roots of the faith are so deep that, once again, the green shoots will sprout in Ireland.

Pope Emeritus Benedict said we’ll be a smaller and more faithful Church. Or do we have a long way to go?

I think it’s different in different countries. I think you always traditionally speak about France as “la fille ainee de I’Englise,” the “eldest daughter of the Church,” and you look at the Church in France today. She’s kind of always on the vanguard, and some of the problems of that…the vocations crisis hit the Catholic Church in France before it hit the Church in other places. And I think if you look at the Catholic Church’s state in France, you see a Church that is good, is certainly smaller and certainly more fervent. And that probably is the trajectory, the direction, of the Church. I think in most of the European countries — to what extent that can be applied to North American and South America, I think it’s an open question — but for Northern Europe, I think the Church will be smaller and more fervent.

Do you see evangelization taking place in Albania?

I do. I mean, we see baptisms of adults. I myself baptized adults in Albania. The Albanian reality is quite small; numerically there are far more Catholics, I believe, in the Archdiocese of Detroit than there are in the entire country in Albania. But there’s great interest in the Catholic faith. You have a great openness among young people to the truths of the Catholic faith. And I see that again and again in Albania.

How can we make the Church more spiritual? Many Catholics leave for Protestant churches, the “mega-churches.” Could a greater emphasis on spirituality cause them to return?

Our Lady of Shkodra with a group of Albanian martyrs

The example of good and holy priests and religious is very important. We must focus on the spiritual mission of the Church, as we were talking about earlier today with the Carmelite nuns. We must focus on the mission of the Church. Think about the words of Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” The Church’s mission cannot be limited to a this-worldly mission. There are many, many issues in this world which are extremely important and which demand our attention, but in the end, the most important thing is “the life of the world to come” which begins now with the life of sanctifying grace in our hearts. And when we “put first things first,” that is, the life of grace, the life of the world to come, striving for heaven… then, everything else follows. Then even the realities of this world begin to blossom and flourish.

But we need to “put first things first” and seek first the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is not a this-worldly realty. As Pope Francis has said, the Catholic Church is not an NGO. We’re not here to create some kind of this-worldly paradise — that was the error of Communism. There is indeed a paradise, but that paradise will come with Christ when He returns. And we will achieve that paradise — God willing and by His grace, we will be found worthy (cf. 2 Thess. 1:5) when we pass from this world, when we make the transition, the passage, from this world to the life of the world to come. The most beautiful thing for any of us, at the end of our life, would be to hear God speak our name, saying, “Come, Barbara; come, Charles; come…” — to hear God speak your name at the end of your life and embrace you in His kingdom.

What saint has been your greatest inspiration and why? 

That’s a very easy question because my favorite saint is a saint who was born in what is now northern Israel, in the town of Nazareth. Her name is Mary. Everything depends on her. She said “yes” to God and the cosmos changed. Everything changed, because a young woman — not in the capital, but in the north of the country, in the second or third city of the country— almost certainly a teenage girl who was espoused to be married, said “yes” to God. She allowed God to enter her life, to become flesh in her womb. Mary gave flesh to God. So, she is by far the most important saint. And if we love her, listen to her, follow her, allow her to lead us, let her organize everything, then we’ll be fine.

Is there something I didn’t ask you that you would like to say?

No, I don’t think so, Barbara, I think you covered everything very exhaustively. You are a very good interviewer! I am very happy to be here in Michigan. As I said, my mother is from Detroit. She lives now on Cape Cod with my sister. Her father, my grandfather, was from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, Irish-American farmers in Mount Pleasant — the Murphys from Mount Pleasant! My grandmother was from Hillsdale, Michigan. Her father was a railroad conductor born in Ireland and her mother was a very faithful Protestant. In fact, it seems to have been my Protestant great-grandmother who taught my grandmother the Catholic Catechism. My grandmother learned the Catholic Catechism from her Protestant mother! And so, I’m a Catholic today because of that.

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