by Fr. Charles Irvin
CHURCH AND SACRAMENTS
Catholics experience God in the Spirit-filled and resurrected Christ who lives and moves and has His being within the Mystical Body of Christ which we know to be comprised of all of the baptized and confirmed. Those persons, who are the living cells of the Mystical Body of Christ, comprise the Church. To be sure, the Church is a legal entity, a social institution, something partially constructed and maintained by human hands. To be sure, the Church, like each one of us, is a vessel of clay. But it is more. It is created, formed and sustained by the Spirit of God; it is Pentecost on-going, down through the ages of human history communicated in the many human tongues that express God’s Word for us.
Along with other Christians, we Catholics are called to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, as the Messiah of God. But in our Church, after we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, we go on to share His life in His Sacraments. The Church, as we have come to know, is the resurrected body of Christ, the living, Mystical Body of Christ. Living in it means living in Christ. It means living
a life of intimacy
a life of meaning and purpose
a life in which, living in His Spirit, we join with Christ in accomplishing His work here on earth.
The historical Jesus of Nazareth has become the risen Christ of glory transcending all of human history. In baptism, and indeed in all of the Sacraments, we live in Sacraments that incorporate us into the Spirit-filled risen Humanity of Jesus Christ, victim no longer, victorious over sin and death. I no longer live, says St. Paul, it is Jesus Christ who lives in me. It is living in His life that I live.
OUR COMMUNION — The 6th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel
The summit and source of all Catholic worship is Holy Communion. The Eucharist is that toward which all of the Sacraments of the Church are directed. It is a Eucharist of Word joined to God’s Word incarnate in the Spirit-filled and risen Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Catholics find, and live in, the Mystical Body of Christ in the Eucharist. And we find the Eucharist in the Mystical Body of Christ. The two are co-extensive with each other. We Catholics see the face of God in the faces of all those who surround us; we encounter God in His glory in His humanity fully alive in Christ Jesus.
As we understand it, God did not come to us in Jesus Christ simply to tell us that He loves us. He did that, and yet more. And God did not come to us in Jesus Christ simply to tell us that He loves us and reveal His will for us, telling us how we can live wholesome and happy lives. He did that, and yet more. God came to us in Jesus Christ to tell us that He loves us, to reveal His will for us, and to share His very own life with us.
Our Lord taught us to pray especially in what we call the Lord’s Prayer, asking God to give us our daily bread. Catholics find the answer to that prayer in the Bread of Life that God our Father gives us on Christ’s altars each and every day of the year in Holy Mass, the Bread that is God’s life poured out for us. God has offered, we must respond, and we do so in Thanksgiving, in Eucharist throughout the days and months of each yearly liturgical cycle wherein the Mystery of Christ’s life is celebrated and into which we enter via the Liturgy.
THE HOUSEHOLD OF FAITH
Catholicism offers a communitarian life, a commonly held and shared body of beliefs, an authoritative teaching ministry that links us with Scripture and Tradition, the continuation of the Apostolic Office, and the Presence of the Holy Spirit within the Mystical Body of Christ, all of which are badly needed direct antidotes to the sicknesses which beset our surrounding culture.
To be sure there are wide varieties of Catholics, there is a richly variegated mix of various expressions of Catholicism. But whether we are from the east or from the west, whether we are “liberal” or “conservative” (if those terms mean anything any more) we hold to one faith, one baptism, one creed, one Lord, and one God and Father of us all. Our very diversity demands and calls down from heaven a unity that the Holy Spirit infuses into us, we who form the many and diverse parts of the Mystical Body of Christ. Catholics in their parishes live as families of faith, big families rich in diversities while at the same time bonded together in a family history that is deep, rich, pluriform, and many splendorous with the Presence of God in His Holy Spirit.
GOOD GUILT – THE GIFT OF RESPONSIBILITY
There is a difference between neurotic guilt and theological guilt. Neurotic guilt is found in feelings. There are poor souls who continually punish themselves, live in constant feelings of guilt, condemn themselves and unceasingly tell themselves that they are ?rotten to the core? and are no good to anyone, even to themselves. Neurotic guilt is an emotional problem that cries out for therapy and healing. The Catholic Church is often condemned for wanting people to live in such personal hells, but the condemnation is totally unjustified.
