Fr. Andrew Greeley, the controversial (some would say notorious) Catholic priest/sociologist, wrote that there are two reasons for being Catholic. The first reason is that one believes what the Catholic Church teaches. The second reason is that one wants to be a saint.
I think it still pretty much comes down to that. Last month, I discussed being Catholic because one believes what the Church teaches. In this post, I will discuss being Catholic because one wants to be a saint.
What is a saint? Put as simply as possible, a saint is one who stands or desires to stand in right relationship with God. How do we know what it means to stand in right relationship with God? As Catholics, we know because Jesus has told us and, as Catholics, we trust in Jesus.
In Mark 16:16 Jesus, appearing to His apostles after the resurrection, put it very succinctly: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
In John 3:16-20, Jesus offers a few more specifics, but the message is basically the same: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
So, according to Jesus, standing in right relationship with God, being saved and not condemned, comes down to a few things: believe in Jesus, be baptized, live the truth with works that are done in God.
First, there is no question that Jesus made Himself and belief in Him the dividing line between the righteous and the unrighteous. There is no getting around that. We can argue about the theological details related to the salvation of those who have never heard of Jesus, or who have heard of Him but only from those who have given false or poor witness to Him, or even those who have grown up sincerely seeking God in other faith traditions or no tradition at all. This article is not the place to debate those details, except to say that, while even these, by the mystery of God’s abundant grace, are not lost to the mercy of God, any who are saved are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. Only Jesus saves. As St. Peter preached on Pentecost, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Second, baptism is necessary for salvation and, as such, for being a saint. It is clear throughout Scripture that Jesus ordered His followers to be baptized, and that the Church, from the beginning, regarded baptism as the means by which our sins are cleansed and we are made members of the Body of Christ, His Church. I’ve already mentioned Mark 16:16. There is also Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 2:38-41, Acts 22:16, Romans 6:3-11, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 4:4-6, Colossians 2:12, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21. There are others, but that will do. What of those who are not baptized for no fault of their own? The Church recognizes baptism by desire (those who believe in Jesus who have never been baptized by water, but die with the desire to be united with Christ) and baptism by blood (those who have never been baptized by water, but die as martyrs to their faith in Christ).
Now, because faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation and baptism is necessary for salvation, it follows that the Church is necessary for salvation, because the Church is the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ (Eph 3:8-12, 1 Tim 3:15), the messenger of the Gospel of Christ (Mt 28:19-29, Jn 17:20-21), and the one that baptizes.
Third, it is necessary to live the truth with works that are done in God. James makes it clear that even the devils believe in Jesus, but to believe and not live the truth with works that are done in God is fruitless. Using the examples of Abraham and Rahab as two who not only believed but lived an active faith, James says boldly, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jam 2:24). In the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the king who judges the sheep from the goats, the saved from the damned, based on how they treated Him (Mt 25:31-46) and instructed His disciples to baptize the nations, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20a). The Book of Revelation tells of the dead standing before the throne of Christ for judgment: “I saw the dead, the great and the lowly, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Then another scroll was opened, the book of life. The dead were judged according to their deeds, by what was written in the scrolls” (Rev 20:12).
I don’t pretend to exhaust all aspects of this matter but, for the sake of clarity and simplicity, make the argument that standing in right relationship with God, being a saint, involves three things: believing in Jesus, being baptized, and living the truth with works done in God. That much is clear.
So, the second reason for being Catholic is because you want to be a saint. You want to stand in right relationship with God. You want to believe in Jesus, be baptized, and live the truth with works done in God. If you do not want this, there really is no reason to be Catholic. But, if you do, and you also believe what the Catholic Church teaches, than there is every reason to be Catholic and, really, no reason not to be.
The Church recognizes the Communion of Saints. The Communion of Saints is simply all those who believe in Jesus, have been baptized in His name, and strive to live the truth with works done in God. There are those members of the Communion of Saints who have done this and died and have gone on to enter the kingdom of God. We call these the Saints Glorious, that is, those saints who live in glory. There are those members of the Communion of Saints who have died, but failed in their time on earth to live fully the truth with works done in God, and so have died with some temporal punishment (the stain of venial sin or the failure to fully amend for their sins) on their souls. These are the Saints Suffering, those who await the mercy of God to fully cleans their souls of these remaining sins or consequences of sin, since nothing unclean will enter heaven (Rev 21:27). Their salvation is assured, after the mercy of God has purged them. Finally, there are those members of the Communion of Saints who are still here on earth, striving valiantly to live faithfully the life of Christ. These are the Saints Militant, militant in the sense that they “fight the good fight” (1 Tim 6:12) for the cause of righteousness, their own righteousness and that of the entire world, for the sake of Christ. Because the Saints Glorious, Saints Suffering, and Saints Militant are all members of the one Body of Christ, we can pray for each other and provide succor and support for our lives in Christ.
