The Man of God in the Year of Faith
29 September 2012
Fr. Gregory Gresko (Chaplain, Blessed John Paul II Shrine, Washington, DC)
It is my honor and great pleasure this afternoon to be with you, you who I trust are seeking to be the strongest possible Christian leaders on your college campuses and beyond in the broader community of faith. I would like to speak with you today about the crucial work of our Faith as it stands here now before us: As you have heard from at least a couple of speakers so far this weekend, we Catholics are about to embark upon a “Year of Faith”, and as you heard me preach this morning at Mass, the Christian is called to be a “man of God”. What does it mean to be a “man of God in the Year of Faith”? It is my hope that we can dig more deeply together now into this question, as it is crucial for our own salvation and for us to make the best possible contribution to the world-at-large, a world that we know all too well is struggling in its search for life’s meaning and is at risk of losing its very soul to a widespread culture – indeed to idols of death. The challenge before us is enormous, but God is greater and is already Victor.
Blessed John Paul II provides us with important help in what it means to be a “man of God”. To the beloved Pope, the man of God -- through and through -- is a man of freedom. He is free because he stands in front of God and, when he is living a life of holiness, he is never afraid to stand in front of God. The man of God is free from himself, and thus he is able to respond to the call of God to follow Jesus Christ as a faithful disciple, pure in heart and focused on God’s true Way. He is free from the material world and from all worldly power, which enables him to realize his full dignity as a human person. In choosing Christ, the man of God as a free man then can make a complete and free gift of himself to God and to neighbor. Free from himself, the man of God accepts suffering in obedience to Christ so that through the discipline of this suffering, God may conform him more perfectly into the image and likeness of His Son.
It is remarkable that, throughout his life as Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Catholic Church, Blessed John Paul II would approach other people not in order to get something from them, but instead so that he could make a gift of himself to them. Certainly, he always received much in being with other people, constantly learning God’s movement in the human person through his ministry to others. We gain much from viewing Blessed John Paul’s life as an alternate page to the Gospel of the young man, whom Jesus calls to abandon everything to follow him in pursuit of perfect righteousness and holiness of life. The man of God feels himself loved by God and responds in like love, through his discipleship in following Christ.
In the spirit of Saint Bartholomew who was a “true son of Israel”, a true leader first commits to become a man of God. Otherwise, where would such a leader lead those around him? A true leader in the Kingdom of God is one who follows Christ, on his knees in fervent prayer seeking the will of God … on his knees in humble, loving service to his neighbor as Jesus washes the feet of His disciples in the Upper Room as one of the last actions before His Crucifixion. We know that a true leader will be one who has no guile, no duplicity of heart … The man of God refuses to embrace a double standard by which he would proclaim to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in that Faith passed on through God’s Holy Church, but then behave otherwise. A true leader is one without falsehood, who refuses to take part in the lie that sin always is, in its very substance. A true leader wants sin to have no part of him, so that every part of him may belong to God. If I am going to be a good leader, I cannot lead people to God if I am not following Him first myself. I cannot follow Him if I neglect looking deeply, diligently, and consistently for the path He is walking and along which He desires to lead me. If I am merely looking at myself for direction, I will fail to see what Christ is showing me, and I won’t be able to show Him or the fullness of His Love to others.
In his Sermon on Pastors (46), Saint Augustine gives us a realistic portrait of the man who struggles to be a man of God but who has to fight in daily battle against the reality of sin and temptation:
There are men who want to live a good life and have already decided to do so, but are not capable of bearing sufferings even though they are ready to do good. Now it is a part of the Christian’s strength not only to do good works but also to endure evil. Weak men are those who appear to be zealous in doing good works but are unwilling or unable to endure the sufferings that threaten. Lovers of the world … are kept from good works by some evil desire, lie sick and listless, and it is this sickness that deprives them of any strength to accomplish good works.
