Who do people say I am?
In the Gospels Jesus and His disciples came to a place called Caesarea Phillippi, whereupon He asks two questions. Firstly ‘Who do people say I am?’ and secondly ‘Who do you say I am?’
I recently read an article by a Catholic journalist who claimed, “If the church doesn’t do more to engage with BLM, the future of our church is at stake”, and that the Church could learn a lot from the Black Lives Matter movement where, “These Black female leaders, unlike the predominantly all white bishops who oversee the US Catholic Church, are genuine examples of Christian leadership and like Christ they fight for the marginalised and work to dismantle oppressive systems”.
In her book, this journalist urges the Church to campaign for “defunding and demilitarising law enforcement”, and concludes, “I hope people are not afraid …to push our Church past where it can really go”.
Whatever the good intentions of this Catholic journalist, it read like a call for the Church to conform to an alternative ideology rather than the other way around.
Meanwhile, a group called ‘Catholics for Choice’ speak of the need for the Church to reform and make room for the “majority of Catholics who, in good conscience, disagree with the dictates of the Catholic hierarchy on
matters related to abortion, contraception, gender and religious freedom”
In my own life, I have encountered many Catholics who in some cases ignore Church teaching on these matters and in some cases actively teach against it. In doing so, they appeal to Jesus, who in the Gospel they say ‘wouldn’t judge anyone’, ‘loves everyone’, ‘is always kind, respectful and tolerant’.
In my late twenties, following a decade of quite militant atheism, I started to have nagging doubts about my doubts. I thought that Christianity had something to offer, the teachings of this lovely man Jesus, who talks of love and compassion and kindness, certainly appealed to me.
But where would I begin?
I wanted to find a church that would fit with what I believed to be right. It would have to be a church that allowed women to be priests as equality surely demanded! It would have to be a church that accepted divorce as a perfectly acceptable way to end an unhappy marriage, since Jesus would surely not wish for people to live unhappy lives. It would have to be a church that didn’t regard homosexual acts as objectively disordered and ideally a church that would allow gay couples to be married within its walls. It would have to be a church that not only allowed, but encouraged contraception use, I mean that was a no brainer! It would have to be a church that allowed for IVF and surrogacy since I knew that Jesus, being kind and loving, would want people to be able to live how they choose. Yes, I was quite sure of the kind of church I wanted to find, and if it didn’t exist in its entirety, I would join one that was ‘almost’ there and then undertake the work of reform from within. I wasn’t sure where I would end up, but I was sure it wouldn’t be Roman Catholicism.
There was something holding me back though, generations of my family had been Roman Catholics before my generation fell away. Perhaps it was intellectual curiosity or a sense of familial duty, but I felt a deep need to give the Church of my ancestors a chance to ‘defend itself’ before jumping ship.
I set about reading and trying to understand Catholicism, and to understand why the Church taught things that seemed so obviously wrong. I believed that in doing so I would understand how my family had been duped for so long and maybe even have resources at hand to disabuse any remaining faithful of their misguided beliefs.
One of the first things I did was read the Gospels and was taken aback to find that the Jesus I discovered was not the peace-loving hippy dancing around Galilee that I had understood Him to be. What I discovered was quite a different Jesus. As I read on, a shrinking feeling started to come over me.
The more I read the revealed Word of God, the more aware I was that the essential purpose of revelation is, by definition, to reveal something that we couldn’t have come up with from our own opinions and ideologies, for if we could then it would not be revelation at all. I began to see that in trying to find a church that chimed with all my beliefs, I was really just making myself God. The starting point was me!
I, not God, had the fullness of truth and everything had to fit around that!
The sheer arrogance of this became humiliating to me as I tentatively stepped out to begin my journey. It was no overnight journey. It was long and arduous. Over the course of the next few years, I studied the faith, reading scripture, reading about the lives of the Saints and the work of the Church Fathers. In doing so, I became absolutely convinced that Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church and that He bought the right to set down the laws and limits for His Church with His own blood on the Cross. As Peter Kreeft states, ‘To be a Catholic is to believe the Church is more than human, that She is graced with Christ’s real presence and promise of guidance into all truth’. I was convinced. The head had shifted!
