Each issue carries
an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Being Catholic Today:
Light to the Nations
JUST BEFORE VATICAN II, at a press conference, Pope John XXIII appeared
next to a giant globe. In his 1962 talk, he used, for the first time, the phrase lumen
gentium, saying that we, the Church, are meant to be “light to the nations.” That
became a key teaching of the Vatican Council about the Church. Vatican II opened the doors
and windows to let that light and energy and power out. It's a power that St. Paul
called dynamos, the dynamite-power of the gospel of Christ.
The Church that dynamos birthed can be thought of as a great drama.
Yet many of us Catholics today are costumed for a different drama. We're actually pretty
good actors, but we've received costumes, words and gestures from a director other
than God. We need to get back into the right play.
Vatican II was meant to take us out into the world, but, to some degree,
we've turned inward in the decades after the Council. We fight among ourselves over
lots of issues, largely about sex and authority. Surely we must pay close attention, even
have difficult conversations, to learn how we can become a better community, but we're
not meant finally to bicker among ourselves. We're meant finally to be the lumen
gentium, the light to the nations.
In this Update, I propose that we will be better Catholics today, a light
to the nations, if we understand the great story of our faith as a drama in five acts:
Creation, the Fall, the Formation of a People Israel, the Coming of the Messiah and, today,
the Age of the Church. That final one is a beautifully open-ended act.
ACT 1: CREATION
WHY DOES GOD CREATE? Vatican I, in 1868, said this: God does not create
out of need. God needs nothing. God created, the Council said, to manifest and share his
glory. That's a wonderful answer, from our deep, long tradition. It means that the
entire universe has been loved into existence.
Love, Thomas Aquinas said, is willing the good of the other as other.
Love is not primarily a feeling, though it can be accompanied by feeling. That's the
confusion of our time, confusing love's feeling with love itself. Love actually is
a great act of the will. It's when I say, “I desire your good, not for my sake
but for yours.” To love is to break out of the black hole of the ego and say, to
quote my Franciscan friend Richard Rohr, “My life is about you.”
Creation also says to us that nonviolence is the fundamental reality. Why?
We can go back to the ancient myths for a clue. God or the gods bring order precisely through
violence, by conquering another god, by conquering other sets of gods, by wrestling something
into submission. That's the old lie–from ancient times right up to modern-day
Rambo–that violence leads to order.
But listen to our tradition. God creates ex nihilo, “from nothing.” That
means in a sheer generous, nonviolent act, God speaks the world into existence. He doesn't
wrestle anything into submission, doesn't conquer anyone.
With that understanding, we read the Sermon on the Mount with new eyes. Jesus
said love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who maltreat you. He's
not just saying that it's nice to be nice. He's saying: Live in such a way that
you are aligned with the deepest grain of the universe. Creation tells us that nonviolence
is fundamentally real.
Creation also tells us, that, like it or not, we are connected to each other.
Thomas Merton said that prayer is finding the place within, where you are here and now
being created by God. Prayer is to find the place where you, right now, are being loved
and spoken into existence. When you find that place in you, you find the same place in
me. You find the same place “in your neighbor, and you find it in Brother Sun and
Sister Moon. (When St. Francis said that, he wasn't just whistling "Dixie"–that's
good Catholic metaphysics!)
We are connected, one to another, more deeply than anything can divide us.
We are brothers and sisters at the most fundamental level of our being, in love. That grace–and
it is a free gift of God–is the foundation of our faith. If we begin with sin, the
whole conversation becomes skewed; it becomes negative and puritanical. We always begin
ACT 2: THE FALL
BRITISH WRITER G.K. Chesterton, paraphrased, wrote, “We're
all in the same boat, and we're all seasick.” He was talking about our human
condition. We know from our sin that the beautiful world, which God created, has been compromised.
Our modern culture, though, often tells us that we're perfectible, that
we're not sinners, that we can make ourselves perfect through the mind or through the
will. The Bible and our great Tradition say no to that. Sin has compromised what God intends
Commenting on the story of Adam and Eve (“General Audience,” Dec.
