Monday, October 26, 2015

Freedom in the Catholic Church

I did not know freedom until I became a Catholic. Some people read the Bible liberally; some, conservatively. Some will read the Gospels and fall in love with Jesus; some may read them, and hate Him. Without the Church to guide you, help you in your reading, there will be a plethora of interpretations. You know what they say about opinions: They are like armpits; everyone has two. The same, I believe, applies to individual interpretations of the Bible.

When I was working in Nashville, a co-worker told me, “God has made it so easy in the New Testament; all we have to do is love.” I replied, “That is what makes it impossible; we cannot love to the degree that we are commanded.” He interpreted liberally; I, conservatively. Which is correct? Did the answer lie somewhere in the middle? Who is to say? How do we know we have done enough or are doing enough? Does it rely on what I think is true or what God says is true?

I recall the first time I began to read through the New Testament. I did not find the Gospel very good news at all. It appeared to me that the commandments of Jesus were more burdensome than those of Moses. With Moses, I thought, it was like a checklist: Do this; don’t do that. However, Jesus went further; He went to the spirit of the Law. For example, take the commandment, Thou shalt not kill. The reader, or hearer, would think, “Okay, I must not commit murder.” Jesus clarifies, “You cannot even get angry.” Which commandment is easier to obey? Did Jesus make the commandment impossible for us in order to imply: “See, you cannot keep this commandment; therefore, I am going to die for you so that it will be okay if you get angry”? What about the command, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”? Is He saying that He was going to die for so that we didn’t have to try to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect?

Take the two great commandments, “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” First, do you love God because you think you love God, or must it be evidenced—all the time, without cessation? If it is sporadic, then we do not love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. What about the commandment second to it, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Does that mean to love yourself and then try to love your neighbor the same way? I do not think that is what Jesus meant. In what way did He love Himself? However, if you tell me that He fed Himself and then fed others, I will agree. But do we do that to all our neighbors, all the time? Absolutely not. We fulfill the commandment when we love as Jesus loved.

When I read the Gospels, I laid the Bible down in despair, with the thought that I did not have a chance. I knew I needed Christ, but I saw no hope. Many times I would pick the Bible up again, but would have to lay it down in despair once again.

I began to receive a ray of hope when I read Jeremiah 31:33, 34: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the LORD; I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people, and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more” (emphasis added). I saw God doing everything and causing everything. I could handle that. What hope! What hope it was at the time—until I looked at the sins in my life. If God is putting His law in my inward parts, and in my heart He is writing it, why am I sinning? What is happening in me?

Being a protestant, I believed that, if you say the “sinners’ prayer” and meant it, you would be saved. I must hold the world’s record for saying the sinners’ prayer. Every prayer was different; perhaps I didn’t say the right words. Perhaps, I really didn’t mean it the other times; I better say it again to make sure. St. Paul would give me hope at the beginning of his epistles, but I would become disheartened when I got to the conclusions, when he exhorted people to be what they were, to accomplish with deeds what he had just taught. It was as though I had to be the Church, that everything was dependent upon my performing everything.

Enter the freedom of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is a Body. The brain does not do the job of the heart; the heart does not do the job of the intestines; the intestines does not perform the functions of the liver, etc. All parts of the body are required for the body to work perfectly. No part is “along for the ride;” however, no part is “saved” without the other parts being “saved.” The right lung does not attempt to elevate itself above the other parts of the body, but sometimes it may have to work harder in order for the rest of the body to function properly. We are on a journey, not as individuals but as a body. We must help each other.

When we go to Mass, we are praying for each other. When we sin, we make the Body ill, making other parts to work harder. When we go to Confession, it begins a healing process. If we cut our hand, the body feels pain, and the other hand has to work harder. When the healing process begins, it affects other parts and begins to heal the rest of the body. This is what occurs in Confession. Therefore, Confession is also part of loving your neighbor as yourself. Going to Mass is part of loving your neighbor because we are praying for each other and being strengthened in Communion.

In the Catholic Church, I am free to know what Truth is. As a protestant, I always had to wonder whether what I was hearing was true or not. There were differences between the various denominations; there were differences even in the same denomination. Was I in the right denomination? If the pastor taught one thing but I believed otherwise, who was right? Was it significant or insignificant? Who was the authority? All this disappears in the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church, we have the Magisterium. We have freedom, peace, to know what truth is. We have freedom to know that we are truly forgiven; we do not have to rely on feelings. The Catholic Church is constantly loving God with all its heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving its neighbor as itself. As Catholics, we are cooperating in that love—if we are in union with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Otherwise, we are rebels, rebelling against that love. Therein lies freedom and joy—in the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church, the Gospel becomes joyful, full of good news, aiding me where I am deficient, and taking from my strengths to aid others in areas where I might be stronger. Just as in Exodus 17:12 when Moses needed Aaron and Hur to hold his arms up, we likewise strengthen each other.
--Tommy Turner

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida: