Holiness, the Church, and the Road Less Traveled
by Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput
Before I was a bishop and even before I was a priest, I became a Capuchin Franciscan. The Capuchins were a reform movement within the Franciscan community. They wanted to get back to the real St. Francis; the radical, simple St. Francis. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that Francis of Assisi has always had a big place in my life. History calls Francis the vir Catholicus—the embodiment of everything a Catholic believer should be; a person filled with faith, joy, simplicity, courage, charity, and zeal for Jesus Christ. Francis had all these qualities, and of course even non-Catholics remember him because of his love for animals and nature, and his witness for peace.
But what many people overlook is that Francis lived in an age very much like our own. Francis was not just a loving man. He was also a formidable one, because he had to be. The 13th century was a time of great political unrest and great confusion and corruption in the Church. Francis began his life submerged in that world. He was comfortable. He was selfish. He was shallow. But finally, he was also hungry for something more in his life—and once he found it, he pursued it without compromise. What Franciscans remember about St. Francis is his demand that we live the Gospel sine glossa—without gloss, without excuses, without interpretations to make discipleship easier or more comfortable.
Francis was a revolutionary in the truest sense. He wanted a radical commitment to holiness from his brothers, holiness in the root meaning of the word. Holy doesn't mean good, and it doesn't mean nice—although holy people are always good, and they're also frequently nice. Holy means "other than." Francis wanted to be different, as Jesus was different. Francis wanted to live in the presence of God, as Jesus did. He wanted to live and act in ways "other than" the ways of this world.
What distinguished Francis from all the other reformers of his day was one simple thing. He understood that he could never live out his love for God alone, or even with a group of friends. He needed the larger family of faith Jesus founded. He needed the Church. So he never allowed himself or his brothers to separate the Gospel from the Church, or the Church from Jesus Christ.
Francis was always a son of the Church. And as a son, he sometimes scandalized his brothers because he always insisted on fidelity and obedience to the Holy Father and reverence for priests and bishops—even the ones whose sins meant they didn't deserve it. What Francis heard from Jesus on the Cross of San Damiano was not "replace my Church" or "reinvent my Church," but "repair my Church." And Francis did that in the only way that lasts—one stone at a time, with the living stones of his own life and the lives he changed through his personal witness.
If we want to be disciples and make disciples, if we want to repair the Lord's Church in the shadow of a terrible sexual misconduct scandal, we need to understand that, yes, new policies and programs and reforms in the Church will be important. We certainly need them. But without saints, nothing we do will work. Without holy men and women on fire with Jesus Christ, in love with His Church, and zealous in preaching the Catholic faith through their words and actions, nothing will work. We can't give what we don't have. If Jesus Christ and a real Catholic identity don't burn in the interior cathedral of our hearts, we can never possibly rebuild the external life of the Church in the world.
There are 63 million Catholics in the United States. Somewhere between 50 million and 80 million Americans claim they've been "born again." Ninety-six percent of Americans believe in God; 90 percent pray; 93 percent of American homes have a Bible; 87 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christian; and more than 40 percent of Americans attend church weekly—which, on the surface, makes the United States one of the most devout countries in the world. Americans spend $4 billion dollars a year on CDs, books, and bumper stickers honoring Jesus Christ.
But if that's true—if all of us are so seriously religious—then why is it that more than half of all Americans can't name the authors of the four Gospels; 63 percent of us don't even know what a Gospel is; 58 percent can't name five of the Ten Commandments; and 10 percent believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife? Pornography is a multibillion-dollar industry. A million unborn babies are aborted each year. Hundreds of thousands of families are locked below the poverty line, 200 million guns are in circulation, and we live in one of the most violent countries in the world.
Since the Jubilee Year, I've been thinking a lot about how we actually live our faith as Catholics, compared to people in other religions. I've been struck by the posture of Muslims at prayer. The word "Islam" means submission, and Muslims embody that word in the way they pray. We can relearn something about our own faith from the posture of Muslims at prayer—some important things about our own proper relationship with God.
We each need to ask ourselves today: How do I serve God? With pious words, or with a holy, committed life? On my terms or His? Scripture says that we serve God best by following His will with our whole body, mind, and soul, and the one reliable teacher and guide we have to knowing His will is the Church. And I don't mean the Church as we'd like her to be, but the Church Jesus intended her to be—His bride and our mother. Jesus said, "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death will not prevail against it" (Mt. 16:18). He said, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16:19).
Jesus said this to Simon Peter—the man whom Jesus knew would run away like a coward, and then deny Him three times. And yet Jesus still had confidence in him.
Christ sent His disciples out in His name, with His authority, to continue His work in the world as the Church—and only through the Church can we even be talking about Jesus today. The fidelity of Catholics to the Church, generation after generation, even when her leaders have been weak or sinful—that fidelity is what carries the message of the Gospel through time. Without the Church, Jesus Christ cannot be known. So fidelity to the Church and faithfulness to her teaching are not some sort of servitude; they're a choice to participate in the act of giving life to the world. Without the Church, we have only the world and, as St. Francis knew very well, the world is not enough to feed the hunger in our hearts.
We need to stop thinking of the Church as some kind of religious corporation, and start treating the Church as our mother and teacher. The Church is not an it. The Church is a she. We can love our mother; we can't love an institution. And while the Church has institutional forms, she is always much more than the offices that serve her mission. She is always much more than the sins of her children—whether they be bishops or priests or lay people. When we talk about the Church as if she were just another sinful bureaucracy disconnected from the problems of daily life, what we're really doing is creating an excuse to ignore her when she teaches.
Vatican II reminds us that Mary,
. . . the Mother of Jesus . . . is the image and beginning of the Church as [she] is to be perfected in the world to come. Likewise [the Church] shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10), a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God (Lumen Gentium, no 68).
That's the image we need to nourish in our hearts—especially in times of confusion and scandal—to keep us focused on the reality of the Church that gives life to her institutional forms.
St. John says that on Golgotha:
[w]hen Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!' And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (Jn. 19:26-27).
Each of us today is that disciple Jesus loved and loves. And from the Cross He is asking us to take the Church into our hearts as John took Mary into his home, to defend her and care for her and advance her mission in the world.
Robert Frost once wrote some lines of poetry that we should remember each day along with our prayers.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Following Him may be "the road less traveled" but, as St. Francis discovered, it's the one road that leads us to the joy and the light of God's love.
For me, the guide on that road has always been the Church. The greatest blessing I can give you today, or any day, is my prayer that she will become the same for you.
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Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput is O.F.M. Cap., is the Archbishop of Denver and author of Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics (Servant, 2001). Copyright © Catholics United for the Faith
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