BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (183): Is it enough that a Christian be “nice” and “decent”?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

When we study the commandments, when we inquire about the goodness or evil of our actions, we are not only interested in being “nice” or “decent” or “respectable” people. That is the minimum. Just as we take care of our body not merely to avoid falling sick, but to be able to perform our tasks well, we take care of our spiritual life not only to avoid sin, but to be holy. Saint Paul, in fact, uses the image of the athlete to illustrate to us that the Christian life is not only about not losing, but about winning; it is not only about not becoming a sinner, but about becoming a saint (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

CCCC 428 affirms: “All the faithful are called to Christian holiness. This is the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity and it is brought about by intimate union with Christ and, in him, with the most Holy Trinity. The path to holiness for a Christian goes by way of the cross and will come to its fulfillment in the final resurrection of the just, in which God will be all in all.”

When André Frossard interviewed Pope John Paul II for his book Be Not Afraid (pp 109-110), he asked the Holy Father: “The fact remains that Christian morality is often considered restrictive, especially by those who do not practice it, while others, having robbed it of its supernatural function, construct out of it a meritorious but joyless Christianity. If the role of the Gospel morality is not to forbid us what we could legitimately claim but to give us much more than we could reasonably hope for (the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’), can one prove that it is a liberating force? Is it this morality which builds the person?”

The Holy Father replied, “Since my youth, … I have always considered and continue to think that Christian morality is a demanding one.

“This term – demanding – is important because it answers the two questions which you put to me after your initial remarks: first, can one prove that Christian morality is liberating (and not constricting)? And secondly, is it this morality which builds persons – and I would add, which builds real persons?

“There is no doubt that there is an essential difference between the term ‘restrictive’ and the term ‘demanding’.”

Christian morals seem to impose on us a series of “thou-shalt-nots,” but these should be seen as the training of the body “to subdue it,” as Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24. To subdue is to master, and when one masters something, say a musical instrument, he is able to produce the most beautiful sounds. On the other hand, if he has not mastered it, he may just produce noise instead. In any contest, mastery makes for an excellent and winning performance. In art, mastery of the medium is a prerequisite for creating works of beauty.

But mastery requires constant practice. In Christian terminology, this undertaking is called the ascetical struggle (The adjective “ascetical” comes from the Greek word “askesis,” which refers to the training that athletes undergo.). The CCC (No. 2015) says, “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle (cf. 2 Timothy 4). Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.”

The ultimate purpose of this training is union with Jesus Christ, its final goal is holiness. All of us, every Christian, has a vocation to be holy, to let Christ take over his life, to the point that he can say, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Saint Josemaría Escrivá wrote, “The Christian is obliged to be alter Christus, ipse Christus: another Christ, Christ himself. Through baptism all of us have been made priests of our lives, ‘to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2:5). Everything we do can be an expression of our obedience to God’s will and so perpetuate the mission of the God-man” (“Christ’s Death is the Christian’s Life,” Christ is Passing By, 96).

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