Category Archives: Holiness

Relax The Moral Standards?

Why does the Catholic Church refuse to “relax” certain moral standards even when a high percentage of Catholics desire such a move?  It’s because the job of the Church is not to produce “nice,” spiritually mediocre people who “get along” with everybody.  The job of the Church is to produce saints, people of radical holiness.  Lowering moral standards would mute the call to sanctity.

At the same time, the Church has a most lenient penitential system.  We all fall short of Jesus’ standard of perfection and require God’s mercy.  The other job of the Church is to be the vehicle of God’s love and mercy when we fall.  God’s loving mercy does not lower moral standards.  Mercy provides help and support in shooting for those standards.

Catholics (indeed, all Christians) are called to radical holiness.  We are all called to sainthood.  Lowering the bar won’t cut it.  Instead, seek to meet the bar.

 

(Paraphrase of a commentary by Fr. Robert Barron)

The Loving, Great Physician Must Diagnose And Prescribe

Most of us have probably heard it said that the Church is like a hospital for sick people (sinners), not a mansion for healthy people (saints), or something to that effect.  The analogy is apt, especially in light of Jesus being the Great Physician and we all being sinners.  As Jesus said, the sick people need the doctor, not the well ones.

The good news of the gospel is that God loved us so much He gave His only Son to die for us and to call us to repentance.  That is where we find healing from our illness of sin.  The Church’s job is to spread this good news to the rest of the world.

In order for a hospital or the Church to provide healing, there must be diagnosis and treatment.  This is where things get tricky.  People want to be welcomed at the door, but they don’t always want to be diagnosed.  Even if they allow themselves to be diagnosed, they may be unwilling to follow the doctor’s orders.

The Church (like a hospital) also works against the spread of disease (sin).  Consequently, if a patient is spreading “germs” that may infect others, the Church has the obligation to try and contain the outbreak.  Some patients may be a “health risk” without even realizing it.  They need to be informed and instructed on what to do for their own health as well as the health of everyone else.  That’s why the Church puts boundaries on certain behaviors.  We all impact each other.

The Church has to balance her responsibility to welcome all sinners with her responsibility to diagnose and treat sinners.  Even if the Church is the most loving, warm, welcoming place on Earth, we still need to hear what our sins are.  We need the diagnosis.  Coming to Christ requires repentance.  We need to know what to repent of.  If the Church does not let us know what our sins are, she is not really doing her job.  The Great Physician is in the healing business, but, in order to heal, He must also diagnose and prescribe.  This is where many Christians lose the balance.

It does no good to get people in the door then refuse to call them to repentance.  It is even worse to draw people in by calling their evil deeds good, thereby robbing them of their need for repentance and healing.  Often, when people are told, “What you are doing is immoral” they will head for the door.  So, a lot of churches would rather say, “What you’re doing is fine,” or, say nothing at all.  Such churches may have  pleasant bedside manners, but they do people a disservice by failing to diagnose and prescribe.

Other churches are so determined to point out sin that they forget the importance of a good bedside manner.  People generally won’t hear the message until they feel a certain degree of trust and safety that can only be established through genuine, caring relationships.  When we sense how much the doctor cares, we are more likely to follow the prescription.

Jesus was welcoming to everyone.  He loves us unconditionally, but He also calls us to holiness.  Jesus pointed out sin, called for repentance and said, “Go and sin no more.”  He welcomed, He diagnosed and He prescribed.  Still, some people accepted Him, and some people walked away from Him.  So it is with the Church.  The doctor must be kind and honest with the patient, but the patient must cooperate with the doctor in order for healing to take place.

Just One Of The Guys

Recently, my wife and I were invited to an information meeting for those who may have a calling to be permanent deacons.  People at church have been suggesting to me for some time that I may have this calling.  This is something that will require a good bit of discernment over time.  I don’t know if I have the call to be a deacon or not.  What I do know for sure is that I am called to be a follower of Jesus, no matter what.

I had a good conversation with a deacon who shared some of his thoughts about his vocation.  It struck me when he said, “Since being ordained, I’m no longer one of the guys.”  People treat him differently now.  For example, men who ordinarily might share an off color joke or make some unseemly remark speak more cautiously around him.  I suppose this is a good thing insofar as it shows some reverence for his ordained status and his representation of Christ and the Church.  It may also reveal their guilty consciences and highlight their need to conform their minds to Christ.  Or, maybe they are simply being “courteous” by trying not to offend the deacon as a person.