Around this time, I began to pray and meditate upon the rosary, attend Mass and Eucharistic Adoration where Christ, always true to His promises, transformed my life. The heart shifted and, like the Prodigal Son surrounded in the pig muck of his own making, I fell on my knees and returned to my Father who swept me up in His loving arms.
As a Catholic, I take seriously the teachings of Holy Mother Church, the Church that Christ Himself established. I believe that, though difficult, they call us to become the person that God created us to be and that, in them, true freedom is to be found.
I speak from experience when I say that it is tempting to listen only to those things that we are comfortable hearing.
In our genuine desire to be compassionate, it is tempting to ‘lower the bar’ and compromise a little here and there. It is tempting to take heed only of Jesus’ words ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ and not of His command to ‘go and sin no more’. It is tempting to hear ‘love one another’ and miss ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength’. It is tempting to understand love as merely a feeling, despite the fact that Jesus commanded us to ‘love’ and a feeling cannot be commanded.
In the Hollywood film ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ set at the end of WW2 and based on a true story, Desmond Doss describes himself not as a conscientious objector, but as a conscientious ‘co-operator’. He does not want to run from the good fight, but he wants to play a self-sacrificial part in it. As a Christian, aware of his own capacity for evil, he refuses to pick up a weapon but is insistent that he goes into battle alongside his fellow armed soldiers, so that he might save the lives of the injured by putting his own life at risk. He absolutely refuses to handle a weapon, even under threat of imprisonment and even when faced with an army of rifles pointing towards him.
His stubbornness is mystifying to those around him, even his fiancé who says, ‘Why don’t you just pick up the stupid gun and wave it around? You don’t have to use it, just meet them halfway’. He does not. He remains resolute. No compromises. No half measures. For this stance (a stance that would lead to the saving of many men) he was beaten, rejected, mocked, and ridiculed. Only after saving the lives of almost 100 infantrymen, did those around him come to understand the beauty, truth, and goodness of this self-sacrificial love. When, at the end of the film, the real Desmond is interviewed reflecting on the great work he did, he claims nothing for himself, giving all the credit to God who he says, ‘used him as a vessel’. This brings to mind a similar remark by St Mother Theresa who said, ‘I am but a pencil in the hand of God’.
Jesus asks me today, ‘Who do people say I am?’. I answer, ‘Some say you are a political liberator. Some say you are a peace-loving hippy. Some say you are an archetypal figure. Some say you are a pro-choice social justice warrior. Some say you are a nice man who loves everyone just as they are. Some say that you need to ‘wake up’ and conform to a new and better philosophy. Some say that you are a misogynist who favours men over women. Some say you were manipulated by the sexist culture around you. Some say that you are a wise teacher among many’.
Then Jesus asks me ‘Who do you say I am?’. And I say, ‘You are who you say you are. You are my Lord and Saviour. I say that you are the One who patiently waited for me to return, on your terms, not mine, since you know better than I know myself what is good for me’.
We are children of God. Sons and daughters of the Father and, as children, we can be difficult and rebellious. However, our job is not to push the Church beyond what it could be, or refashion it in our own image and likeness. ‘Honour thy father and mother’. Why did God make the Church? Any ‘improvement’ has to be in the direction of what the Church is for. The Church exists to save and sanctify souls. That is the standard by which everything in the Church must be judged.
This is the Church that Jesus Christ, God Himself, established. We are free to take our inheritance and leave and we are free to return to the loving embrace of the Father’s house (this is what He wants). What we are not free to do, it seems to me, is to turf the Father out of His own home, install ourselves as lord and master and go about redecorating.
Are we sheep or goats? His sheep follow Him, not lead Him, because they know His voice and recognise His authority.
Not my will, but thine be done Luke 22:42