12, 1979 #4), Pope John Paul II said the one thing we can't do, if we want to flourish
according to God's will, is to appropriate to ourselves the criteria of good and evil.
Sin is turning oneself into God, appropriating the divine life rather than receiving it.
Divine life is fundamentally a gift. As you receive it, you're mouth-to-mouth
with God, breathing in the divine life. But, like breathing, as you receive it, you give
it. As it comes in, it goes out. Only then do you really have it.
There are lots of examples of this in Scripture. Elijah, for example (see
1 Kings 17), comes upon the widow and her son, and says, “Give me something to eat,” during
a time of drought. Putting her protest of scarcity aside, he asks her to make a cake, and
the oil and the flour do not run out. The message is: Give life away, and then you get
more. It becomes finally a fountain bubbling up in you to eternal life.
Then there's the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11ff): “Father,
give me my share of the inheritance coming to me—me, me, me, give it to me, let me have
it.” Where does that younger son go? In the Greek of the New Testament, he goes into
the chora makra, we tend to say, “to a distant country.” But do you
know what that means, literally? It means “into the great emptiness.” That's
a great symbol of sin.
There are countless modern examples. When the U.S. Supreme Court, in the
matter of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, supported abortion in 1992, it went far beyond abortion
in saying: “It belongs to the very nature of liberty to define the meaning of one's
own existence, of the world, of the universe and of life.” That very self-centeredness
is what the Bible means by sin.
ACT 3: FORMING THE PEOPLE
THE NEXT STAGE OF our Great Story is the formation of a people, Israel.
God's passion to do this, however, has sometimes been misunderstood. Read any two consecutive
pages of the Bible, Old Testament or New, and you're bound to find language of God's
anger or God's judgment. But don't be afraid of it and don't deny it. God's
anger is God's passion to set things right. Don't read it as though God falls in
and out of emotional snits! It's symbolic language that God is passionate to set things
Out of his anger, his passion to set things right, God forms a people, the
people of Israel. It starts with Abraham. God calls, and Abraham sets off on an adventure
of faith. God says to Abraham, I will be your God, you will be my people and I will make
of you a great nation. In other words, take in the divine life, give it away in accordance
with my will and life will grow and grow in you. We hear that same promise today. We are
all sons and daughters of Abraham, every one of us.
The other big theme that we see in the formation of the people is the gift
of the Law. Now, Americans, autonomous as we are, don't take too easily to this. We
construe freedom primarily as choice and self-determination. But there's another
way of reading freedom–much more biblical. Freedom is the disciplining of desire–so
as to make the achievement of the good first possible, and then effortless. It's like
accomplished musicians, artists, craftspersons, computer programmers, technicians, administrators,
houseparents–they make it look easy, but they've submitted to discipline.
Through that discipline of the law, they became free. Who is the freest person
ever to play basketball? Michael Jordan. On the basketball court, he could do almost anything
better than anyone else. Why? Because, for his whole life, Michael Jordan submitted himself
to a series of disciplines which ordered his desire and his body in such a way that he
was able to do whatever the game called for. He was free. Any great accomplishment requires
not only talent, but also discipline.
That's why Israel is a people of the law. But the people strays from
what is known to be right. Then, in Jeremiah 31:31, we hear: “—The days are coming,' says
the Lord, —when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. It won't be like
the covenant I made with their fathers. But I will write my law in their hearts.'”
With that line, in some ways, the whole Old Testament is summed up. What
Israel longs for is that day when Israel will be utterly faithful to the God who is always
utterly faithful to them. The people begin to dream of an anointed one who would be the
perfect Israelite and who would be the divine fidelity.
ACT 4: COMING OF THE MESSIAH
IF YOU LOOK throughout the psalms and the prophets, you will find
something like a job description of the Messiah, in four parts. Jesus did all four.
1. He comes out of the hills of Galilee proclaiming the Kingdom of
God, and this Jesus–the Messiah, the anointed one–begins to gather. First he
gathers the Twelve, symbolic of the twelve tribes. Then he gathers the rest, in a remarkable
way, around the open table. At Jesus' table, saints and sinners, sick and healthy,
rich and poor–all are welcome. He's luring Israel back.
