There is a modern tendency to believe that the single greatest obstacle to the Church’s mission is her teaching. How much simpler would it be, we might ask, if the Church conformed her beliefs on (say) sexual morality, to that of contemporary culture? Would it not be easier to bring people to the Church, we might be tempted to think, if she was more approving of things that are now accepted, even encouraged, in the twenty-first century west? Hasn’t the Church freed herself from all the rules and regulations of the past? Why should we be bound by doctrines and dogmas that are no longer ‘relevant’? We may have heard such views from the media and those in the public square, even from fellow Catholics; we may have thought to hold such views ourselves. Either way, it is necessary to recognize why such a position is, at best, faulty, and to remedy it with an authentic Christian view, one that leads us closer to Christ.
First, we must acknowledge that the Church is, as Saint Paul puts it, to ‘proclaim Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 1: 23). As we heard last Sunday, the Lord told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mt. 16: 24). This means that the Church is mandated by the Lord to proclaim something which, in the Lord’s own words, is ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor: 23). The message of the cross has always stood in stark contrast to the way of the world; that message is the reason that Christ himself was rejected. That cross is imprinted in our lives through baptism, and so we must expect to be misunderstood, even reviled, for proclaiming it as the way to happiness, the way to salvation.
Secondly, more practically, we must acknowledge that a faith which is imprecise or unclear in its beliefs, fails to be a compelling witness. The Greek for ‘witness’, martyros, gives us the English word ‘martyr’. Nobody is unclear about the reasons for which so many heroic Christian martyrs gave their lives. A witness that is timid, that is lukewarm, or watered-down and ‘palatable’, that is influenced more by the ambient public culture than the authentic good news of Christ, is no witness at all. If we are seen to be ‘tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine’, then our witness is not to radical reordering of our lives to Christ, but simply a validation of what any individual holds to be true. This proliferation of ‘truths’, with varying degrees of relationship to the truth of the gospel, fails to proclaim Christ as ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’, the unique means of our salvation (Jn 14: 6). So truth is not a relative or abstract idea, but a reality upon which, and around which, Christians must form their lives, and encourage others to do the same. The Church, in her timeless teachings, provides the authentic enunciation of that truth, and thus communion with her—not simply by association, but by a real and sacramental relationship—provides the way to Christ, and thus to the salvation for which all peoples long.
This is also, then, the primary means of our witness to the world. Through baptism and confirmation the Christian faithful ‘derive the right and duty to the apostolate’, and thus the work of evangelization. It is a task for which no Christian needs permission, but one given to each by virtue of incorporation into Christ and his Church. This is why we are called to proclaim the truth of salvation in Christ, by living his life fully and unreservedly in the world in which we find ourselves. We are called to ‘warn the wicked’, in the words of today’s Old Testament reading—those who do not know the Lord—by presenting Christ to them. Saint Paul tells us that this is done by love of our neighbour and that ‘love is the fulfillment of the law’ (Ez. 33: 8; Rom. 13: 10). Thus, the authentic Christian life, and the best means of sharing that life with others, is by the radical living-out of the gospel in its entirety, living in fulfillment of the law as the means of our salvation and a signpost to God for others. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of this in his encyclical Caritas in veritate, when he wrote, ‘To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are […] exacting and indispensable forms of charity’. Living the truth of the gospel, articulated by Christ through his Church, is not, then, the preserve of the particularly pious, but the very essence of simply being Christian, and the foundation of the path to heaven.
Since the earliest days of the Church, this has been the case. An unreserved and complete fidelity to the life of Christ, articulated by the Church’s teaching, has always been, and continues to be, the most compelling tool of evangelization wielded by the Christian faithful. And, as a reminder of this, I conclude with words from a second-century epistle; words that provide us with a reminder of how, by living the truth of the gospel, we provide that authentic witness to Christ, entering more deeply into the mystery of his love for us, and securing the salvation he desires for his children:
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle […] While they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.
They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children […] They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh”, but do not live “according to the flesh”. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.
It is in living this model for the world that others come to know the joy and true life that comes from knowing Christ. Let us rekindle that life within ourselves, and commit ourselves once more this day to the authentic and compelling witness that is knowing Christ and, in this world, living his life in a complete and radical way.