In any case, it occurred to me that we are all called to serve Christ.  We are all told to be living sacrifices and to let our minds be conformed to Christ.  Ordination may set certain men apart for specific purposes in the Church, but it does not make them “more called” to serve Christ than the layman.  Therefore, it seems to me that a deacon should always be “one of the guys” because “the guys” need to be striving for holiness as much as any deacon, priest, bishop or pope.  There is nothing that says a Christian man is exempt from living a holy life unless he gets ordained.

There is also a perception that, if a man has a keen interest in “spiritual matters,” or he possesses certain gifts, he must be called to some ordained status.  Maybe, maybe not.  All men and women are called to have a keen interest in following Jesus Christ.  Devoting one’s entire life to Christ is not reserved for priests, deacons and nuns.  It is for all of us.

Adding to a perceived “spiritual gap” between clergy and laity is the notion that canonized saints are something other than ordinary human beings.  We see their pictures and hear their stories and we believe they are not us.  The irony is that the very reason we are supposed to be mindful of the saints and in touch with the saints is that we are supposed to emulate the saints.  They are not there to show us a lofty ideal we can never reach.  They are there to show us and to tell us, “If we can do it, you can do it!”  The saints are not “the exception” they are “the goal.”  They show us what we as Christians are expected to be.  That is why there are so many saints from all walks of life.  They are us!  They are cheering us on!

It seems to me that if a deacon is living a holy life, and is surrounded by men who are striving for the goal of sainthood, he will feel like he is “one of the guys.”  Maybe God is calling me to be a deacon.  I don’t know yet.  He has already called me to be a Christian man, a husband and a father.  He has called me to follow him, no matter what.  I want to be “one of the guys” for Jesus, ordained or not.

Stones In Our Hands And Logs In Our Eyes

Luke 6:37 tells us not to judge.  But, we can’t stop there, because Matt 7:1-5 spells things out in more detail.  The message is that we are not to be judgmental hypocrites.  There’s no point trying to remove a speck from someone’s eye if you have a huge log in your own eye.  First, take care of your own sins.  Then, you have the proper perspective to help someone else grow spiritually.

When you make judgments about certain behaviors or attitudes, remember that you will be held to the same standard you are using.  For example, there’s no point in judging someone’s lies if you yourself make a habit of lying.  There’s no point in judging someone for watching or making pornographic videos if you yourself entertain pornographic thoughts and images in your own mind.  Don’t look with disdain upon someone who gossips if you gossip, too.  Clean up your own act before trying to help another clean up theirs.

Jesus took this to an even higher level in John 8 when he told an accusing crowd, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  After those who wanted to condemn her had all left, Jesus said to the woman who had sinned, “I’m not going to condemn you, either.  Go, and sin no more.”

The crowd knew that the woman had sinned.  Jesus also knew she had sinned.  Jesus did not admonish the crowd for recognizing and hating sin.  We are supposed to recognize and hate sin (otherwise we can’t get the logs out of our own eyes).  Jesus admonished the crowd for not recognizing and hating their own sins and for wanting to condemn the woman for hers.  So, Jesus showed us the better way.  Recognize and hate sin, but treat sinners with love and mercy rather than condemnation.  We’re all sinners.  We all want love and mercy when we sin.  We should apply the “Golden Rule.”  Any condemnation is God’s decision, not ours.

“Go, and sin no more.”  Victory over sin is the ultimate goal of God’s love and mercy.  Notice, Jesus did not say, “I don’t condemn you, either, and I never will, so go ahead and keep sinning.”  If we continue to prefer sin over God’s love and mercy, condemnation may very well be the result.  Jesus left the woman with her free will and the choice to either obey him or ignore him.

In summary:  Hate the sin but love the sinner.  We are all sinners and need empathy for each other.  Make sure you hate and address your own sins, first (regular confession and genuine repentance).  Leave condemnation up to God (if you throw a stone it may bounce back and hit you).  Don’t condone sin in yourself or in others (judge behaviors, not souls).  The ultimate goal for all of us is to “go and sin no more.”

