Monday, June 8, 2015

Why I Am a Catholic Christian

The Catholic bloggers are all writing about this, so I decided to join in. I have woven together and revised some previously written texts and added a few things. I thought it might be worthwhile to present a few points that strike me and sustain me.

These are just some considerations that in no way exhaust the mysterious fact that Jesus has made me a member of His Church by baptism, and has sustained me in faith by His grace.

He made me His own before I understood anything. But I can also say that I have really encountered Him living in the Church—in her teaching, sacraments, governance, and guidance, as well as in the communion of life with many brothers and sisters that endures in the midst of so many obstacles.

I am a Catholic Christian because Jesus is concretely present in the Church through time and space. His humanity reaches me here, in the Catholic Church. God became man 2000 years ago because He wanted me to encounter Him. He wanted (and still wants) to reach me, and you, and every person.

"What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:1-3).

God became man so that He could be seen, heard, and touched. God became man to be our shepherd, our servant, and to wash our feet—to accompany us in our own history all the way to its ultimate fulfillment.

God became man so that He could teach with a human voice, so that He could stretch forth a human hand over a person and say "your sins are forgiven," and—in the ultimate humiliation to which He was impelled in His gratuitous love—so that He could break His human body on the Cross and distribute it as "food and drink" to the whole human race, so that His death-defeating, immortal, risen human flesh could generate the resurrection of the flesh of all those who eat His body and drink His blood.

God became man so that He could be seen, heard, and touched.... He communicates His infinite, ineffable, transcendent Mystery through His humanity, and through visible, audible, tangible actions that are human.

The Son of the Father became man without ceasing to be God. Thus my eyes and ears don't "grasp" the Mystery of God in a reductive and limited way when they interact with this humanity of Jesus. Rather, He takes the initiative by showing Himself, by speaking, and by healing with His touch. Through His human presence and action, God awakens and nourishes my faith; He shapes the path by which my heart and soul come to know (by faith, hope, and charity) who God is, and to know His Mystery as a mystery of Love.

Jesus's living humanity was the method by which God willed to communicate His grace and revelation to human persons.  Therefore, this same method must characterize the way that God saves me today! This is the method that follows as a consequence of the Incarnation, and it is the method that is most adapted to the condition of human beings who walk through the world of space and time.

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? Was it to become less present, less active, less effective in His saving mission? Why did Jesus ascend to the Father? Was it so that the revelation He brought might cease to present itself to our senses, might remove itself from human history, becoming once again intangible, unapproachable, distant? Was it because He didn't want to meet people one-on-one anymore, didn't want to call them personally, accompany them personally in their lives, forgive their sins personally?

On the contrary. In the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus's humanity is transfigured and perfected; it does not cease to exist or cease to be significant. His humanity becomes greater, and the human energy of His mission becomes more extensive—after the resurrection Jesus becomes more capable (not less capable!) of being present on the roads of the world. Jesus's humanity has reached its perfection, and that means a perfection of His humanity's capacity to mediate salvation to every human person, to be humanly present in the concrete life of every person.

Therefore, today, in 2015, I should be able to find a community of the followers of Jesus who still have access to His humanity in all of the human facets that He displayed during His earthly mission. The "place" in the world today where I can follow Jesus must be a place in which His mission continues to be carried out visibly, audibly, tangibly in all of the aspects that are proper to it. There must be a human reality in the world that continues the human presence of Jesus. "I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world."

If I were in Judea and Galilee in 30-33 a.d. I would have been able to interact immediately with Jesus.

I could have listened to His teaching with the certitude that it was God's teaching, and the certitude that it had not been corrupted since it was coming directly from the mouth of the One who reveals and articulates Divine truth in a definitive way. I could have listened with confidence that this one human voice was to be followed over all the other conflicting voices including the confused voice of my own narrow subjectivity.

