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What does it mean to be Catholic today? Theologian Robert Barron looks at the basics of being Catholic in this Catholic Update. Barron looks at the Bible, salvation history, the story of the messiah, and lands with Vatican II's understanding of the Church in the Modern World.

Catholic Update

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Being Catholic Today:
Light to the Nations

By Father Robert Barron

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.


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 with grace.



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 for us.

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.


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 right.

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.


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 our salvation.

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 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 salvation.

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.

Father Robert Barron, S.T.D., is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and Chairperson of the Department of Systematic Theology at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. His award-winning books, talks, broadcast programs and video presentations are available at www.WordonFire.org. This Update is adapted from his 2008 keynote talk to the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.

Next: Creating a Culture of Vocation (by Janet Gildea, S.C.)


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