How what Saint Augustine described over sixteen centuries ago rings all too true today! How do we respond to the challenge to the human soul that is sin, to evil that threatens the soul’s life now and its eventual salvation? Blessed John Paul II, in his great Apostolic Exhortation on the vocation and the mission of lay faithful in the Church and in the world, Christifideles laici, provides us with a vital answer, that man is called to respond fundamentally by fulfilling his authentic vocation as a disciple of Christ: We come to a full sense of the dignity of the lay faithful if we consider the prime and fundamental vocation that the Father assigns to each of them in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit: the vocation to holiness, that is, the perfection of charity. Holiness is the greatest testimony of the dignity conferred on a disciple of Christ … The call to holiness is rooted in Baptism and proposed anew in the other Sacraments, principally in the Eucharist. Since Christians are reclothed in Christ Jesus and refreshed by his Spirit, they are "holy". They therefore have the ability to manifest this holiness and the responsibility to bear witness to it in all that they do (16). God entrusts this vocation to holiness to the laity, that they will live in the pursuit of holiness in whatever their state in life might be. As the Church’s baptized laymen, your responsibility is to contribute to the world’s sanctification, living your lives rooted in faith in the Holy Gospel and demonstrating Christian hope in ways that unfold the love of Christ to every person whom you encounter. Through your particular circumstances in life, God unfolds His Divine plan and communicates a particular vocation to you, to seek “the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God" (CL 38). At this year’s Ecclesial Convention of the Diocese of Rome (11 June 2012), Pope Benedict XVI elaborated further on what it means to be baptized and shares insight into how Christians may live life in a manner faithful to our baptismal vows: To be baptized means, in fact, essentially a being emancipated, a being liberated from this culture. We know also today a type of culture in which truth does not count; even if they wish to have the whole truth appear, only the sensation counts, and the spirit of calumny and of destruction. A culture that does not seek the good, whose moralism is in reality a mask to confuse, to create confusion and destruction. Against this culture, in which the lie is presented in the guise of truth and of information, against this culture which seeks only well-being and denies God, we say no. We must say no to what we know is false, and we must say yes with fervent assent to the Truth we hold so dear for we belong to it … Indeed, we have been baptized into God Who is Truth! This Truth articulates everything in love, which transpires through the perfect gift of self, not through self-centered lusts in sin that seek to place myself on the throne that belongs rightly only to God, to whom I am consecrated.
When we hear challenging words such as these from our Holy Father, they prompt us to take our lives of faith seriously as Christians. The holiness of our lives should be our first priority as Christians, and it requires firm resolution on our part to reject what God considers to be profane – in thought, word, and action. We never should put ourselves in a position where we would compromise our morality or lead others to do the same. Just as we would never want to settle for second best in other areas of our lives, why should we expect to find happiness if we settle for mediocrity in our faith practice? Does the pattern of my decision-making lead others to believe that I am Christian? Does the message I communicate to people who may not even know me reveal my words and actions as genuine reflections of Christ?
The requirements for great Christian leadership are precisely the same as those for Christian discipleship: Jesus states in the Gospel of Mark (8.34) that there are three fundamental parts to being his disciple: 1) Deny yourself; 2) Take up your Cross; and 3) Follow me. The first characteristic, self-denial, is highlighted as key to authentic love by the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), which reminds us: Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self (24). Taking up our cross involves sacrifice, which comes from the Latin sacro | facere, meaning literally “to make holy”. Denying ourselves out of love for Christ and our neighbor, we sacrifice in loving service and become the greatest the more we humble ourselves to become the least. Finally, to follow Christ means to be a devoted student of the Master, the Lord … Which requires us to watch Him constantly. How can I follow Christ if I am not looking attentively, diligently and consistently at where He wants to lead me? I fail to look at Christ when I act selfishly, unlovingly, or immorally – because all sin ultimately boils down to an idolatry of self, allowing personal passions to reign on the throne that belongs only to God. As we know, God is a jealous God, and He will not share the throne of our hearts with what is not holy. Holiness is His very essence … He cannot take part in what is not holy.
Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, stated in his most recent pastoral letter, The Church, Our Spiritual Home (14 September 2012), that three elements constitute what the Church calls the New Evangelization of our Catholic Faith: 1) a personal renewal of our faith; 2) a confidence in the Truth of our faith; and 3) a willingness, even an eagerness, to share the faith. For us to engage the New Evangelization on our college campuses and in our workplaces, we first have the need to take our own catechesis seriously. The Church encourages us this year to renew our understanding of her teachings, probing them ever more deeply through such catechetical activities such as the study of the complete Catechism of the Catholic Church and the various documents of the Second Vatican Council, reading them ourselves in order to know our Christian Faith and Catholic heritage. Likewise, to grow in holiness, we need to ensure that we take the sacraments with due seriousness, faithfully endeavoring to deepen our love for Christ as expressed through the sacramental life of the Church, growing in our devotion to the Eucharistic Lord and to the worship of God through the Church’s liturgical life, celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation with due frequency so as to grow in sacramental grace. The New Evangelization will succeed only when we first allow God’s blessings in our own lives and give Him room to transform us through our obedience as faith-filled disciples. He promises that we will discover authentic happiness and joy as we follow Him faithfully.
