Remarks on the First Anniversary of Catholicism
April 30, 2006
Here I am, slightly over one year into my journey as a Catholic, preparing again for Holy Week and Easter. It seems a reasonable time to pause and reflect. I stand today, perhaps outwardly no different a man than I was then, except for one important distinction: I am aware, as Confucius would say, of the extent of my own ignorance. It’s not a scary experience though, as it is a revelatory process guided entirely by the life of Christ surrounding me. In one short year, I’ve also been able to witness many amazing events. I was blessed to count myself Catholic for one entire week of the Papacy of John Paul the Great. Nevertheless, after learning so much from the man, I feel privileged to have watched his passing as a member of his flock. I have been a part of the excitement of the beginnings of a new papacy, and followed it thus far to the promulgation of its first encyclical. It’s been a wild, often overwhelming, ride.
Without question, this odyssey has barely begun. But it has begun, and that is absolutely elemental to its fruitfulness. The great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, with his classic grace and artful stage presence, said once at a concert of his trademark song, A Night In Tunisia, that it “has withstood the vicissitudes of the contingent world, and moved on an odyssey into the world of the metaphysical.” This comment wonderfully spotlights the nature of our human condition, and what Catholicism can offer it. Man constantly yearns for more, yearns for something outside himself. With the fundamentals of the Christian experience, man can, through God, come to grasp at the formations of reality as a whole. This is not to say that man moves entirely away from the material world and entirely towards the spiritual world. Rather, as Benedict XVI says in Deus Caritas Est, “..it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature.” The contingent world is in no way dismissed, it is supported by the ontological underpinnings of reality, most aptly seen in the spiritual life of Christianity.
Early on, I came across a quote that helped me to capture the essence of the Christian experience: “When I encountered Christ, I discovered I was a man.” My CL friends tell me this quote from Marius Victorinus was a favorite of Msgr. Giusanni’s. It’s easy to see why. The beauty of the Catholic faith is not a dogma, a set of ethical rules, or a standard of practice; people will time and again fail to live up to even their own meager expectations. Rather, this faith is an encounter with the central figure of reality: the person of Jesus Christ. A Christocentric view of the world does in fact imply all the other tenets of faith, but these tenets cannot stand up without the support of Christ.
The simple fact of our humanity, in Christ, leads to an entirely different experience with the world. The outward signs may not necessarily change - we’ll still love the same people, we will still be uplifted, angry, joyful, prideful, or any other human reaction. However, our inherent understanding is fundamentally different. There’s a greater sense that the essence of this world, its ontological roots, has a very real purpose focused through the person of Christ. So our relationships may grow ever deeper, our love for others may grow more abundant, even our charity, a very difficult proposition to undertake, may grow its fruit because our Christocentric understanding, through grace, may see the connection and dignity of the human stature.
Similarly, the actuality of the Church allows us to see Christ’s presence through the body of Christians. It’s no wonder the Church is called the Mystical Body of Christ, for Christ said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” The spirit of Christians is enhanced through their unity and their essentially homologous call to holiness. This is the binding force of the Church. I originally thought my move to Catholicism would be this miraculous panacea to all my sins. I didn’t realize that the tenets of the faith may become empty sets of rules. Without a Christocentric perspective, the tenets of the faith might not stand by themselves. It’s seen all the time in so-called “Cafeteria Catholics”. It’s impossible to sustain your faith by a dogma alone, it must be supported by an encounter with Christ! I still struggle with sin, as everyone does, but the architecture of the Sacraments and the Church allow me to use Christ as an example and move my encounter with this Mystery far beyond the boundaries I could set.
Simplicity and Complexity
I originally came from the wonderful Lutheran Church, an often simpler style of Christianity. It’s beautiful in its purity and concise form. Even Luther’s Large Catechism is less than 150 pages. So when I was confronted by the monstrous 864 pages of the Catholic Catechism, I was taken aback. Of course, there’s also the Code of Canon Law, the writings of the Church fathers, the many Papal Encyclicals, and lots more. Why so much?