I could have obeyed the will of this man, done the things He told me to do, practiced His demands in my life, confident that His will was the expression of the will of God for my life. I could have gone up to this man and told Him all my sins, and when He said "your sins are forgiven" I would have known that God had forgiven my sins in that very moment and through the very action of Jesus enunciating these words with His human voice.

I could have stood at the foot of the Cross in the very moment when He was dying for my sins; I could have touched His risen flesh with my hands, and sat with Him at table when He broke bread and said, "take this and eat, this is my body."

These are the human gestures and human actions through which Jesus saved people. Therefore, even today, I want to be in touch with these saving human gestures and human actions of the God-man.

Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Jesus is saying here, "through me you learn what the truth about God is; I show you how you must live your life; and my action is what makes it possible for you to have that 'new humanity,' that transcendent participation in the life of God for which you were created."

Thus the place where I can follow Jesus today must be the place where His teaching continues with a single voice, His instruction continues through a single authority, and His sanctifying work continues through human gestures that communicate Divine life. Unless all of these aspects are available to me now, how can the humanity of Christ be my salvation?

Is it enough to have a book that tells me about what He did 2000 years ago, with some merely interior assurance that it applies to me now?

It is enough for me to have a book—even a book that I believe to be Divinely inspired—is it enough for me to have a book about a man who did things 2000 years ago, things the human images of which I have to reconstruct with my own imagination? Is it enough to have maybe a group of people with whom I can talk about Jesus and try to stimulate my memory and emotions with words spoken about His absent humanity?

Is it enough to have God as a "spiritual presence within," as though after the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, God suddenly decided to abandon the method of using human realities as His instruments, and instead to give direct, interior, spiritual subjective revelations?—revelations, moreover, about which everyone disagrees and which each interprets in his own way, so that the clear human voice of Jesus can no longer be distinguished in the cacophony of conflicting testimonies to inner experiences?

Or is there a hypothesis which is much simpler, more consistent, more adequate, more in keeping with the kind of man Jesus was and the character and intent of His mission?

The very nature of Jesus's presence in the world as God Incarnate suggests that the fundamental characteristics of this presence must continue if Jesus's saving work is to continue. This means that, in some humanly real way, the same possibilities for interacting with Jesus must exist today that existed in 30 a.d. Indeed the possibility of "encountering" Jesus must be greater now, not less! "Greater works than these you shall perform, because I go to the Father."

Jesus rose from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit. Some non-Catholic Christians, however, may not grasp the full significance of this. They seem to think that the Holy Spirit replaces the humanity of Jesus; that the work of Christ's humanity is over and done, and that everything is now left to the interior, illuminating presence of the Spirit testifying in the heart of the person.

But in the Catholic understanding Jesus sends the Holy Spirit in order to deepen and amplify the mediation of His humanity, not to lessen it. The Holy Spirit effects the interiorization and the vitality of what Jesus gives me through His sacred humanity, but my personal encounter with Jesus retains its human concreteness—Jesus remains humanly objective, "in front of" me and not simply "within" me (although He is also within me).

Jesus became incarnate so that human beings would not be alone in their own subjectivity—so that we would not be alone with our speculations, so that there would be a humanly perceivable reality in front of us to which we could submit ourselves, upon which we could depend.

Jesus became incarnate so as to mediate the way, the truth, and the life to us from a "position" that is outside of our own subjectivity, a "reference point" that is objective for every human person, "present" for every human person. "No one has ever seen God; it is the Only Son, ever at the Father's side, who has revealed Him" (John 1:18).

Thus there is some reason for making the following point about the "modern epoch," with all due respect to non-Catholic Christians who are sincerely opposed to the autonomous individualism of our culture today. It must be said that the Protestant tendency to make the decisive reference point for Christianity an inner illumination (supposed to be the testimony of the Spirit) rather than an objective human presence (a presence to which the Spirit bears witness) has led us inexorably into the trap of subjectivism. Ultimately, there is no objective authority that can ever tell me that my inner experience or personal interpretation is wrong, and there is no objective contact with the human concreteness of the Mediator who saves me.