The world around us is thirsting for meaning. We are thirsting for meaning. Jesus thirsts from the Cross for us to experience the fullness of life’s meaning – which is ultimately to glorify God through love of Him and of neighbor. But, how do I love in God’s way beyond the theoretical level? Karol Cardinal Wojtyła, in his treatise on love called Love and Responsibility, made explicit that authentic love is always responsible to God, as well as to and for others. We indeed are our brother’s keeper. Maybe this sounds familiar to all of us here as Knights of Columbus … hopefully so! We remember that our core principles are charity, unity, and fraternity. Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on their importance in light of a passage from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (2.2b-4): Maintain your unanimity, possessing the one love, united in spirit and ideals. Never act out of rivalry or conceit; rather, let all parties think humbly of others as superior to themselves, each of you looking to others’ interests rather than his own.
We possess the one love of Christ Himself, believing in His love for us in faith, allowing His divine love to reach every part of our soul, trusting Him. In giving ourselves to God in love, we become free and find our meaning. We become free to love others, as we trust Him and others who love Him to care for us and to look out for our welfare. We don’t have to live in fear, as we live in a love that casts out fear.
As Knights of Columbus, we have wonderful opportunities to realize -- in very practical ways -- the fruits that come from generous donation of our time. Our time is a very real gift from God … Our time is a gift from God to do His work and to enjoy the great happiness we experience when working together in collaboration with the God who loves us, along brothers who also love Him. When we are convinced of this love from above, we never want to waste time and opportunities to share it with others, as we never can get the wasted moments back. Sin wastes time that we could have used to love, reaping putrid, rotten fruit of selfishness and egoism when we could have realized choice blessings from God and neighbor instead. It is always to our benefit, never to our detriment, to choose selfless love over self-centered sin.
The Church is about to embark upon the XIIIth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops and its theme, the “New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith”. This Synod on the New Evangelization will be placing particular emphasis on the Church’s need to evangelize our present culture, in an age of profound secularism has “led to a loss in the capacity to listen and understand the words of the Gospel as a living and life-giving message.” Instead of rejecting God, Christianity, or religion through more direct means, secularism is more subtle as it invades “people's everyday lives and foster[s] a mentality in which God is completely or partially left out of life and human consciousness. In this way, secularism has entered the Christian life and ecclesial communities and has become not simply an external threat for believers but something to be faced each day in life in the various manifestations of the so-called culture of relativism” (Lineamenta 6).
Christians are called to live authentically, to show the difference Christ makes in our lives and to live it joyfully. We see that our call to holiness from God ultimately comes down to purity of heart: “Remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God” (Nu 15.40); and “You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lv 20.26). The life of a person consecrated in baptism has been set apart to belong to God. We as Christians thus have the indispensible vocation and mission to reflect God’s essence of holiness in our lives, that is, to obey God’s command by becoming holy as God is holy. Consequently, for a human being to live a life of holiness is not merely an option, but a requirement of God Himself that spans both the Old and New Testaments. As Christian holiness is always a matter of the heart, the believer proves his holiness as being authentic through upright thought and action, knowing that he will be subject to God’s judgment, as Saint Paul preaches to the Thessalonians: “Establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thes 3.13).
We sometimes have difficulty at times in this world of confusion in trying to figure out what is right and wrong. What do we do when we encounter such a problem, and how can we discover Christ’s right path … Is there a light to illuminate our way to Him? Certainly … God has given us a great gift in His Church, which He has promised He will not permit to err in her teachings in faith and morals. God even has given us His Holy Spirit to illuminate our conscience, and in following the voice of conscience on our hearts, when rightly formed through the Church, we find clarity in distinguishing between right and wrong. Let us look again to Gaudium et spes (16):
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.