Wittgenstein begins his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with the definition, “The world is everything that is the case”. Quite a broad statement. We might reword this to say the world is the totality of reality. That’s a big problem set, and far from simple. Christ says the essence of the Christian faith is two interrelated Commandments: “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” While at first these may sound reasonably simple, they are complex, paradoxical, and mysterious. They are the very core of the Christian faith, but when this essence is applied to “everything that is the case”, our thoughts and words may easily become voluminous. The Catholic Church, in its many writings, tries to connect the Christocentric encounter of humanity with the many facets of reality. It does so rigorously, but generally, in its differentiation of official Church teaching, public revelation, and private revelation. Interestingly, Wittgenstein completes his Tractatus with, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The Church also heeds these words, often passing over the ephemeral notions of the everyday world to focus on the universality and centrality of the Christian experience concentrated through the various facets of our world.
Throughout the history of the Church, the faithful have continued to develop a living, continually evolving set of knowledge known as Tradition. I have been voraciously sifting my way through many different texts over the last year, and I feel like I’ve barely even scratched the surface! Among the classic texts of the Bible, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, there exist so many sources of Christian and philosophical knowledge - the Church Fathers, including Tertullian, Origen, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus; the many mystical traditions, especially St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross; the many writings of the saints including St. Terese of Liseiux and St. Bernard of Clairveaux; the more modern theologians and philosophers Hegel, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Balthasar, and De Lubac; and the writings of recent Church leaders like John Paul the Great and our current Pope Benedict XVI; and these are but a few examples. That’s not to mention the teachings of the councils (especially Vatican II), and the many contemporary books, fiction and non-fiction, and essays on the Catholic faith. It’s enough to overwhelm and fascinate anyone.
The most wonderful aspect of this veritable mountain of texts is the underlying essence of the Christian faith. This vast tradition does not at all change the immutability of the Gospels. Instead, they shape the Christian life, expanding the vision of the Gospels for every epoch and setting of human existence.
A Christian vision is fundamental to the meaning of human existence. These intrinsic ties also signify the universality of this vision. It is in complete solidarity not only with Man, but also with all men. The universality of the Christian call entails us to look both inward to the nature of ourselves, and also to look outward to those around us in evangelization. The metaphysical connections of Christianity, along with the event of Christ and his love for us, not only allow our growth outwards, it insists upon it, as the “full stature” of man cannot be reached without sharing the Christian vision.
A Christian outward push to the world is not limited in only the common definition of the word “evangelization”. It may also manifest itself in the nature of our everyday thoughts and activities. Adrian Walker says, “The Catholic person is truly universal: he is interested in everything and afraid of nothing”. Looking to new subjects with Christ in our hearts allows the proper pursuit of any subject we may undertake - be it in the liberal or servile arts, engineering, recreation, politics or culture. The outlook we bring does not change our connection with these concerns of the world, for it is guided by the light of Christ and pursued in the full spirit of truth.
Most strongly, the universal spirit of the Catholic Church can be seen in the great call for ecumenical dialogue with other churches and religions. The tendency of many protestant religions is, quite obviously, to break away and proclaim independence and correctness for only themselves or a select few. Catholicism, however, openly embraces all of humanity and works passionately for the common call of humanity to each other.
During Vatican II, Pope Benedict XVI worked on a document called Nostra Aetate: The Relation of the Church To Non-Christian Religions. It says, “Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” About 30 years later, Pope Benedict XVI, in his role as the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, drafted Dominus Iesus. Here Benedict XVI emphasizes the importance and centrality of the Catholic Church in the salvific history of the world. With a cursory glance, these two documents seem contradictory, especially as written by the same person in the Church, our current Pope. But each iteration of the truth covers a different aspect of the same faith, each is simply written from a different role.
In the same year Dominus Iesus was published, Benedict XVI also played a large role in the promulgation of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation took a huge jump here to binding the schisms of the Reformation. The two churches now have written agreement on the issue of faith and works. Coming from a Lutheran tradition, I was especially excited to learn of this example of ecumenism. It brings hope that all Christians might follow this example and work towards a Christian unity.
A Dark Night
These are the main points that I’ve been trying to understand more fully through this year. I hope to continue on this path and enjoy more fully the fruits of the faith. St. John of the Cross calls the entire way the Dark Night. Embarking on the journey through Catholicism has forced me to understand the darkness. The event of Christ engages us to set forth and to grow both inward towards the essence of the Christian faith and outward towards Christianity’s implications in the world. I hope to continue to share this journey with those I have been given to and those who have been given to me.