Looking Up, Not Down

The moment I place myself “up here” and someone else “down here,” lower than me, I have denied my faith.  When I look upon any other human being with contempt, I have denied my faith.  Regardless of what another’s sins may be, I have my own to repent of.

I must look up to everyone from a lower position, because I must see Christ in them.  If I look down on them, I look down on Christ.  Pride destroys the soul.

I must judge behaviors, for I must know right from wrong in order to strive for holiness.  But I cannot judge souls.  Only God knows the hearts of people.  Only God judges the soul.

God does not raise us up by looking down on us.  He raises us by lowering himself and looking up at us with love.  This is what the Christian is called to do, because we are called to follow Christ.

Faith does not last.  In Heaven we won’t need faith, for we will see everything.  Hope does not last.  In Heaven we won’t need hope, for we will have arrived.  Only charitable love lasts forever, for God is love.  Faith, hope and love; the greatest of these is love.

I cannot look down on others from a genuine vantage point of faith and hope.  I can only look up to them in love.  Otherwise, my faith and my hope are phony imitations.

Do You “Really” Want To Spend Eternity With Me? That’s A Mighty Long Time!

I think it was Mark Twain who said that Christians are trying to get to a place where they will spend eternity with people they can’t stand to be around.  He also said he would choose Heaven for the climate and Hell for the companionship.  Well, take a good look around Christendom or even your own congregation and ask yourself, “Do I really want to spend eternity with these people?”  Now, certainly there are a lot of nice folks around, and some of them are a joy to be with (most of the time).  But seriously, eternity is a mighty long time.

Of course, such thoughts reveal a hard truth about most of us.  We have not yet been perfected in love.  On Sunday we can sing, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God” and on Monday we can gossip and complain about some other Christians.  Not exactly the pinnacle of holiness.  More like a dysfunctional family.  So, why exactly do we want to go to Heaven?  If Heaven is just an eternity of “more of this,” I really don’t see why anyone would desire to go there.  I seriously doubt that anyone wants to spend eternity with me and my messy self, either!

One might respond, “Well, God will be there.  Being with God is what it’s all about.”  Ok, but everyone else will be there, too.  “Well, we’ll all be so focused on God that we’ll ignore each other.”  Then there’s no point in having a family of God if we spend eternity ignoring each other.  “Well, God will take care of all those issues.  We will be different in Heaven.  We won’t be petty and sinful and we’ll love each other.  We’ll be like Jesus.”

So, when “exactly” do we become like Jesus?  We can’t get into Heaven until we are perfect like Jesus.  If I died today I can’t say I have reached such perfection.  I don’t know any Christians that would claim to be as perfect as Jesus in thought and behavior “right now.”  Yet, that is how we must be in order to enter Heaven and enjoy Heaven.

None of us intend to live in eternity in the same condition we are today.  We all expect that we will be “better” in Heaven than we are on the day we die.  So, how and when does this “change” take place?  For most of us, it has to take place between our death and our entrance into Heaven.

Most Protestants expect this “change” to happen, but they don’t have a name for it.  They simply say, “God takes care of it.”  Catholics also expect the change to happen, but they have a name for it.  Catholics call it “Purgatory.”  It is a state of being.  It is what happens between death and entrance into Heaven.  It is a “purging” of all the leftover “stuff” that would cause you or me to mess up Heaven by being there.

Sure, there were Catholics that exploited and abused Purgatory in order to manipulate people and get their money.  The abuse of a truth by bad Catholics does not make the truth untrue.  The fact still remains that I don’t want to spend eternity with you as you are today, and you don’t want to spend it with me as I am today.  God has to get us ready for Heaven and strip us of all the attachments that would hinder us from entering and enjoying Heaven.  There may be a few people who are able to achieve perfect holiness in this life, but most of us are not there yet.

Purgatory is not “a third choice” or a “second chance” at salvation.  Everyone in a state of purgation after death is undergoing the process because they are already on their way to Heaven.  Purgatory is for people who are already saved.  It is not a way to save the lost.  It is that state of being between death and entrance into Heaven.  It’s like when your mom says, “Come inside for dinner, but take your muddy shoes off  and wash your hands first.”

Saying, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” does not negate Purgatory.  You still have to acknowledge that “somehow” “some way” at “some time” God completely cleans us up for Heaven and makes us “different” than we are in this life.  Whatever you want to call it, however you want to “spin” it, it’s still a state of purging.  Hence, “Purg”-atory.

