Thursday, March 28, 2013

Making them better and making more of them

Tertullian, an early Christian, once said that Christians are made, not born. One might ask: If they are made, what are they made with or made of? The question is an important because chances are you know someone who is no longer a Catholic. In fact, there are about 30 million ex-Catholics in the United States. And to complicate matters, fewer Catholics are being made in the Church to replace those who are being unmade by the world.

It would seem that active members of the Church are at a loss as to the reasons why we are not making Catholics the way we use to. Church leaders, teachers, and parents often wonder why Mass attendance is on the decline; why we are losing the younger generations on same-sex marriage and cohabitation; and why the Christian religion is losing its appeal. In fact, if we were to take a look at the brutal facts, we can anticipate other disturbing societal trends such as an aggressive push for euthanasia and the censorship of any opposition to the gay-rights agenda. Challenges for Christians loom to be sure, but so do the opportunities. If the world is going from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than prayers; more conflicts than spiritual sacrifices.

Blessed Mother Theresa used to tell the Sisters of Charity that if souls are to be saved, a price is to be paid on their behalf. In other words, spiritual sacrifices and good old fashion penance are to be offered on their behalf. As for paying the price herself, a friend of Mother Theresa told me a story about an unusual sacrifice she had to make. In an AIDS hospital, the Sisters of Charity were ministering to AIDS patients. But as Blessed Mother had attempted to care for one angry patient, a container of urine was thrown at her face by him. She stood there with his urine dripping down her face. But instead of kicking the bed and saying, “The hell with you,” she calmly asked him why he was so unhappy. It took considerable restraint on her part not to react in a hostile or angry manner. But her graceful poise won the AIDS patient over. His rage and bitterness seemed to have melted, almost immediately. And soon thereafter he received the Sacraments and peacefully passed away.

Perhaps, the slowness to recognize the value of spiritual sacrifices, doing penance and drawing close to the Eucharistic Sacrifice at the altar is the reason why we have gotten stuck. Can this be the reason why over 70 percent of all the popes in the first Christian millennium were canonized as Saints but in the second millennium just over 5 percent of popes made it to Sainthood? The Fathers of the Church and early Christians believed that their love for God and neighbor, their acts of sacrifice and even the ultimate sacrifice of dying for their faith, if necessary, were indispensible- that is, absolutely necessary –in winning souls for Christ. But in order to win souls for Christ- in order to make Christians –the spirit of sacrifice, which is the essence of love, needs to be mystically united to Christ. St. Paul, the great Apostle of Christ, saw it this way. He asked the Christians in Rome, as if to remind them, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3)

 I once told a former colleague of mine in Catholic media that if you want better results, that is, if you want to attract more people to your apostolate, then you have to pay the price. In other words, you have to offer sacrifices for souls. But he responded, “Well…that sucks!” I think that sums up the attitude of a lot of Christians in 2013. We have convinced ourselves that we can win souls to Christ with just speaking the truth with eloquence, with just lectures, and with well managed programs. It is as if we believe that conversion is merely an intellectual exercise; a communication of right ideas instead of a transfusion of grace. Compelling, orthodox teachings are necessary, no doubt. But if we are to the mission of the Church is to move beyond mediocrity and into the realm of greatness, her members will have to take seriously certain insights and practices that Christ and Apostles gave us.

For instance, when two of the apostles gave voice to their aspiration for greatness by asking Jesus if they could sit next to him when he would enter into his glory, the answer given them was a surprising one. This lofty goal (one might say presumptuous goal) would not be denied them but there would be a price to pay. The Gospel of Mark reads as follows:

St. James and St. John, sons of Zebedee, asked Jesus, "Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left." Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" They said to him, "We can." Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared." (Mark 10: 37-40)

One might asked why Our Lord chose to use liturgical terms in making reference to his suffering and death. It is because “baptism” and the Eucharistic “cup” are channels of grace. His death on the Cross would be the channel through which grace would be poured out into the world. But notice that he did not claim that suffering and sacrifice was for him alone. On the contrary, he reassured his two ambitious apostles that the cup he was to drink, they were to drink as well. In other words, Jesus Christ did not suffer and die so that we wouldn’t suffer and die, but rather, so that, in union with his Passion through baptism, our suffering and death would be channels of grace for others too.

Christ empowered our suffering and sacrifices to atone for sin. But we must use that power. The New Testament is clear on this point:
  • “Whoever suffers in the flesh has broken with sin.” (I Peter 4:1)
  • “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (II Cor. 4:12)
  • “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Col. 1:24)
  • “For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (II Cor. 4:17)
As stated, sacrifice is the essence of love. Without sacrifice, love is but an empty ideal. We know this to be true in everyday life. Spouses and parents know that love costs them something. As with suffering and sacrifice, Christ empowers our love to atone for and cover a multitude of sins:
  • “Let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (I Pt 4:8)
  • “Whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20)
  • “By kindness and piety guilt is expiated, and by the fear of the LORD man avoids evil.” (Proverbs 16:6)
The revolutionary force of the Christianity in ancient times is that it gave dignity to suffering. And in giving dignity to suffering, it gave dignity to the human person. Personal sacrifice for God and for others and enduring the trials of life was raised to the level of worship by likening them to sacrificial rituals in the Old Testament:
  • St. Paul: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)
  • “But, even if I am poured out as a libation upon the sacrificial service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with all of you.” (Phil. 2:17)
  • “For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand.” (II Tim. 4:6)
Raising the status of voluntary sacrifices and suffering gave love a whole new dimension for the early Christians. Charities, orphanages, hospitals and hospices sprung up to serve the bodily needs of the poor. But more importantly, churches, monasteries and Christians institutions multiplied to serve the soul. Suffering, for them, was never wasted. Through the daily acceptance of all that God sent them- adversity or prosperity -through penitential practices (i.e. exercise in self-denial) and through the voluntary offering of spiritual sacrifices for the salvation of souls, the early Church was able make many Christians. And this is how she can do it again.