Note: Pardon any typos or minor writing mistakes. My posts are personal and meant to foster edifying discussions among readers, not win any awards. I’m a busy husband and father with no time for editing these days…
I will candidly admit that I find it very hard at times to be happy as a Roman Catholic. At the same time I will confidently assert that I will never be anything other than a Roman Catholic because what makes it hard to be happy as a Catholic is my own unwillingness to be the kind of Christian Jesus wants me to be. I am thankful, however, that the Lord has helped me to understand that there is only one true Church, that which Our Lord Himself founded 2000 years ago and every group that has split away from it has done so because of men’s unwillingness to follow Our Lord’s teachings about true Christian living.
Our family is currently reading through the Gospel of St. Matthew, and has just finished the “Sermon on the Mount”. There is a theme in the teachings of Jesus that is very hard to miss and it’s this: “Do not be like the hypocrites.” Now, in His day “the hypocrites” were public religious people–the movers and shakers in the synagogues and while, in God’s providence, they were the influential, visible people in the “parish”, they weren’t necessarily models of what God wanted His people to be. This caused confusion among many and there were different “sects” among the Jews–Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, etc.. When Our Lord came and dwelt among them, He, being the embodiment of the truth, didn’t fit into any of their groups, and consequently made them all upset.
As Jesus taught “the Way”, which was the actual fulfillment of the Law that the different groups all claimed to follow, He explained to His hearers that if they received His teaching, they would suffer persecution. That persecution would not necessarily come from Roman soldiers, or Greek philosophers. It would come from the religious leaders around them, their own synagogues, their own countrymen, their own family members. Jesus told them,
“Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’ s enemies shall be they of his own household.”
So, the Christian life is not going to be easy, and the desire people have for “peace”, that is, adult popularity, is not one that Jesus told us would be fulfilled. Christ’s commands are going to cause difficulties between us and our closest friends and relatives. They are going to isolate us at times and make many situations awkward. There are going to be many times when following Christ will require us to do good deeds in secret with absolutely no motivation except for the knowledge, rather the belief, that God is watching and will reward us. Jesus explained to us the nature of these actions:
“But when thou dost alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth. That thy alms may be in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.”
“When thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.”
“When thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee.”
Now, Jesus does not say, “When thou dost ______, do it in secret, and the Church will repay thee.”
This is where everyone tends to mess things up. It seems we read the the commands, “Be perfect”, “Do this”, “Do that”, and those of us who are eager to be holy and obedient to Christ do the works and then desire to receive from the Church, or from the parish priest, or from the parish council, or the parish school board some recognition and applause for doing so. We seek the parish to embrace those “secret” virtues that we practice that our secret life may be rewarded with public benefits. Yes, the “secret” works are desired to become the public works of the Church. When our secret sacrifices are not rewarded by those around us, even though we pretend that we do them in secret for no earthly reward, we begin to grow frustrated because doing them is very difficult when the only motivation is true Christian faith. Our faith is challenged and our weakness exposed.
After teaching us the secret life of obedient Christians, Our Lord also taught us the right frame of mind for those who live that secret life of almsgiving, prayer and fasting, and His teaching explains all of these problems that develop in us. He said:
“Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” makes for a happy holiday movie…but George Bailey’s surprising Christmas Eve is not what Jesus teaches us will be experienced in this life by His disciples.
Yes, this was the context of those words in Our Lord’s teaching. He was not talking to ungodly men of business–the Potters of the world–and telling them that their lives were bad and the lives of the Baileys are good. In fact, the warm, fuzzy Christmas movies cater to the hypocrite spirit as George Bailey gets his reward in this life for selfishly chasing after the good things of this life, which makes us happy as we watch it. “Yes, that’s what I deserve–rewards from my boss, from my community, from my family members for my good works.”
If we’re honest, though, the story of George Bailey doesn’t even make any sense. He’s a man of no religion who is forced by his father’s death, to continue his father’s work in a town he wanted to leave. He continues that work and is led by his troubles to desire to kill himself–the ultimate act of selfishness. Yes, that part is pretty realistic. The life of a man who does good deeds with no spiritual life to support those works would end up in despair. Poor George Bailey, not allowed to run off and “build skyscrapers” or enjoy his harems in the far-off lands of National Geographic magazine. He’s stuck helping his family in a “shabby little office” fighting over “nickels and dimes” all day. He has to settle down and get married and have a family in a “drafty old barn” that he complains about every day as he goes about his “virtuous works”. He calls his uncle a “silly old fool” when he loses money, runs to Potter (not God) when he’s in trouble. He is ultimately trapped by his adversary and has everything against him, takes it out on his wife and kids and then runs off to get liquored up and kill himself (!)–until by a literal deus ex machina–that is, an awkward divine intervention that solves a story going nowhere on its own–Clarence the wingless Irish angel comes down from heaven to show him that without him everyone would be miserable. Yes, no one else would do anything good and the entire town would be a mess. Everything in Bedford Falls depended on George Bailey, and without his coerced life of public service, the whole place would be a disaster. Look, I enjoy the movie as much as anyone, as it provides me with a moment of year-end emotional catharsis in which I silently pat myself on the back for my own good works, but can’t we laugh at how ridiculous this story is and how silly we are for enjoying it as we do? This isn’t a Christian story at all…let’s be honest. (If anyone should be honored in the movie, it should be George’s father and his wife.)