But, where do we turn if we do take our faith seriously but seem to receive conflicting messages from people who claim to speak with authority on behalf of the Church? This problem is particularly real today in our day, such that Cardinal Wuerl just sent a pastoral letter earlier this month to the seminarians of the Archdiocese of Washington, entitled Fides Quarens Intellectum (“Faith Seeking Understanding”, 3 September 2012). The Cardinal provides solid food for thought for each one of us on this crucially important question: [When] you read that this or that theologian has proposed an understanding of God, the Church or the sacraments that clearly runs counter to what the pope and bishops teach, or when you are presented with the idea that morality, particularly sexual morality, is simply a matter of personal choice, and that the idea of an objective moral norm of right and wrong is no longer applicable today, know that you need to turn to a sure source reference for true Catholic teaching. It is easy to check when you think you might be dealing with positions often referred to as “Catholic lite.” If you have a doubt that one or another teaching that you read or receive does not comport with the Catholic faith, you can turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church … The teaching of “the other Church” holds out the illusion that you can act out in almost any way you want and claim to be a good, practicing Catholic. When perplexed about what does the Catholic Church believe and teach, you have the Catechism of the Catholic Church. When first published by Blessed John Paul II with the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, our Holy Father pointed out that this Catechism is given to us “that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine…It is also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Eph 3:8)”
We should pause here for a moment to reflect on what it means to be a “good, practicing Catholic”, or we Knights of Columbus like to call it, “practical Catholic”… To be a Knight of Columbus assumes that a man is “practical” in the Faith, assenting to and striving to live out everything Christ teaches through the Church. How might we grow, practically speaking, during this Year of Faith so that we might become more genuine Men of God? One possibility could be to commit to participating daily in Holy Mass, so as to be nourished daily by the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist: “Give us this day our daily Bread”. I might choose to subscribe to a printed or online publication like Magnificat, or maybe go to the Bishops’ Conference website at usccb.org, to reflect on the day’s Scripture readings from Mass in a more meditative fashion in a practice of lectio divina. Another idea of great benefit is praying the Divine Office, or the “Liturgy of the Hours” as priests and religious throughout the world pray, or perhaps to pray part of it daily, such as Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer. You can access these resources free at sites like ibreviary.org, in several languages including even two versions of the Latin office. Additionally, the importance of celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation cannot be overemphasized. Many people who haven’t celebrated this sacrament for a long time, and then finally do so, wish they hadn’t waited so long to confess, how much easier it would have been for them not to have lugged around their spiritual burdens and struggles seemingly alone. How the graces of this sacrament help us to fight sin and temptation so much more effectively! And it’s not too late … God urges all of us to return to Him, and the Church encourages you to celebrate this sacrament with regularity so that you can grow more quickly and effectively in fulfilling God’s call to holiness in your life!
When we act according to the core principles of Charity, Unity, Fraternity, and also Patriotism -- which involves being faithful to our civic duty, including serving our fellow citizens through proclaiming our Faith in lives of selfless, generous service out of love for God and country -– we will fulfill the exhortation to which the Apostle James challenges us (1.19-22, 25): Act on this word. If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves. There is, on the other hand, the man who peers into freedom’s ideal law and abides by it. He is no forgetful listener, but one who carries out the law
in practice. Blest will this man be in whatever he does. The Church challenges us priests as well. As Pope Benedict XVI shared with the German bishops in Cologne a while back (21 August 2005), clergy must welcome young people with their questions and encourage them to come to us. Our beloved Pontiff stated, “Their faith and joy in faith will continue to challenge us to get the better of our faint-heartedness and weariness and urge us, in turn, with the experience of the faith that is given to us, with the experience of pastoral ministry, with the grace of the Sacrament in which we find ourselves, to point out the way to them, so that their enthusiasm may be properly directed.” Priests must help our young people also grow in patience, without which none of us can discover life’s answers or ultimately our own particular vocation. We priests must help young people to discern well, rooted in a healthy realism.
