If We Are What We Should Be…

Alleluia!  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Beginning last Sunday, and for the next 50 days, we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection and the Easter season.  Lent is over, time for rejoicing!  But what should that mean for us? 

When I was Protestant, I was taught and believed how much Jesus loves me, how much He wants to have a personal relationship with me.  I was given the Bible and encouraged to study and reflect on God’s Word.  I knew and experienced Jesus as an intimate friend, someone who was there in my darkest moments.  I wasn’t perfect or always faithful, but He was, and He used my prodigal times to draw me back to Him.

Now that I’m Catholic, I am blessed to experience this same relationship in a much richer and deeper way.  Most of us have the opportunity every day to receive Jesus at Mass in the Holy Eucharist.  My understanding of the body of Christ and what it means to be in communion with God through the Church has been enriched.  The truth and charity communicated in Catholic life, through everything from liturgy to acts of mercy, all serve to point us to God in profound ways, if we are open to Him.

From the beginning of the Church, followers of Christ have been pressured to conform to the ways of the world, sometimes in small, seemingly insignificant ways, sometimes in more pronounced extreme ways, but the proposition is always the same – burn incense to Caesar to save your life.  We hear the same song played today: conform to what people want, don’t be so vocal about what you believe as it disrupts the public peace, compromise because what you ask of the people is too hard.  The Catholic Church needs to “get with the times” and ordain women, allow same-sex “marriage”, contraception…the list goes on. 

Satan’s tactic is the same: obscure and keep people from good, truth, and beauty, from seeing and experiencing God and His grace, by any means possible.  This is made easier by the fact that, as humans, we tend to overly complicate things.  We see distinctions where God sees “both/and”.  We compromise in the name of diversity and inclusivity when ideas are mutually exclusive and where one violates Truth. 

Some people are tempted to become caught up in externals – the legalism of the Pharisees.  We can succumb to pride and judgmentalism and our hearts become brittle and bitter due to lack of charity and mercy.  Others are tempted in the name of mercy and charity to compromise what is true.  We hesitate to speak out against sin because we don’t want to “turn away” anyone.  We are tossed to and fro, and are swept away by the currents because we fail to stand on Truth.  We grow to dislike anything perceived as formal and rigid, which means we also grow to dislike our fellow Catholics who are concerned about following Church teaching, disciplines, and rubrics.  We become blind to the fact we have fallen into the same trap of which we accuse them: pride and judgmentalism.

In both cases, we miss seeing God, and we miss the opportunities we may otherwise have to share the Gospel with others, leading them to freedom in Christ.  Yet, in the West, and particularly in the United States, this inexplicable divide exists and is illustrated by the treatment of our two most recent popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, by the media, general public, and even some Catholics.  This provides a clear example of the tragic consequences of this approach to the faith.

Pope Benedict beautifully taught and reminded us why the Catholic teaches what it does, both in his writings and in his example.  A profound theologian, he was instrumental in the writing of many of the documents of Vatican II, as well as countless other rich resources on the Church and Christian faith.  He also exhibited a great amount of gentleness and care for others.  He visited prisons, the sick and suffering, and reached out to the poor and marginalized, meeting with victims of abuse, creating the Anglican ordinariate, and countless other actions. 

Through the Moto Proprio, his teachings and example on the Catholic faith and liturgy, he stressed the continuity that should and does exist through the ages in Catholic life and worship.  He reminded us of the fact that Jesus is divine.  When we step foot into a Catholic church or chapel, we enter the heavenly court and into God’s presence in heaven, with the angels and the saints.  Catholic architecture, liturgy, traditions and customs have developed over centuries as men sought to acknowledge and reflect this reality.  The sacraments, instituted by Jesus, are simple and marked with a certain poverty.  Pope Benedict taught us once again that the liturgy is the beautiful garment the Church provides to honor her Spouse.  The liturgy may vary from East to West, but when the Church makes full and proper use of the liturgy, she does not conceal the treasure of the sacraments.  Rather, she highlights and displays with grandeur the gems Christ has given the Church in the sacraments.  The act of liturgical worship should be markedly different from what we find in the secular world – we are encountering God in a radically profound way. 

