Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Church and the Faith

When Moses asked God His name, whom should he say sent him if anyone asked, God said to tell them that “I am” sent him. What does this mean? It means that God “is,” or, rather, He is the "Is." He is Reality itself. He is Truth itself. And when He commanded to have no other gods, that meant there is only one God -- One Truth, which is eternal and transcendent, not bounded by time or space. When challenged, Jesus also said “I am,” and that He was the Truth, that He came to testify to the Truth, and that the Truth shall set us free.

Some years before then, God created Man as social creatures, male and female, complementing and needing each other. He did not create us as merely spiritual beings, like the angels, and He did not create merely bodily creatures, like stones. He created us with a soul-infused body, with free will, an ability to choose. God did not, and does not, force Himself or Truth upon us. He is not a puppet master.

So Eve and Adam were free to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They thought that they could be like gods themselves, that they could then choose their own truth, their own reality, their own concepts of right and wrong. They thought that they could be self-fulfilling and self-sufficient, not needing God or other people. In doing so, in freely making this choice, they did not become gods, but fell from truth into error. And error leads to more error. Thus, we see that sin, which is done by your own free choice of the will, carries its own intrinsic “punishment” -- error leads to more error, until, in your ignorance of the truth, you are in slavery to error and sin and death. By choosing to sin, choosing to set aside the Light and Truth of God, you are necessarily left to fend for yourself in ignorance and darkness, and you will find yourself inadequate to the challenge. And it is that first, original sin that is the root of every other sin.

Now God, who is Divine Mercy, knew this would happen, and the Church was prefigured in many ways. Israel was led out of bondage in Egypt by the Passover lamb. And God gave them the Law, reduced to physical form within the Ark of the Covenant. But still man chose to wander in the desert, and that has been the history of man throughout the ages.

In the course of time, when Rome ruled, a simple girl was conceived immaculately, without the stain of that original sin. This young girl, Mary, became like a new Eve, and said “yes, let it be done” to her as God willed. And just as the first Eve was formed out of the first Adam, so Jesus, Son of God and the new Adam, was formed out of the new Eve, flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone. God literally merged into mankind, becoming small, defenseless, and vulnerable while dwelling within Mary, in the most intimate of relationships. And Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, by becoming His mother, became our mother too, and the Mother of the Church. As our Mother, like at Cana when the wine ran out, Mary is sensitive and attentive to our needs, and she intercedes and asks her Son to provide for us.

Jesus lived, taught, and established the sacraments. He assured us that He would be with us to the end of time, and He gave us His own Body, his own Real Presence in the Eucharist, such that we, as bodily creatures who experience things through our senses, could be united with Him bodily, as well as spiritually. He gave us the grace of salvation by becoming the lamb who was sacrificed for sins, and whose blood would be sprinkled so that death would pass over, and we would be led from the bondage of sin and death to freedom and life.

And He established the Church, calling certain men as apostles, who later appointed successors, whom we know as bishops, and assistants, such as priests, who have the power of administering the sacraments in persona Christi, as well as religious sisters who dedicate themselves to the Lord, like Mary and Martha. He told his apostles and disciples to spread the Good News and convert all nations, and He sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to guide and protect this apostolic Church always, so that not even the gates of Hell would prevail against Her -- One Holy Church that exists universally, that is, "catholic" -- not only horizontally, throughout time and across nations, but vertically, a communion of the faithful in this world with God and interceding saints in heaven above.

We know these things by faith, revelation assisted by right reason. But that is not enough for some people today. They demand hard proof. They demand evidence. Well, we prove things by witnesses. And we have hard proof of witnesses from the earliest days.

These witnesses, at first the original apostles and disciples, went out and preached the Good News and established churches throughout the region. Today, we call such local churches “dioceses.” We have not only written accounts from Christians during that time, but written accounts from non-Christian sources, as well as written Christian graffiti in stone and Christian artworks. And we have the relics of saints and the martyrs; the very bones of Christians who were killed for the Faith, including Peter himself. If they were not certain that Jesus existed, and that He was the Christ, why would they submit to tortures and death?

Although Jesus and His first followers were all Jews themselves, the Church was first persecuted by Jews, or, more specifically, the Jewish authorities and their supporters, including Saul of Tarsus, who became St. Paul. Then the Romans engaged in periodic persecutions for hundreds of years, resulting in the slaughter of untold numbers. St. Peter was martyred in Nero's circus on the Vatican hill in Rome, crucified upside down, and buried there. These martyrs are called the “seeds of the Church,” and Peter was only the first of many martyred popes.

There were also theological disputes within the Christian world. Various heresies arose, and councils of bishops were held by the Church to definitively resolve these questions. Also around this time, a few hundred years after the birth of the Church, the canon of the Bible was formalized.