We’re in big trouble if there is no Purgatory.  Without it, all we have to look forward to is “more of this” for eternity.  “More of this” is not what Christ died for.  Presently, we need to strive for holiness and perfection of love.  It’s not an easy process.  It requires sacrifice and dying to self.  The process doesn’t end until we enter Heaven.  That’s why those in Purgatory are called “The Church Suffering.”  They are undergoing the necessary yet painful detachment of all that might remain as a barrier to perfect love.  Purgatory is God’s merciful continuation of the process of conversion to holiness.  It’s just more of God’s grace.

What Friends We Have!

“What a friend we have in Jesus…”  In John chapter 15 Jesus tells his Disciples that he does not consider them servants but friends.  Afterwards, he commands them to love one another.  The love and friendship of God is both vertical and horizontal, like the cross.  This is why Jesus can say, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.”  So, while a relationship with Jesus is obviously paramount, it in no way excludes the importance of other relationships.  On the contrary, a relationship with Jesus must include relationships with others.  Such is the nature of the Church, the “family of God.”  Being a Christian is never only about “Jesus and me.”  Whether we sin or behave righteously, it affects others.  We are one Body.  We are to be friends with Jesus and with each other.

Who among us would hesitate to confide in good friends when life is difficult?  Would we think twice about asking friends to pray for us?  People commonly post prayer requests on Facebook to “friends” they hardly know.  It can be even more consoling when we know that a close friend or a holy person is praying for us.  A close friend knows us well and can empathize.  A holy person’s prayers are very helpful, according to Scripture.  When the person praying for us is both a close friend and a holy person, it is a powerful combination.

Enter the Saints.  They are ready and willing to pray for us.  They are as holy as can be, and, through Jesus, they know us well.  They are family.  The fact that they have departed from this life does not exclude them from the family of God, it seals their place in the family.  Their love for humanity has been perfected.  They are not dead but are more alive in Christ than we are.  They are not aloof or disinterested in our present lives.  Nor are they secluded in some heavenly, sound-proof chamber that prevents them from knowing our plight.  They know our plight, have endured it, and have been victorious through Jesus Christ.  They are in Christ, not compartmentalized from him somewhere.  Hence, they know us because Jesus knows us.  The Saints are friends of God and they perfectly obey the command, “Love one another.”  They love Jesus and they love us.

To believe that praying to the Saints is idolatry is like saying that asking your friends to pray for you is idolatry.  To “pray” is simply to “ask,” as in, “Pray tell us, how will they fare while you are away?”  Just because it is an old use of the word “pray” does not mean it is “idol worship.”  We ask (pray) the Saints to pray for us because they are righteous, because they are part of the Body of Christ and because we are commanded in Scripture to pray for one another and to love one another.  Nowhere does the Scripture teach us to stop loving and praying with those who are in Heaven.  Scripture does tell us it is wrong to participate in the occult practice of conjuring up spirits.  Catholicism is not a big séance.  The Church does not condone superstition.  We do not ask Saint So-and-so to ring bells or make knocking sounds to communicate with us.  We simply request their prayer intercession.

We can “know” many Saints and relate to them by virtue of the lives they lived and the writings they may have left behind.  We can know of their struggles, their weaknesses, their strengths and their victories.  There are Saints from all walks of life and of all ages.  Whoever you are, there is a Saint that you can identify with on a personal level.  Obviously, Jesus knows what we go through.  Because he knows us, he has also provided other friends for our journey.  These are friends who have run the race, fought the good fight and won the victory by God’s grace.  They have much to teach us.

I encourage you to find a Saint whose life you can relate to on a personal level.  While it is inspiring to reflect upon the Saints as great heroes of the Faith, it can be even more helpful to learn how God helped them with their human vulnerabilities and weaknesses.  Jesus wants us to know that his command to “be perfect” is not out of reach.  Saints are not the exception.  Saints are the standard we are called to.  We are all called to be Saints.  Being more personally acquainted with one who has endured familiar struggles and “made it” is a tremendous spiritual help.  That’s what friends are for; to help each other be Saints.  If you haven’t done so already, become personally acquainted with a Saint or two.

As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens the countenance of a friend. (Proverbs 27:17)