Pope Benedict reminds us that Vatican II did not do away with that.  Rather, it stressed what is good and beautiful about the Catholic faith and worship while also reminding the people of our common sharing in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly roles.  A springtime of renewal was needed, but was never intended to get rid of what had come before.  Rather, we are challenged to rediscover who we are called to be in Christ: children of God, sons and daughters of the King.  Parishes and communities who have embraced both the long tradition of the Church and the renewal expressed in the documents of Vatican II are attracting and filling their pews and ministries with young men, women, and families.

Though we are still getting to know Pope Francis, his papacy thus far has highlighted for us in a particular way the other nature of Christ – His humanity.  We are captivated by Pope Francis’ expression of humility and his effortless way of serving others.  But it is important to note, while Pope Francis has continued his humble and simple way of life he embraced as a Jesuit in Argentina, he is not jettisoning the riches of the Church.  He has not put the Vatican on the market or the linens and vestments on eBay.  He has not made statements changing Church teaching on the social issues of our day.  In fact, if we listen to what he has to say, he is staying the course and boldly proclaiming the Catholic faith.  He is holding fast to the teachings of the Church.  Being charitable and inclusive in the example of Christ does not equate to a compromise of truth or cutting ourselves off from our legacy and Catholic family traditions. 

So why does the press, the public, and even some Catholics seem to buy into this false dichotomy?  It serves the Enemy’s needs.  It divides and obscures Truth.  To strip the Church of its disciplines, liturgy and rubrics is to once again strip the garment off Christ.  Men become debased, even as they seek to exalt themselves as determiners of proper teaching and practice of the Catholic faith.  They become caught up in their position and arguments, failing in charity and and losing sight of what should be the ultimate objective – to see Christ more clearly and to encourage and lead others to do the same.  And in the process, the Church is divided, soiled, and bruised.

Popes before Pope Francis, including Pope Benedict, visited prisons, cared for the poor and marginalized, tenderly reached out to those who were wounded; they have taught and lived simplicity.  And Pope Francis is not throwing off the vestures of liturgical worship or compromising Catholic doctrine with bold proclamations.  To be sure, there are nuances to each individual pope’s style and approach – as humans, they each have strengths and weaknesses, and certain gifts from the Holy Spirit.  But they teach, live, and uphold the same Catholic faith, preserved since the time of Jesus.  Rather than view and interpret the Church and papacy to fit our definition of what it means to be Catholic, we should consider our Holy Fathers with proper respect and humility, and carry those lessons with us in our understanding and living out of the Catholic faith, our respective vocations, and in our dialogue and actions with one another.

If we do not live as if we believe in the transforming grace God offers us through His Son, if we do not seek to yield and pursue Him, if we do not submit ourselves in loving obedience to Christ and His Church, embracing all that is good, true and beautiful about our Catholic faith, what then?  What will become of poor sinners, including ourselves?  We are being called to return to the fundamentals of our faith.  Charity and Truth.  Mercy and Justice.  Humility and Piety, or right worship.  A personal relationship with Christ, in His divinity and humanity, lived out and experienced in the community and fellowship of the Church. 

This full, authentic living of our Catholic faith is what draws people and changes lives, just as Jesus did with his authentic keeping of the Law and proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The mission Jesus gave the Church still stands – you are free and forgiven, go and sin no more.  Proclaim the Gospel, baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and make disciples.  There is no compromise, there is no halfway.  Mediocrity is not an option.  In the book of Revelation, Jesus warns what happens to those who are simply “lukewarm” – “I will spew you out of My mouth.”

We now face a challenge in this.  In Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, we may experience life and freedom.  But the choice is ours:  Do we truly believe what we profess?  Do we truly believe what the Catholic Church teaches and holds?  All of it?  Then, as St. Catherine of Siena wrote, “if we are what we should be, we would set the world on fire.”

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