Catholicism Starts at Friendship with Christ
my homilies or to my radio program are familiar with my admonition that Catholicism cannot be summed up in good people go to Heaven and bad people to Hell. It is a common but false belief.
I want to warn against what I will call Brighto Catholics. You remember Brighto from an episode on the Three Stooges. They went out selling this great product without ever asking what it actually does. So whenever they demonstrated it, they did great damage. They took the paint off of a car for instance. It turned out, by the way, to be a hair tonic.
Brighto Catholics will tell people they must be good without telling them what it means and how to do it. They condemn those to Hell who are not good according to their standards. It is quite legalistic and does great damage to the faithful Catholic, especially those new in the faith.
Their faith, as they often admit, is based on following rules. They teach that those who follow rules go to Heaven, those who ignore the rules go to Hell.
Many of the saints often taught their contemporaries to beware of such a legalistic form of faith as it is the lowest form of devotion. It is not that we should not follow the rules, it is why that is important.
A legalistic form of Catholicism condemns sinners for their actions without teaching them anything beyond that their actions are sins. This leads many to hate Christians including Catholics.
The truth is that is not whom we are supposed to be.
Should we fight against temptation so that we may go to Heaven or is there another reason? The answer is there is another reason. The commandment is not to fight temptation; it is to love God and neighbor. We love God and neighbor, hence we resist temptation. It is our love for God and neighbor that gives us the strength and motivation to reject sin and seek virtue. Choosing not to sin because it is against the rules or because if we do sin we will go to Hell is a poor motivation that will fail us eventually. Remember, the commandment is to love God. if we seek to be good, but loving God is not our aim, we are not living the commandment.
Atheists often teach that you do not have to believe in God to know right from wrong. That is true and it further proves my point. The virtuous know right from wrong. We do not have a mandate to simply be good, but to love God in all we do. That is a different motivation and outcome. The good person does not have to love his worst enemy. He is virtuous if he simply does not seek revenge. The Catholic, if he is going to love God, must also love his own enemy.
The Catholic Church teaches that we cannot live the commandments unless we are people of prayer. The central part of our faith is to be in relationship with the Risen Christ, something we recognize especially during this rather unique Easter Season. St. Paul says to us in Romans 12 to allow a renewal of our mind. This renewal changes our heart and our whole perspective on our existence. This is why prayer is so essential because it deepens our friendship with Christ and changes our way of life through our deepening our self-understanding in Christ.
This first step is essential, but how many people ignore this first step and just go out and condemn others for their sins claiming to have overcome the same sins or to be free from sin all on their own will power.
Our relationship with Christ gives us the motivation and grace to live our life in the fullness of divine friendship. We then turn from sin because we simultaneously turn to Christ and grow in our self-understanding in His grace which changes everything.
This gives us the strength to turn from sin not out of fear of Hell but out of love of God.
Too often leaders of our church will just simply teach that we must pursue a life of virtue without any discussion of the relationship with Christ. That, unfortunately, is paganism.
If we do not talk about deepening our friendship with Christ as the first step to growing in holiness and speak only of growing in virtue as the prime meaning of our faith, then what is the difference between those words and the words of any Greek philosopher who preceded Jesus? We can seek virtue following the teachings of Aristotle who was a great influence on St. Thomas Aquinas. He lived centuries before the birth, death and resurrection of Christ and would have no teaching influenced by Christ himself.
Therefore, when we teach people to pursue virtue without first leading them to prayer and holiness, we are teaching a manner of living that is no more related to Christianity than the Nicomachean Ethics.
Pope Francis in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, reminded us in paragraph 262:
Spirit-filled evangelizers are evangelizers who pray and work. Mystical notions without a solid social and missionary outreach are of no help to evangelization, nor are dissertations or social or pastoral practices which lack a spirituality which can change hearts.
All our pastoral teaching and actions must be rooted in our spirituality which is our friendship with God. This brings us back to the words of Jesus in many of his parables when he denoted those who were cast out: “I never knew you.”
The pope continues:
Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervor dies out.
These paragraphs are so important that one cannot understand the work of Pope Francis in any form without realizing these are the base.
St Alphonsus Liguori wrote that those who pray go to Heaven and those who do not don’t. It can be assumed that among those who pray are those who are considered sinners and even among those who do not pray are those who appear to live a virtuous life. The reason may be that the sinner may be trying to change his or her way of life by seeking to know Christ where the virtuous may have lived his life on his own seeking no communication with the divine.
One of the funeral requests priests receive occasionally is for the song My Way which was a hit for Frank Sinatra. It is a nice popular tune, but in a funeral context it is flipping God the bird. It is like saying: “I never needed you; I did it my way.” The virtuous person may want to use that song at a funeral, but that prevents it from being a Catholic funeral. We do things God’s way, never our way.
If God is speaking to us at this unique time, it may be to deepen our friendship with Him. Otherwise we are living the pagan existence that appears good but leaves us in a position where Christ can say nothing to us but I never knew you, even though we may be icons of virtue.