But, what about those who claim to be saints but live lives that fail to reflect the truth and glory of Christ, or live lives that actually oppose the truth and glory of Christ, as He has revealed His truth and glory and as the Church teaches? There seem to be so many! And, so many seem to be those in the forefront of the Church. I don’t mean only bishops and priests. I mean also the teacher who is burnt out and frustrated and mean to her students. I mean the usher who can’t seem to wait for someone to get out of line in order to smack them back into place. I mean the self-righteous who are so eager to point out their own sanctity while pointing out the faults and failings of others. And, what about the priests and bishops? What about the bishop who loves his fancy home but remains clueless about the struggles of his flock? What about the priest who tells my kids not to worry about all those “negative teachings” and focus on simply being nice to everybody, and being “tolerant” (except, of course, when it comes to anyone who disagrees with him)?
In other words: what about all those sinners in the Church?
Well, what about them? Are you surprised that there are sinners in the Church? You shouldn’t be. First, of course, Jesus told us that there would be sinners in the Church and, not just sinners, but those who actively work to attain the downfall of the kingdom!
He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn” ‘ ” (Matthew 13:24-30).
This isn’t just an entertaining story Jesus told. It is the truth that reflects the state of the Church in the world today and in every age. There are many weeds among the wheat, many who desire the downfall of the kingdom, even as they live and pray and work and worship among those who desire nothing other than to do the will of God for the sake of His glory. If you read the lives of the saints, those Saints Glorious, you will rarely meet one that was not in some way troubled or fiercely persecuted by other Catholics.
Last month I wrote about Bl. Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian peasant who refused to fight for Hitler. All the other “good Catholics” in his village chose to fight, and even Franz’s bishop attempted to persuade him to fight. His decision was not appreciated, as it reflected poorly on the other villagers, and he suffered for it.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary was beaten by her own spiritual director, slapped across the face or bludgeoned with a stick, for the slightest infractions of what he regarded a strict Catholic life.
St. John of the Cross was imprisoned by other members of his own religious order and nearly starved to death in an attempt to punish him and St. Teresa of Avila for their efforts to reform the order.
St. Joan of Arc was tried and burned at the stake for heresy by French clerics. While in prison, she was denied the opportunity to attend Mass, but was given a confessor – who promptly reported to his superiors what St. Joan had revealed to him in the sacrament of Confession!
St. John Fisher was abandoned by pretty much every other bishop in England, all of whom denied their allegiance to the pope in favor of recognizing King Henry VIII as head of the Church in England. St. John’s former fellow Catholics chopped off his head.
Then, of course, each of us has to recognize that we are one of those sinners in Church. Peter Kreeft, a convert to Catholicism and professor of philosophy at Boston College, likes to remind us that the sinner thinks he is a saint, while the saint knows he is a sinner. When asked by The Times of London newspaper to write an essay on the topic of what is wrong with the world, G. K. Chesterton, another convert to the Catholic faith, wrote simply: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G. K. Chesterton.” Fr. Greeley also advises us that, “If you want the perfect church, go out and find the perfect church. And, once you have found the perfect church, join the perfect church. Only, realize this: that on the day you join the perfect church, it has become something less than perfect.”
“My children, I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But, if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).
The saints are not those who lived lives of perfect obedience to the will of the Father. Only Jesus did that. The saints were those who placed their hope in the promises of Jesus, and desired and struggled to live faithfully the devotion to that hope. If you do not want to be a saint, to believe in Jesus, to be baptized, and to live the truth in works done in God, then it is certainly understandable that you would not want to be Catholic. But, if you do want to be a saint, then that is good reason to be Catholic. The faith of the Church and the fellowship of the saints will provide great succor and support for the life of sanctity.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.