Jesus Christ came to save us from our sins. He came to preach Good News to us, not give us a whole lot of bad news about ourselves. And His Church, following in His footsteps, likewise seeks to lift such trunks off from peoples? backs, to enter into a Ministry of Healing and Forgiveness. She seeks, with Christ, nothing else but a total ministry of Reconciliation in order that we might all ?walk in the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God.?
The Church wants nothing to do with neurotic guilt. She wants to rid us of that scourge, that terrible affliction. But, in order to do so, Holy Mother Church must confront us with the truth that we are responsible for our choices. She needs to bring us to realize that our choices have consequences and that our freedom of choice is a freedom given us that we might take responsibility for our lives and for the world what we have fashioned around us. This, as you instantly recognize, is likewise psychological health and maturity. This is precisely the same message of psychologists and psychiatrists, those healers who attempt to help us bring ourselves to take responsibility for our decisions and thereby take responsibility for our lives, thus liberating us from simply being ?helpless victims.?
Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, victim no longer. By the power of the Holy Spirit the Jesus of Nazareth became the risen Christ of glory, Spirit-filled and victim of sin and death no more. It is into THAT Humanity of Christ that we are baptized. It is in THAT Spirit-filled reality that we are confirmed. It is THAT risen flesh and blood of Christ that we receive in Holy Communion. But, in order to arrive into that state of grace we must first acknowledge that we have, in our arrogance and pride, made decisions and choices quite apart from God, quite contrary to Christ, and quite against the Counsel of the Holy Spirit — choices and decisions which have brought us into pain, suffering, loss and into the mortality that flows from living alienated from the Source of Life that is our Higher Power, alienated and estranged from God.
Such estrangement is a reality far more profound than mere neurotic feelings of guilt and shame. Theological guilt brings us to that point of psychological and spiritual maturity wherein we recognize that we got ourselves into the hell we’ve made, and, like the Prodigal Son, we can make the necessary choices and take those decisions, that will restore us to sanity, health, and wholesomeness (wholly-ness) in our relationships with self, others and God. Which is to say, theological guilt brings us to that point wherein we can once again take responsibility for our lives and taking responsibility for what we can be in the future. This means that, again like the Prodigal Son, we have to stop living in our past lives. What?s done is done and we can’t go back and change anything. God, on the other hand, beckons to us from our future; He calls us through Penance and Reconciliation, to become what we can be. He brings us to realize all that He dreams we can be. This is the work of the Church because it is the Mission of Jesus, the Christ. That freedom comes, however, at a price, namely the price we pay when we realize that we have sinned, take responsibility for our bad choices, and then re-commit ourselves to make good choices as we move forward into our futures and become all we dream we can be as well as all that God wants us to be.
The Cross, with Christ’s human body nailed on it in death, is perhaps more than any other symbol that which identifies us in the public’s eyes as Catholic. Ours is a Church of the suffering. Ours is a Church of sinners. Ours is an altogether human Church. Its humanness is, at the same time, what brings it such scandal, ridicule and scorn. Throughout history its human members have engaged in shocking behavior. At the same time, its human members have displayed extraordinary holiness. But be we saint or be we sinner, we come together each Holy Thursday and Good Friday to face the stark reality of Christ’s Cross, the one with humanity nailed to it. From His pierced human body there flows forth water (Baptism) and blood (Eucharist), that for which our souls thirst, namely the love of God pouring forth from the new rock struck by the New Moses.
Do Catholics accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior? Most Catholics are offended by the question. Of course they do! Every time they enter a Catholic church and every time they receive the Sacraments of the Church they enter into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And unless He is risen from the dead and present within us then our lives make no sense whatsoever.
The question isn’t so much whether we accept Jesus Christ as it is whether or not we live His life.
Human life with all of is suffering, tragedy, pain and loss is mindless and senseless — unless we see it through the lens of the Cross. Once we do then we can see the Light risen from the empty tomb. For one gets there only through the Cross.
Catholicism is a public religion. It ?went public” on that first Pentecost Sunday when the Apostles (note that Mary was with them!) were anointed by those mysterious ?tongues of fire? and as a result went out into the public square to make Christ’s risen presence real in the daily world and worldly affairs that occupy the minds and absorb the energies of men and women.