2. Jesus cleanses the Temple and makes it a place of right worship.
We see it in all of the Gospels (see Jn, 2:12-20, Mk 11:15-17, etc.) Historians
tell us if there's one thing that led to the death of Jesus, it was that remarkable
action in the Temple. He was doing what the Messiah was expected to do, to cleanse the
Temple. He's saying, in effect: My own person will become the place of right praise.
3. Jesus was a different type of warrior. The Hebrews imagined a third
attribute of the coming Messiah, that a new David, a new Solomon, a new conquering king
would come and mow down the enemies of Israel with the edge of his sword.
Jesus takes on the enemies of Israel through the power of nonviolent love.
It comes to its full expression on that terrible cross, a deeply embarrassing death to
anyone in the ancient world. The cross was so terrible, in fact, that, unlike today, for
the first several centuries, Christians wouldn't even depict it! The cross represents
all the power that the world can muster.
At the climax of his life, from the Cross, Jesus calls out the dysfunction
of the world, everything that's happened since the Fall, and that dysfunction spends
itself on him. He's there like the Davidic warrior, but he fights through the power
of nonviolent love and forgiveness, allowing all the sin of the world to wash over him.
Then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, he is raised from the dead! We
killed God, and God still loves us. Every ounce of the world's negativity washed over
him, and he responded with forgiving love, proving that God's life and love are more
powerful than anything that's in the world. That's why on that great cross the
Christian faith is born. The unity of true God, true human, meeting in this person, is
4. Jesus is Lord. The last thing the Messiah was supposed to do was
to reign as the Lord of the Nations. When we say, Jesus is Lord, as St. Paul taught us,
we've put C—sar in his place. It's not puny little C—sar–nor all of his puny
descendents down the ages–who is Lord. Jesus is Lord. You see now why Paul spent
much of his time in prison. We don't get it, but the Romans knew exactly what he was
saying when he said Jesus is Lord. That was subversive talk; it still is. It was Good News
then and it's Good News now, and not necessarily easy.
ACT 5: THE CHURCH
ACT 5 IS OUR ACT. Our job, as Church, is to tell the world this great
story, tirelessly. We tell it especially in the liturgy, the “source and summit of
the Christian life" (see Sacred Liturgy #10). The Church fathers said the liturgy
is like Noah's Ark. It's a place where a form of God's creation is preserved,
even in a time of crisis, even when surrounded by sin and death.
Noah's Ark anticipates Isaiah's great vision, that of lion and lamb
lying down together. It's a vision of the ordered creation. It's right worship,
which reminds us of the love and generosity and nonviolence in which the world was created.
The liturgy reminds us that we are one family; so we, especially through the liturgy, proclaim
this great story.
In the Book of Revelation, there is no Temple in John's heavenly city.
The whole city has become a place where God is rightly praised. Now, skip forward to Vatican
II. There we hear that we are the lumen gentium; we are “the light to the
nations.” Go forth, therefore, as great Catholic lawyers, teachers, politicians,
technicians, business leaders, laborers, farmers, mothers and fathers. Don't be Catholic
on the side; rather, work to change our culture, to transform it into a culture true to
gospel values. It's everyone's business. That “universal call to holiness” of Lumen
Gentium (#39-42) is exactly that: the idea of the Church now going forth in all
these ways to declare the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
That's how we unleash dynamos–power. We unleash it by studying
and understanding our great tradition, then sharing it. It's a tradition, by
the way, that's intellectually, profoundly rich. We will not tell our own story effectively
if we turn away from that richness. We need to dig in and understand the great drama of
When we know this story well and can tell this story as our story we will
light a fire on the earth. We'll rise to Vatican II's challenge that we fulfill
our role as “light to the world,” opening doors and windows to let the power
of the gospel shine. Our faith will be, as St. Paul said, like dynamite.
Next: Creating a Culture of Vocation (by Janet Gildea, S.C.)