No, Jesus was talking to the people who would be his disciples, most of whom were already decent, spiritually-minded people (that’s why they were following Jesus). He was teaching them how to prepare their hearts and minds for the life He was teaching them–and living before their eyes.
Notice that he explains, “Where thy treasure is, there’s thy heart also.” Thus, when we are not rewarded by men for our good deeds (which are supposed to be done for God’s pleasure alone) if we become frustrated, it reveals that something is wrong in our hearts that is going to prevent us from following Christ. Despite our talk of spiritual things, we still, secretly, desire earthly rewards–rewards that satisfy the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life–for actions that bring no such rewards.
Christ is telling us that to follow Him a complete change of mind must take place in us. We must quit this world. We must put our bodies to death, with all their desires. We must despise all human approval and popularity. We must set God’s rewards after this life as our only desire and live so as to merit as much of those eternal rewards as possible. We must expect and seek no repayment in this life for our Christian works. We must study Christ’s words and obey them for His sake and let that be that.
Now, because of the difficulty of this self-sacrifice, going happily to Church becomes difficult. When we see an obese priest who is obviously not fasting the way we are, seeing his public approval in the Church, and visible church status, causes us to feel that our fasting is in vain–and we get frustrated. Seeing a bishop asking for (or demanding) financial support for a new Catholic school project that serves only the wealthier families in the area who already have ten options for good schooling, makes us angry when we are working to give alms in secret to the needy, who don’t have any Christian schooling options at all available to them. Seeing people gather on Sunday who never pray with their families at home or keep any traditional devotions, and yet be called up to serve the Church as lectors or council members makes us upset when we think of the hours we sacrifice to pray as Our Lord commands us to–in secret. When the Church is giving special blessings to Boy Scouts, local high school athletes, people going on vacation, high school graduates going off to secular universities, men and women serving the national military, etc., and none to the people who are praying, fasting and giving alms in secret, it is only natural for us to begin to think that this Church is not really Christ’s Church at all.
What if there was a Church that did everything right? What if there was a Church that ordained those who prayed and fasted and gave alms most as its leaders? What if there was a Church that elected those who prayed, fasted and gave alms most as its council members? What if there was a Church that gave special blessings to the families who prayed the most, fasted most and gave alms most in the community? Wouldn’t that ve a REAL Christian Church?
See the error in the thinking?
These thoughts are attractive only on the surface, for as soon as we reflect on what Jesus taught, we see that, really, that Church would NOT be more “Christian” at all. It would be a public, earthly rewards ceremony for people pretending that they are doing their good deeds in secret to be repaid by God who they say sees what is done in secret. They will be creating a physical, earthly and fake heaven on earth and calling that “Church”.
The motivation for that REAL Church experience is not extreme spirituality or true Christianity. It is hypocrisy. That idea comes from a heart that still demands earthly rewards for its heavenly works. It is a FAKE Christianity that may, indeed, appear to more closely represent a community that followers of Jesus might form, but it’s not God’s will and that’s why it doesn’t exist.
The lives of saints provide us with wonderful examples of holy men and women who did the right things for the right reasons. They prayed, fasted and gave alms in secret and were often opposed by the leaders of the Church in their day. Joan of Arc, for example, was burned at the stake…by the Church. John Bosco was, at one point, stripped of his priestly privileges by his bishop–John Bosco! Sts. Teresa of Avila and St. Faustina were told–by leaders in the Church–that their visions were likely coming from demons rather than God. Padre Pio was accused by leaders in the Church of faking his stigmata and trying to stir up fanatacism by his long Masses and endless hours in the Confessional–by the Church! The list can go on and on through history including no example better than the life of Our Lord Himself who was betrayed, falsely accused, unjustly judged and crucified by the leaders of God’s own Jewish system. He was condemned by the High Priest of Israel.
What separates the saints from the pretenders is that they are not seeking earthly or human rewards for their good works. That is why they are not complaining about the need for traditions to be restored, or the need for priests to be replaced with “better priests” (i.e., priests who will applaud them). They were never found bad-mouthing Church leaders or bucking against rules imposed by their superiors in the Church. They were focused on what their experience would be on judgment day and they knew that nothing any other men did could affect that experience. They would be judged for the thoughts, words and actions that proceeded from their own hearts, which revealed where their treasure really was.
Now, it is shallow to think that living in a holier Church would cause us to reap greater spiritual rewards because such a system would not be just. In fact, Jesus teaches us that this is not how we should think. He says, “Blessed are you when men persecute you.” He says, “To whom more is given, more is expected.” Therefore, if you were to achieve your goal of planting yourself in a parish that supported all of your opinions and celebrated all of your good deeds, you would be doing harm to yourself spiritually. You would not be enjoying the blessedness of doing your good works in the face of opposition and you would be doing good works that were relatively inferior to those done by people in places where they are not supported and applauded for doing them. You would be running away from the Cross and building a fake heaven instead of waiting for the real one so you can enjoy a fake Christian life rather than suffer through a real one.
