I grew up in a very Catholic family. We prayed the rosary every night before a makeshift shrine in the living room, and we made no apologies when we welcomed guests to our home. We walked a half hour to mass every Sunday rain or shine. All 7 kids went to Catholic school at various times along the way. And you all know I have an older brother who is also a priest. Everything about us said we were Catholic. Yet I wouldn’t call our observance strict, mainly because it didn’t feel coerced, though my youngest brother might beg to differ. Our faith was the air we breathed. I know this is not unique to Catholics. Other faith traditions can relate. And looking back, I learned how to be Catholic by watching and listening to my elders, and doing as I was told. Simply put, good Catholics were obedient, prayerful, well-mannered, and did well in school. We listened. We followed. We were Catholic. End of story.
Growing up, I noticed differences in how Catholics lived their faith. Some were stricter than us, others more relaxed. Some got upset when asked the usual annoying questions. Others welcomed questions. So I began to explore what I believed was essential to being Catholic. If somebody asked me why I was Catholic, what would I say first? Would I mention the pope first, the Eucharist, the Virgin Mary, confession? And would my response be perceived as defensive, apologetic, cynical, insincere?
As a priest, I am careful of what I say about what I believe and how I say it, especially when I am among other Christians or non-religious people. But the questions from Catholics are often deeper, which I welcome. Maybe they never could ask before. Maybe now they’re more mature and willing to question their faith. Maybe their non-Catholic friends ask them questions they can’t answer. Whatever the case, I see an opportunity to share my faith. In the past I was troubled when I didn’t have answers. Now I am less defensive. I am willing to admit when I lack knowledge. It’s true, and I have a greater desire to find answers, even better answers than those I thought I knew.
When Pope Francis proposed we take a critical look at how we live our faith, he wasn’t suggesting we discard 2000 years of teaching and tradition, but rather that we explore deeper why we do what we do, and that we do it better. He did suggest we be willing to set aside those ways of thinking and doing that actually prevent us from living out our true mission and purpose—which is to love God above all things, and our neighbor as ourselves. Everything else is secondary, even if we’ve been doing it for 2000 years, even if it’s popular, especially if it smacks of arrogance and condescension.
In his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis is not hesitant to identify the evils that challenge human society—an economy of exclusion, the new idolatry of money, a financial system that rules rather than serves, the inequality that spawns violence, widespread indifference and relativism, a culture whose priorities are dictated by superficiality and immediate gratification, religious extremism on one end of the spectrum, secularism on the other, individualism, assaults on the family and the conscience; as well as the challenges that arise from within the Christian community—a low-grade skepticism about the faith, selfishness and spiritual sloth, spiritual worldliness, a disdain and mistrust among fellow Christians, a sterile pessimism, even a kind of defeatism that stifles boldness and robs the faith of vitality, often evident in a willingness to give up on those who struggle, and write off the weak and marginalized. He proposes a new approach, a distinctly missionary perspective, a fresh way of seeing our role as Christians in the world, one that seeks above all to share with others the richness, the beauty, and the depth of the Gospel.
This distinctly missionary perspective must be grounded first in a conviction that we have something amazing and beautiful to share. You won’t convince anyone to buy what you’re selling if you don’t believe you have something they want. You’ve met Catholics and other Christians who just look sad, like their faith caused physical pain. Why would anyone want a part of that? If we must proclaim the Gospel, our joy should be evident, tangible, contagious even. The threat of hellfire and damnation is no longer an effective tool, probably never was. And we don’t really want anyone drawn to God that way. Rather, we convince those who hunger for meaning that we have nourishing spiritual food to give when they see a healthy balance and confidence in the way we relate with one another and how we build a compassionate and just society.
But before we can accomplish that, we must first be willing to be transformed by the Gospel ourselves. Only those who have encountered Jesus Christ can convincingly speak of what it means to be transformed. And it is that credible witness that draws others to him, who is the Source of renewal, nourishment, and everlasting life.
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” St. Paul means to invite us to offer to God not merely our physical bodies but our very lives, all we have and all we are. “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The way the world thinks is often contrary to God. But are we willing to dig deeper? Jesus told Peter, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” He went on, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Many preachers and spiritual writers like to focus on the hardships of Jesus’ way of thinking and living. And there will be hardships. Jeremiah did not mince words when he spoke of his anguish in embracing his prophetic vocation.
But Pope Francis invites us to focus instead on the joy of our Christian faith. What keeps you coming back? Tell someone about it this coming week, but not in a creepy way. Do you really read those overtly religious posts on Facebook? I don’t. Not from people I don’t know. When you don’t like what’s coming, you just go elsewhere. The genius is proclaiming the Gospel where no one expects to hear it. I get to preach in church. It’s probably the only place people come expecting to hear it. But you all have to do your preaching somewhere else. Do you seriously want to buy what you’re selling?
Rolo B Castillo © 2014