A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Challenge for Catholics of Today

Glen McC copy

By glen McCullough

I believe the challenge for today’s Catholic is no different from the fundamental challenge presented by the Gospels: am I willing to follow Jesus and accept the Kingdom offered as a free gift of the Father? Before I accept the challenge, though, I have to be prepared to make radical changes and to be a part of everyone else who also accepts the challenge.

If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow me.

First, though, what are the radical changes I must make? Jesus gave us the answer very clearly: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” - Matt 16:24

He said that I must renounce myself, totally ignore my own selfish desires, and do only what God desires instead. Thinking about what that means leaves me wondering if I will ever be able to really follow Jesus. I am still prone to outbursts of selfish anger, conceited comparisons with other people, reliance on myself alone, and so on.

But at other times I am able to follow Jesus and allow Him to run my life; then I am responsive to the Holy Spirit, and the fruit of that is very evident in my life - I become loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, and all the other things Paul talked about in his letter to the Galatians (5:22). The initial surrendering of myself was a difficult thing to do, but now it gets easier to repeat because every time I forget to follow Jesus I revert to my old disgusting self, and I can’t stand to be that person any more.

Worldly people who are still busy giving in to their own desires all the time will treat me as an unpopular, unwanted person because I persistently challenge them and show them values so foreign to their own that they will not accept them. The world would prefer to ignore me and hope that I will go away. Jesus was issuing us with a warning that it would happen when He said that He had come to bring fire to the Earth, and division rather than peace (Luke I2:49-52). So I must take the world’s attitude on my shoulders like a cross for Jesus sake, just as He took His cross on His shoulders for my sake. Was that what He meant when He said we would have to take up our cross?

I would prefer to think that He meant us to be prepared for personal suffering when we choose to follow Him. Ridicule and estrangement from our friends; unwillingness on our family’s part to accept our dedication to God; the pain of loving our enemies when all we receive in return is hate; the pain of sharing my brother’s or sister’s suffering; these are all part of that suffering. Yet He makes the burdens light by giving us the grace and strength to carry them.

Of course, some would say that Jesus was talking to the people of His day, and that it is sufficient today just to believe in Him. To me, that ignores the whole message of Jesus - He never said that we could have our cake and eat it too ! He was totally intolerant of legalistic, Sabbath Jews, and if He was re-incarnated today would probably be just as savage on Sunday Catholics.

No, Jesus said there could be no half measures; if I do not renounce myself and take up my cross I cannot be a follower of His. No “ifs” or “buts”. No begging the question. The Gospels are for living, not reading complacently. Unless we live the Gospel message we will be condemned to die for eternity. Think about it. The Church as Community

Fortunately, we do not follow alone. We are a community of disciples, as Pope John Paul II said in Redemptor Hominis:

“The people of God form a community of disciples, each of whom responds to God’s will, though in different ways and in differing degrees of faithfulness. The church is a community, because it is formed of its members together with Christ Himself. “(n.21 )

The real point of the passage to me is that we must become a part of everyone else who accepts the challenge of Christ. When two people come together with a shared vision, they form a community. The more people who gather with the same vision, the larger the community. When the shared vision is also the vision of Christ, the Kingdom of God, and the community opens itself to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, a church is born.

The challenge for us as the Catholic Church community is not to look on the community as a comfortable place to be, a gathering of nice people who worship together, but to see it as Jesus wants it to be. If the shared vision of the community is a comfortable one, sooner or later the vitality will go. To use the vine analogy that Jesus used (John 15:1-9), unless the vine is pruned it will lose all its capacity to bear fruit. The vision of Jesus is that all men should come to know His Father’s love - the Church community should be furthering that vision, not sitting back being “fat, dumb and happy”. That is the challenge for the church community today, just as it has always been.

We are a Catholic Church, and a fair proportion of the population. God has given us individual gifts, made some of us apostles, some evangelists, some preachers, some catechists, some administrators. Together we possess all the gifts necessary to change the world, to bring all men to know the love of the Father.

In  case you think that is an impossible dream, look at history. A handful of men spread the Gospel over the known world in the first two hundred years after Christ died for us. They all renounced themselves, took up their crosses, clothed themselves with the power of the Holy Spirit, and were prepared to die, to a man or woman, for their faith in Christ Jesus. In the Gospel they saw not a social message, not a spiritual message, but a life message and they lived it to the ful1. We can live out that life message today in just the way the first disciples did. Let’s cut out all the theological mumbo-jumbo and get on with it. That is the real challenge for the Catholic of today.   

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