instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, February 27, 2006

Facing a dilemma

Yesterday's homily began with a question most Catholics (particularly in places where the Church is well established) should ask themselves from time to time:

Do you think of yourself primarily as a disciple of Christ, or as a Catholic? As a follower of a Person, or as a member of an institution?

Obviously, "disciple of Christ" and "Catholic" aren't contrary labels. "Catholic" ought to imply "disciple of Christ," and "disciple of Christ" ought to imply at least "in communion with the Catholic Church."

But ten thousand oughts do not make one is. There are unquestionably people who call themselves Catholics who would never call themselves disciples of Christ. You can follow good discipline -- in terms of receiving sacraments and following precepts -- without ever asking yourself if you're practicing good discipleship.

The key word in the question, though -- the one that prevents it from being a false dilemma -- is "primarily." You can understand yourself as both a follower and as a member, but at any given time one will take priority, one will be the way by which you understand yourself as the other.

The homilist proposed that those who understand themselves primarily as Catholics will tend to understand Lent primarily as a time of special rules. They fast during Lent because Catholics are to fast during Lent. The Church says Lent is a time for reform and repentance, so they reform and repent. They follow a program of rule-based growth in virtue.

The readings point to a new way of sanctification. As St. Paul writes, "the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life." To live in the Spirit is to imitate Christ, to follow Him on His path to Golgotha and beyond. What Jesus did, the new wine He poured into new wineskins, was to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, to bring Divine Mercy to those who called out for it (including those who thought they were just calling out for a medical cure), and to pray.

Jesus prayed. He stayed up late, He got up early, He went off by Himself to pray.

He fasted as well, of course, forty days in the wilderness, an act which in the Divine Economy prepared not only Jesus for His ministry, but the Church for her ministry, refreshed each year during Lent.

A disciple imitates his master. Perhaps we can't perform miraculous medical cures (do we even try?). We might not even be prepared to volunteer as preachers. But we can pray, and we can fast, and we can give spiritual alms by testifying to God's mercy at work in our own lives. And if our testimony is stammering and vague, we might at least (as we pray for the Spirit to speak through us) be thankful that no one will take us for glib snake oil salesmen, or agree with us merely because our words tickle their ears.

And we can do these things, not because the Church tells us to, but because Christ did them first.