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What Neil Armstrong and I did on July 20, 1969

NEIL ARMSTRONG
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Which event was more significant? It seems obvious.

Which has fared better in the past five decades: The Church or the scientific world?

I have been thinking a lot about this because I was baptized on July 20, 1969 — the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

That Sunday, 50 years ago, Neil Armstrong took his first steps on Tranquility Base, while I took my first breaths as a Christian in Tucson, Arizona.

Which event was more significant? It seems obvious.

Truly, what Neil Armstrong did was “One small step for a man, but one giant leap for mankind.”

My baptism, by contrast, was “One small step for a man, and nothing very special for mankind.”

In fact, it can seem that on July 20, 1969, Armstrong stepped into the earth’s bright new future, and I dipped into its washed-up past.

Review what has happened in the last 50 years in the scientific, technological world on the one hand, and the Catholic world on the other.

Science experienced a new springtime. New technologies that serve mankind came fast, starting with the long list of inventions NASA dreamed up just for Apollo 11: the CAT scanner, the computer microchip, cordless tools, the ear thermometer, the smoke detector, freeze-dried food and the joy stick, to name just a few.

There followed five decades of amazing technological accomplishments. Pocket calculators were an unbelievable convenience, until they were superseded by personal computers which were superseded by smart phones. Satellites amazed us by telling us what the weather would be tomorrow; now they tell us to turn left in 300 feet. We went from floppy disks to USB flash drives to the cloud; from the Walkman to AirPods; from the digital camera to the drone; from renting Stand By Me on VHS to binge-watching Stranger Things on Netflix.

Meanwhile, it seems like the Church’s world diminished greatly after 1969. 

Many priests and religious left ministry. Mass attendance fell in Europe and America. Heinous crimes were committed that haunt the Church to this day. Religious dynamism and innovation seemed to fade into the past as many theologians seemed more interested in bending and blurring Catholic truths than in exploring and applying them.

Then again, we also can (and do) tell the story of the last 50 years in an entirely different way. 

The past 50 years in the Church didn’t just see decline and abuse; they saw the rise of all-time great saints. 

St. Teresa of Calcutta left behind the legacy of the spectacular growth of her order, the Missionaries of Charity, but also a remarkable witness of love despite a 50-year long “dark night of the soul.” 

St. John Paul is called “the Great” for helping end the Cold War, revitalizing the Church’s youth through World Youth Days, inspiring a new movement in higher education, and giving new life to the Church’s teaching on sexuality.

The last 50 years saw a new age of martyrs, from the Uganda Holocaust of the 1970s to the hundreds of Christians killed this spring. The Church has also been the biggest worldwide service organization for the past 50 years. 

Today, the world is becoming more religious, not less and the Catholic Church is growing at a faster rate than the world’s population.

A Pew Study released January 2019 shows that actively religious people volunteer more, vote more, smoke and drink less and are more likely to say they are “very happy.”

Meanwhile, despite the technological and medical advances science has brought us, the secular world is more stressed, more anxious, less happy, and more prone to suicide than ever before.

It’s as if, when we brought the new scientific age back from the moon, we also brought back what Michael Collins saw there: “Magnificent desolation.”

So, maybe I can reassess those two events of July 20, 1969.

To make it possible for Neil Armstrong to do what he did involved a team of genius-level scientists doing complicated calculations, creating dozens of new technologies.

But my baptism was also made possible by genius-level Christians, from St. Paul to St. Thérèse. It didn’t take dozens of new technologies to get me baptized — it took much more: the creation of Western Civilization, the evangelization of the New World right down to my Mexican mother, and the diocesan system of parishes and schools extending the sacraments across America to Tucson. 

The moon walk required astronauts who reached heroic levels of bravery. But so did my baptism — generations of missionaries and martyrs willing to give up everything, including their lives.

And while the memory of Neil Armstrong’s feat will last as long as the world does, the memory of my baptism will outlast the world, in eternity.

Baptism transformed me into a child of light, moved me from the family of Adam into the family of God, and opened up channels of grace that, if I let it, will transform me.

So, I salute what happened on the moon on July 20, 1969. But I’m more grateful for what happened 239,000 miles below, at Sacred Heart Parish in Tucson.

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