But I want (and I need) this contact! I am not pure spirit. I am not pure consciousness. I am a man of spirit and body, and God became man so as to address me wholly, spirit and body.

It's true that Jesus says, "The flesh profits nothing"—but the "flesh" (sarx) is not my bodily reality as a human person. The "flesh" is materiality and temporality emphasized exclusively and in itself; it is the "stuff" of my humanity insofar as it is "cut off" from (or resistant to) the Spirit of God, and therefore also not integrated into my personal reality as a human being.

Christ's words "are spirit and life," but that means that they are spiritual in a way that informs life, human life; they are spiritual in a way that communicates life also to the body, that saves the body from degenerating into dead flesh and restores it to its integral place within the human person. Human spirituality that rejects the goodness of the body is as bad (or even worse) as human carnality unruled by the spirit. The human being needs the integration of both; which is why he needs the mediation of the Incarnate Word.

This understanding of the Incarnation has implications for our question about "how to follow Jesus today."

In the world of 2015, I must look for a human voice that teaches the truth of Jesus with consistency, with unity—a voice that I can count on, that won't lead me astray.

I must look for a human authority to which I can entrust myself, which I can follow with confidence because the demands of this authority communicate to me clearly the will of Christ which is for the ultimate good of my person.

I must look for those human gestures through which Jesus Himself calls me to be His disciple, strengthens me and sends me off to bear witness to Him, looks upon me compassionately and forgives my sins.

I must find a way to "stand at the foot of the Cross"—to be touched directly, physically by that once-and-for-all sacrificial act that happened so long ago but that happened with direct reference to me.

If I were to find the place where all of these factors were present, I would find the place where Jesus continues to be present and where the saving mission of His sacred humanity continues to operate with all of the human immediacy of the Incarnation. Indeed, I would find that place, that human and divine reality, called the Catholic Church.

And indeed, I have found this Church, and I continue to discover her anew as I walk the path of my life. I am a Catholic Christian because Jesus is present in His Catholic Church, because He has called me to belong to Him and to share this belonging with the people He entrusts to me in the places He sends me.

The Catholic Church is His Church, and the shape of her life is His glorified life radiating through history, His Lordship of every time and place. He uses the Church's ministers and members, even with all their enormous faults, to go forth into the world and give Himself.

He also works through the Church in the lives of those Christians not fully in communion with her, because of the measure of unity that really does exist.

And He works through the Church even among the multitudes of non-Christians, through the Church's dialogue and witness, her presence and prayer, and also—mysteriously—through the way human existence and human destiny are in themselves consecrated in Christ through the Church.

The Catholic Church is for every human being because Jesus loves every human being, and seeks the salvation and eternal fulfillment of every single human person with all the ardor of His Sacred Heart. What matters first and fundamentally is that He is at work in and through His Church.

I entrust everyone to His infinite mercy.

Jesus living in His Church is not my "belief system," not just my particular “philosophy of life” or my “support community”—something that “works for me” but might not necessarily “work for you.” He is for me, because I am a human being. That means He is for you.

I am sure of this.

But how? Who do I think I am anyway? What makes me so sure that my ideas about the meaning of life are true for everyone? That is just the point: these are not “my ideas”—this is a relationship. He is here, in my life, in a relationship with me. In fact, He started it—not me.

There is no way I could give myself this certainty, not even with all the philosophy of all the ages. What could possibly sustain this certainty in a blockhead like me?

I am amazed at myself, at the fact that I am so sure about this. I haven’t seen any miracles. I haven’t had any visions. And it is definitely not because I have a “deep spirituality”—I am a spiritual wimp.

What make me certain? It is Jesus Himself—not just some vague ideals about “goodness” or “the importance of Christian ethics” or “my understanding about the meaning of suffering.”

It is Jesus, the objective, actual, true Son of God, the living man who is with us now.

That is why I am a Catholic Christian. Because He is here. I need to be with Him. We all need to be with Him.