The Roman Emperors immediately attempted to suppress this threat to their power. Theirs was a power of domination and control. For them Might made Right. The opposite, which was and remains the message of Jesus, was a terrifying threat to them. When the Church arrived in Rome the Emperors did everything in their power to entomb it in the catacombs. Nevertheless, no matter how many times the Principalities and Powers of this world tried to suppress and entomb it, it always came out. Like Lazarus and like Jesus Christ, the Power of God in His Church could not be confined and imprisoned by this world’s Forces of Darkness.
World history is the history of the Catholic Church. She has been a public Church from the beginning and remains so even unto this very moment. This is a fact that upsets many of the Church?s enemies — that can?t stand the fact that they have to deal with God?s Church in the public square, which is to say they are driven half-crazy in their attempts to face down the Church as an institution. An institution is something quite public, quite political, quite social in its reality, quite annoying to those who want to keep it closeted.
Down through the ages the Work of the Church has been to be the voice of human conscience raised up against the arbitrary and capricious employment of governmental power over people. She has stood up to emperors, monarchs, sovereigns, presidents, legislatures and courts, point always to a Higher Authority that is the source as well as the justification of any and all human power and control over other humans. For the Church, humanistic as she is, does not see men, women and children merely as human beings. She knows them to be Children of God and herself. Like Mary, the Church is our earthly Mother who is duty bound to nurture us with the milk, the Bread and Wine, as well as enlighten us and warm our hearts with God?s Holy Fire.
Thus our Holy Mother the Church has established Religious Orders of teachers, doctors, nurses, health care providers, orphanages, old folks homes, hospitals and hospices, schools, colleges and universities, as well as academies and seminaries — all to nurture, care for, develop and in-courage us in our weakened and broken human condition so that we might walk tall, in dignity, and with purposefulness in the glorious and Spirit-filled freedom of the sons and daughters of God. This is the Mission of Christ. This is the Work of the Church. It is in this that we work out our redemption and salvation, all of it being infused with the Spirit of God who takes our ordinary human flesh and blood and then consecrates it into the Body and Blood of Christ that we might return to our heavenly Father in His Christ.
For God did not create us in order to watch us suffer. Suffering is not His will for us. I realize, of course, that as Catholics we have spiritualized suffering to join our sufferings into the sufferings of Christ so that it can be salvific and redemptive. (This, by the way, was the basis for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King?s civil rights movement and why it had the power to change the conscience of our entire nation). I realize, also, that joining our sufferings into the suffering of Christ is a noble and Christian work. St. Paul put it this way: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” (1 Colossians 24)
But I also remember when Jesus was asked why there were so many things that were wrong in life, why there was so much evil, pain and suffering in the world, and His response was: “An enemy hath done this.” It is our Ancient Enemy who is at work here and in whose presence we find in the root causes of our pain and suffering. In other words, it is not God’s will that we should suffer. It is His will that we bring His healing and redemptive work to bear so that the world is made whole again and pain and suffering are eliminated. Why else should we pray that God’s kingdom come here on earth, among us here, as it is in heaven?
In Catholic morality we hold to the self-evident truth that life itself are our first and most basic gift from God, a gift over which we can only exercise careful stewardship — not domination or dominion. The earth, the environment, our talents, our world, are gifts God has given us, along with the gift of our very lives, to use in order to accomplish His purposes, in order to return them to Him increased by our love and energy. But what we do with our lives is our gift to God. And it is not His will that we should snuff them out. Stated another way, our intentions and purpose in exercising stewardship over His gifts to us are of supreme moral importance.
The problem of suffering is, of course, ancient. The rebellion of Adam and Eve takes us to its root source, and the story of the bible finds suffering woven among its many threads. We recall, for instance, the story of Job. Job was, as you recall, that poor, unfortunate man who suffered to the point of despair, the devil jousting with God over Job’s soul while claiming that he, Satan, could make Job despair and turn his back on God. At the heartbreaking conclusion to all of Job’s horrible suffering and loss we find Job crying out: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” The Book of Job reports: “In all this Job did not sin, or did he say anything disrespectful of God.” [Job1:22]
In our response to all that Jesus Christ taught, as well as in our following in the way, the truth, and of life of Christ. St. Paul tells us: “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For it we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” [Romans 14:7]
Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. Death, too, is a mystery to be entered into, not a problem to be solved. And as Christians we enter into death with Jesus who, when faced with His horrible agony cried out “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” This is why the Cross with Christ’s human body nailed to it in death is, perhaps more than any other symbol, that which identifies us as Catholics. God, after all, has become totally incarnate in our humanity — from birth through death.
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