Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why be Catholic? What else is there?

Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr. (homily from the archives)

The late Southern writer, Walker Percy, was a good Louisianan and a convert to Catholicism who was frequently asked why he became a Catholic. And sometimes, he would reply with a smile by saying, “What else is there?” But usually he would reply very simply, “The reason I am a Catholic is that I believe that what the Catholic Church proposes is true.” (Signposts, p. 304)

But what does this mean then for other religions? Does this mean that those outside the Catholic faith or those who are not even Christian cannot be saved? In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus seeking out the one lost sheep to return him to the fold, and certainly the Lord desires that his Church be one and that all people come to know the truth.

To me, this is the beauty of Catholic teaching. Let’s look at first what the Catholic Church teaches about herself. (CCC 816) “The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism explains: "For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God."”

As St. Paul said today, “the grace of our Lord has been granted me in overflowing measure, along with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” In other words, this overflowing faith which St. Paul professed was the Catholic faith. And the Catholic Church was founded by Christ on Peter, to whom he gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and it has been sustained through the ages by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This Church contains the “fullness of the means of salvation.” And what are those means? Primarily, they are the one faith we profess in our Creed, the one worship we celebrate at the altar, and the one shepherd, the Pope, who guides us as the successor of Peter (cf. CCC 815), the Holy Scriptures, the other sacraments, and the teaching of the Church on how to live a holy life of faith, hope and love in today’s world. Through these means, if we are faithful and live a life of Grace, we can attain salvation by God’s gift. Simply belonging to the Catholic Church doesn’t guarantee us salvation, but following her teachings and using the means that Christ has made available in the Church is indeed the doorway to salvation.

What about other Christian denominations or other religions? The Vatican Council taught, (CCC 819) “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church.”

In other words, the Church recognizes the good things to be found in other religions, indeed the things we share in common. All of that is a work of God and the Catholic Church affirms that. As the Second Vatican Council explained: with our Protestant friends, we share a common love of our Lord and the Holy Scriptures (cf. CCC 838). With our Jewish friends, who were the first to receive the Word of God and the Covenants, we share faith in the one God and a common expectation for the coming of (or return of) the Messiah (cf. CCC 839, 840). Even with Muslims, we share the faith of Abraham and adore the one God (cf. CCC 841). So for these people, if they are interested in the Catholic faith, we do not require them to renounce their faith, but instead to see the things that we share in common, and then show them how embracing the Catholic faith will bring them to the fullness of the means of salvation.

But what of those who have no faith whatsoever? Certainly America makes it very easy for one to live a totally secular life, seeing no need for God. For them, I think of what Saint Paul said today, “but because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifully.” The Church teaches this, (CCC 847) “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.” Salvation is a possibility for them, and God will judge them by how they have responded to his voice in their hearts.

Now, some may hear all this and wonder: then why bother sharing our faith, why bother becoming a Catholic, why bother evangelizing and spreading the Gospel of Christ? Why? Because Jesus said, “Who among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wasteland and follow the lost one till he finds it?” He also said (John 10:10), “I came so that they might have life and have it to the full.” In other words, while elements of truth and sanctification are indeed found outside the Catholic faith, Jesus wants all people to share in the fullness of the truth which can be found in the Catholic Church. He gave the Church these means so that we might have the fullness of life in him.

The Second Vatican Council explained it this way, (CCC 851) “Indeed, God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth"; that is, God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the prompting of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God's universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary.” In other words, we must go out and meet those who are seeking and searching, we must go out and meet those who are lost and cannot find their way, we must go out and share our faith and invite them to its fullness. God has placed that desire in their heart, and we must go out and meet that desire to show them the fullness of the faith. Evangelization meets people where they are at with respect, and invites them to experience the fullness of their desires.

But what about fallen away Catholics? I’ve met many former Catholics who say that they did not know Christ until they met him in another denomination. Often times this happens if they were raised in a home where the faith wasn’t too important, or perhaps if they were harmed by someone in the Church. To them, we need to remind then that the Church is holy because Christ is holy, but her members are not always holy. We need to invite them back to see that Christ indeed is present in the Catholic Church, and that through forgiveness, reconciliation, and coming to understand the fullness of the Church’s teaching, they can discover that and meet him fully in the Church he founded.

If we believe that the Church contains the fullness of salvation as Christ taught, then we will not be afraid to share it or make it known. For indeed that is the desire of Jesus. He wants all his people to be united one day with him in his heavenly Kingdom, where there will be “much rejoicing and much joy before the angels of God.”

Here's a good website to begin your journey: Fullness of Truth. And a good bookstore.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Building the Kingdom of Heaven

Homily 23rd Sunday Ordinary Time C (Partial)
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton

Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, 'This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.'”

Let's look at this parable from God’s perspective. God wanted to build a tower. The tower is the Kingdom of Heaven, which would bring about the Salvation of the people he loved, us, even though we had sinned. He sat down to calculate the cost, and while theologians say that there are many ways in which God could have saved us, he chose the most perfect way, the way that would show us the infinite depth of his love. He chose to become one of us. So, the Word was made Flesh, God became Man, Jesus Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus is the foundation, the cornerstone of the tower that is the Kingdom of Heaven. As St. Peter said, 1 Peter 2:4-7, “Come to Jesus, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God.”

By becoming one of us, Jesus then shared with us his life and teaching, the path to salvation, the path to our place in the Kingdom of Heaven. But he wanted us to cooperate with him in building this tower, so he founded the Church, which would continue his mission to all peoples in all ages. St. Peter described it this way, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it says in scripture: "Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion, a cornerstone, chosen and precious, and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame."”

And God is not like the foolish builder in the parable, who did not plan well enough to complete the tower. So Jesus made a few promises to see that his plan would be fulfilled. First, he said, Matthew 16:18-19, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven."” In doing this, he gave his Church authority and promised that even the gates of hell would not conquer it. How would this happen? He promised to send a helper, an Advocate, the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel he says, almost anticipating the tough journey that lay ahead for the Church, John 16:12-13, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.” The Holy Spirit would be with the Church to guide it to all truth in the midst of the confusion and perplexity of the modern world. Finally, in his great commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, Matthew 28:18-20, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” He sent the Apostles out to continue building the Tower, the Kingdom of Heaven, and most importantly, he promised to be with us always, especially in the teachings of and sacraments of the Church.