Dear college brothers, our Holy Father challenges you too ... Strive to grow in your capacity to be decisive, and do not fear commitment. Help your brothers at your respective schools to do the same, strengthened by your good, holy example. We become free when we establish roots, as that is where we are able to mature and grow. Learn to grow in patience, discernment, and realism, but never making false compromises. Never tolerate mediocrity in your own lives, which would water down the Gospel and your testimony to its Truth! Keep striving to live in fraternal love, and refuse to let fear generated perhaps from family problems or difficult economic or employment conditions to get the best of you! These are very real challenges that our world faces, but God does not permit them in order for you to be conquered by them … Rather, they are an invitation from Him to fix our gaze upon His face. It’s always helpful for us to remember that Jesus invites Peter out of the boat to walk towards Him on water with churning waves. As long as Peter keeps his eyes focused on Christ and not on the waters below, the man of God rests secure in Christ, moving ahead toward the Lord in fulfillment of God’s plan, to his destiny, toward perfect communion with the Lord in firm and resolute determination. It is only when man permits fear to get the best of him that he takes his eyes off of Christ and sinks.
Benedict XVI has noted that secularism and de-Christianization pose serious threats to the human family, with threats of relativism abounding and proper understanding of Catholic moral teaching in decline. The threat is very real in our Church that many people choose to abandon her sacramental life and teachings altogether, or if they do stay in the pews, they think they’re “good practicing (practical) Catholics” while accepting only certain parts of Catholic teaching, picking and choosing what is most convenient for them in Christianity. Many people today are confused and have no genuine answers to their questions and struggles, and the ideas of the secular world do not help them. People act in desperation … alcohol, drugs, unethical sexual activities in which they use or abuse others (or themselves) selfishly instead of loving selflessly … in a thirst for fulfillment and come out feeling all the more empty. The latest figures show that the number one cause of injurious death in our country this year has become suicide, with the suicide rate increasing 15% over the past decade, now even outpacing death from motor vehicle accidents, according to the latest study by the American Journal of Public Health (http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300960 ).
But, we Catholics do have the answer to such problems … given to us so beautifully by Saint Augustine in his Commentary on the Psalms: Quaerite faciem eius semper – “Constantly seek His face”. As Cardinal Wuerl has stated eloquently in his latest pastoral letter on the Church, “the Catholic Church is the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in the world – in our day and time. The Church is the Body of Christ.” If we are living this Truth authentically as true, then we as brothers in Christ – united steadfastly with the Church and her pastors as young Knights of Columbus and as her “strong right arm” – will provide hope to the hopeless and food to the spiritually and materially hungry. You as college Knights have the unique opportunity to show your college campuses and workplaces that the Knights of Columbus is not a “club”, but a “fraternity” -- a true fraternity -- a band of brothers who seeks to emulate genuinely Christ’s will for others, with a purity of heart and morality reflective of Christ’s holiness and righteousness. It is a fraternity bound in the unity that comes from authentic charity, building a genuine community of love through service to the Church and to all those in need of our help. The Knights of Columbus provides us with one of the strongest instruments for strengthening the Body of Christ in our country and world, through opportunities to sacrifice for Christ and for the common good. Such opportunities are gifts given to us from God as they afford us the possibility to grow in holiness, and thus closer to His loving Heart, as we collaborate with Him to bring about further good.
As Cardinal Wuerl articulates well concerning the Church’s faith professed at our current juncture: The Catholic Church remains convinced that what it brings to society is in fact what Jesus called ‘the way and the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6). It is for this reason that the Church is protective of her right to speak in the public forum. What she has to say may not always be popular but it needs to be said – in faithfulness to her mission to go and teach all people (cf. Mt 28) … One makes a free will choice to be a member of this Church, and this choice should change our lives. Such a decision is itself a gift of God’s grace … Being a member of the Church incorporates us into something beyond us – greater than ourselves … We do not come to the Church to change its teaching. It is the Gospel of Christ and the teaching of his Church that should change us (from The Church, Our Spiritual Home).
As Knights of Columbus and as Catholic men faithful to our quest to grow and practice our lives as men of God, we do best to accept the Church’s call to proclaim the Gospel together as men of God, for the social and moral problems of our day are so large that no one group can address them alone. Laymen and clergy together must collaborate as active partners in the Gospel, turning to Christ as revealed to us through His Holy Church both to form our conscience rightly and to help us make the right choices and avoid the wrong ones. It is only through being faithful to our pursuit of holiness in prayer and sacrament; growing in our knowledge of – and obeying -- the teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and living our lives authentically in Christ that our world will transform into a genuine civilization of God’s Love. May the Holy Spriit give us every grace so that we may become true men of God in this Year of Faith.