Now, the fruits of this fake Christianity are glaringly evident. To listen to a man speak disrespectfully of a bishop because the parish isn’t “reverent” reveals the blind hypocrisy that fills that man. It’s not any true reverence that this man wants. To listen to a man criticize the Church because it does not make “the Bible alone” its rule when the Bible says, “Obey your prelates, and be subject to them.” (Hebrews 13:17) obviously reveals the hypocrisy that Jesus spoke of. It’s not more of the Bible this man wants. To hear men complain about the effeminacy of modern priests, as they gossip like women behind the priests’ backs reveals the hypocrisy in them. To hear woman complain that the priest doesn’t require that women wear head coverings to Mass while she goes home and argues insubordinately with her husband, whose authority is signified by that headcovering reveals her hypocrisy.
The Church, when all is said and done, is Christ’s own possession and He rules over it as He wills. If there are problems in the Church, He knows of them, and if we will mind our own business and “bear our wrongs patiently”, we will see that Christ takes care of them all, in due time, without any revolutions, reformations or sins from those “offended” by them. If you don’t believe this to be true, then you will find that you have other problems in your spiritual life bigger than what’s going on at Church. Jesus said,
“I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”
Notice the subject of that first clause: “I”. The work of salvation is not a work any of us started, or a work that depends on any of us for its fulfillment. Christ Himself is the Redeemer of the world and the work of redemption is His own work, for which He accepted the humiliation of the Incarnation and the pains of His Passion. He does not leave the work of salvation to us, and doesn’t ask us to think of ourselves more highly than we ought in its daily operation. He is the Lord and we are slaves in His kingdom. He has assigned us work and if we don’t “mind our own business” we will get punished just as anyone else is who is not minded his–whether that be a bishop or a priest, a legislator or a librarian. Everyone will be judged according to his own duties and “meddlesome” individuals have been rebuked since the time of the apostles.
So, if you’re reading this and you’re a Protestant, I am warning that the division of the Church was and is sin. I am NOT saying that what you will find in the Catholic Church on a day to day basis, is what you should expect to find in heaven. I am also not saying, however, that Christ ever said it would or should or could be. I believe that your separation from the Church is a sign of hypocrisy in your spiritual life because you can’t obey Christ without having the approval of others around you and you tend to “Church hop” not because you need a place to “be fed” (for you admit that the Bible is your food and it goes wherever you do), but you seek a place where you can be rewarded with earthly, human recognition for the good works you do. You will find that in the Roman Catholic Church, as offensive as it may sound, most people won’t care about what you do in secret. Public worship is pretty “vanilla”—read Scriptures, recite the Nicene Creed , say the Lord’s Prayer and celebrate the Eucharist. You’re not required by anyone to pray to saints, say the Rosary, offer sacrifices for the dead, or any of the other nonsense people say about Catholicism. I myself am quite “Puritan” in my personal beliefs and it’s fine. You can be a good Protestant in the Catholic Church…if you can mind your own business. In doing so, you will have the added benefit of living a devout personal life while avoiding any unnecessary division in Christ’s Church. That’s obviously better than Church-hopping, isn’t it? Come on. There can be only One Church and those whose eyes are fixed on God, who do their works in secret to be rewarded by no man, would never have any need to break away from the apostolic Church to be perfectly good Christians.
Moreover, if you’re reading this as a Catholic, can you not see the hypocrisy of your criticism of “the Church”—as if it’s supposed to be running an awards ceremony each Sunday for a bunch of children in need of recognition for their perfect attendance or good behavior? This isn’t elementary school…it’s time to grow up. Jesus calls you to perfection and tells you in the same breath that the life he calls you to will be one that is persecuted. Your experience in the Church is nothing strange at all and the Church’s leaders have their own work to do, which includes serving all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, with all kinds of weaknesses and all kinds of needs. When Jesus spoke of the Good Shepherd, don’t you realize that the Good Shepherd ignores the 99 good sheep to chase and rescue the few weak ones who are in trouble? One of the reasons you aren’t on the priest’s or bishop’s radar each week may be because you are doing fine. Just mind your own business and focus on heaven. Leave the poor priests and bishops alone.
The 2015th year of Our Lord’s reign is about to begin. He knows what He’s doing and has done it for over two millenia. There are no great dangers that threaten His Church that He is worried about. There is “nothing new under the sun” that He hasn’t overcome before. Everything continues as normal in the Church, with Christ seated on His throne. The question you should be worried about today is whether YOU are doing what YOU need to do to merit the rewards Christ offers to those who truly love Him and trust Him and, therefore, obey HIM. He tells you that He sees what is done in secret. So, don’t worry about whether anyone else knows about it or approves it. You say you are living for Christ’s sake–so live for Christ’s sake.
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