After Christianity was legalized in Rome under the Edict of Milan by Constantine in A.D. 313, the Church flourished throughout the Mediterranean and much of Europe. However, Christendom was soon to come under attack again in the 7th Century by followers of Mohammed, called Muslims, believers in the then new religion of Islam. Their “scriptures,” the Koran, say that the ideas of Christ’s divinity and the Trinity are blasphemy against Allah, whom they say is the one true God. Muslims attacked and conquered Christian churches and areas in the Middle East, North Africa, down the Nile, and Asia Minor, where St. Paul had sent many of his letters. Muslim armies conquered Spain and advanced halfway into France before being stopped. It was 300 years later, after disputes caused a split, or schism, between Eastern Christians and the Roman Catholic Church, when the Crusades begin.

Five hundred years later, disputes again resulted in a split in the Church. Some people protested and rejected the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church, as well as many of the sacraments. These people, later called “Protestants,” denied the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, even though Christ sent the Holy Spirit to guide and protect the Church, so that She, acting through the pope and bishops, would be infallible in matters of faith and morals.

The Magisterium exists to teach us and assist us in the formation of our consciences, which involves an act of reason, not feeling. In doing so, the Church does not really teach anything new, anything that was not previously revealed by God or is not already written in men’s hearts and accessible by reason.

And what are those teachings? Very simply they are this – (1) Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and (2) Love one another, as Jesus loves us, so we should love one another. Those are the teachings of God and His Church in a nutshell. This is our general vocation.

So what does that mean in practical terms? (1) God is Truth, God is Transcendent, God is Reason, and God is Love, and we ourselves are not gods. So we should be humble; admit and know that there are things greater than ourselves. We should follow Truth; take love into our heart; take Christ and the Holy Spirit into our very being, spiritually and bodily, through the sacraments. We should remain in communication with God, pray to Him in thanks for what we have and ask Him for what we need.

God does not force Himself on us; he does not save us against our will or without our consent. Thus, when we do wrong, we should be contrite and formally ask his forgiveness, generally and in the Sacrament of Confession. The only unforgiveable sin is the refusal to ask for or accept forgiveness, and thereby “blaspheme” the Holy Spirit. God will not force his forgiveness on us and, thus, it is not He who sends us to Hell, which is separation from God; rather, we choose it by our own will.

(2) Love one another, caritas, from which we get the word “charity.” That means we should acknowledge that we are not alone in the world -- there are other people, brothers, sisters, neighbors. And because they too are children of God, we are all equal. We should respect the inherent dignity of all human persons, no matter how seemingly insignificant, undesirable, or useless. We should show mercy to others, and forgive them when they injure us.

In all things, we should do good and avoid evil. We should endeavor to live a life of virtue, rather than vice. Embracing virtues like faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, while rejecting vices and capital sins like undue pride, covetousness, lust, vengeful anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.
At times, it may be very difficult to love or forgive, it may seem to be impossible at times, but whatever may be lacking in our own will or power, God will give by grace to those who ask.

In charity, we should give of ourselves to others, not take from them, help others, not hinder them. We should affirm and respect the dignity of every human person from the very beginning of their creation, from the instant of existence. We should treat others as subjects, not objects; as ends in and of themselves, not as a means to be exploited by us; and as persons, not things to be used up and then tossed aside or thrown away as if they are trash. We all have intrinsic value, every one of us.

Whether it is abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, sex outside of marriage, contraception, or divorce, the teaching is the same. All of these things are contrary to the Truth. So we should love and respect one another as subjects, not as objects or playthings to be exploited for our own pleasure and used up. Babies are not things to be thrown away like garbage. The old and sick and poor are not useless eaters, taking up needed resources. There is no such thing as life unworthy of life. Sex outside marriage is by its very nature exploitive and contrary to the Truth that it should be an act of love and self-giving, which can only fully occur in marriage. Marriages are not merely relationships of convenience, to be abandoned whenever the spouses get tired of the other.

These are not harsh prohibitions or restrictions on our freedoms, but instead are truths that lead us to authentic freedom. These truths are already written on our hearts, but because our ability to reason and discover these truths ourselves has been corrupted by sin and the temptations of the world, in order to help, the Holy Spirit guides the Church in teaching us and explaining these truths.

There is no salvation outside the Church, which is not a human creation, but the Bride of Christ. And as in marriage, Christ and His Bride are two become one. All who are saved are saved by Christ the Redeemer through the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. This does not necessarily mean that all non-Catholics are automatically doomed. God is a God of love and infinite mercies. But those who deem themselves to be “non-Catholic,” if they are saved, are nevertheless saved through the Church. Meanwhile, some who deem themselves to be “Catholic,” at least in their heads and on their lips, will not be saved.

What is most important is that you be Catholic in your heart, that your soul be in the Church. If your heart is a stranger to Christ and His Church, if you merely say you believe, but Christ does not dwell in your heart, and you do not act as a believer, but instead die in mortal sin, you will not obtain redemption. And if someone who never heard of the name Jesus nevertheless has Him in their heart, so that they have a kind of “baptism by desire,” even though they do not have a baptism by water, then the Church commends them to the God of divine mercy.

Best of all, of course, is to know God in your head, on your lips, and in your hearts. But, ultimately, the choice is yours.

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