I recently encountered a message that struck me as being very profound. It was in a letter written by a person living alone, addressed to a dear friend who shared it with me. “I hope you appreciate how fortunate you are to have ‘another self’ in your life in the person of Jordan who loves you deeply,” the letter said. “Personally I feel I will die not knowing that wonderful experience. It is sad. Thus I consider you blessed, and Jordan is blessed and anyone who has had the grace of ‘another self’ is blessed.” An addendum was attached: “And that bond is more than love. It is love’s fulfillment.”
The message set me thinking: even though the idea of such love is as ancient and enduring as humanity, it is expressed here as a heartfelt disclosure that I found moving. I suspect that people may think in terms of a physical relationship as being the ultimate human expression of love, which might also be defined as possessing and being possessed by another person. But perhaps the whole concept of physical expression as the epitome of love is wrong—wrong because the idea of possessing and being possessed seems to militate against the autonomous self, whole but at the same time needing to be complemented. I’ll leave that to be pondered by more analytical minds. My impression comes from more of a spiritual perspective; I am conceiving of an other-centered, selfless love that is not needy nor requires greater completion.
Most of us may be blessed with the consciousness of someone whom we love or have truly loved: a wife or husband, a parent, grandparent, sister, brother, or aunt or uncle, just to name some possibilities. Maybe we even loved that family member to the extent that we wanted to be like him or her. Probing further, suppose you deeply loved a spouse, a partner in life, who has left you through death. That is a powerful albeit sad thought. Would you live your life differently, perhaps even in imitation of that loved one, now that he or she is gone? I think it is a very strong possibility. Love is as strong as death (Song of Sol. 8:6).
My temperament projects biblical overtones to this idea. I don’t think anyone can love Jesus the way the Twelve may have loved him, in life and in death. Reading the writings of the men and women who seemed to know him best is a poor substitute for actually walking and talking with the man himself. That is certain. How can anyone ever be devoted to Jesus to the extent that they want to emulate his life and message and keep his memory alive as they have? Can a catechesis, instruction in doctrines and formulas for living and worshipping, ever accomplish that, even after decades of refining it?
I find it bewildering that in the Catholic Church’s program of catechesis, of learning about Jesus, the adventures of his life, his passage, and the way the church sprang up from the events of that life through all 27 books of the Christian Testament, we are not invariably led onto the path of a loving commitment to this person. Were the literary styles of ancient times simply too cut and curt, dried and apparently lifeless to manifest the movements of the heart? Perhaps the writers had another intention in mind, writing as dispassionate stenographers, intentionally devoid of overt emotion.
We are compelled by this wonderment to revisit the way religion is taught to children and adults who experience catechetical formation. The vocabulary for imparting this narrative of a self-sacrificing life is in itself deadening: religion, instruction, classes. First of all, the Christian witness, and I mean to say witness, who is standing as teacher before the children has to be a living example of one who has fallen in love with Jesus Christ through their own experience. I’m not being facetious when I say that. Love is absolutely critical, and therein may lie much of the problem of the disaffection among the millions of Catholics and Christians generally who no longer own the title and description. They may have been malnourished in their formative years, never having met anyone who loved the person who is the focus of the church, his life and message. The catechist has to say, by his or her attitude and bearing, “I want you to discover what I have come to know and love.”
A line in Julius Caesar sums up much or what I am saying: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” It was not in our fate nor in our destiny that we have not fallen in love with Christ and all that he stood for. The fault is in the reasoning that somehow from our childhood, out of habit and through rote, we would grow into a life lived in imitation of Christ and become loving, other-centered, compassionate men and women in the likeness and spirit of Jesus of Nazareth. Life tending toward and embracing love does not work that way.
Were we misled in the way we were guided into our Christian lives? Is it the fault of the catechists who themselves may have had a shallow, unenlightened understanding of Christianity? No, they are not at fault. The fault is in the way the church had been, and perhaps still is, organized to proselytize, to attract people with a message of salvation and God’s blessing, to baptize them, and to call them Christians from that day forward.
This is part of the “salvation syndrome.” Shortly after the apostolic period ended, in order to be “saved,” you had to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Christian life and love were not a matter of personal conviction and commitment. At the root was a misguided and misplaced effort to “save” people from damnation. This was to happen through dogmas, doctrines, and decrees, not by issuing a personal conviction and commitment to love, honor, and ultimately live life in imitation of Jesus, the Christ. (James Magner, MD, gives a detailed explanation of such a style of indoctrination in his essay “Adjusting Doctrine as the Church Ministers to the Modern World.”)
From an historical perspective, where did this method of indoctrinating people into belief and practice begin? I think the Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers, in his book The Underground Church, puts it succinctly:
When [Constantine the Great] ordered his bishops to convene a great council at Nicea (325 CE) for the purpose of producing Christendom’s most important white paper (the short form loyalty oath we call the Nicene Creed), he changed the definition of what it means to “believe” forever. Christians were no longer “resident aliens” or “settled migrants.” Now they were citizens of an earthly kingdom. Their new constitution was a doctrinal formula, not an ethical imperative. Once these spiritually autonomous assemblies had no creeds at all, save their fierce devotion to Jesus as Lord in place of Caesar. Now they were increasingly led by bishops who insisted on theological conformity. Jesus followers increasingly became Christ worshipers, and Christianity was changed forever.
Further, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Barbara Tuchman characterizes Christianity at this point as “fatally compromised.” “Fatally compromised”: defined as a way that leads to failure or disaster.
To be fair, most men and women today who are sincerely dedicated to the progress of Christianity are not victims of blind conformity and religious practice by dint of habit. Even though that may not be the design or determination of church leaders today—and I say that tongue in cheek—it has become a habit to teach, to instruct almost exclusively on a cerebral level; to know the facts, believe in them, and carry on as if you had become a new person through baptism and confirmation, endowed with all that is necessary for your future Christian “lifestyle” and ultimately salvation. This style is wrong, even using the supposedly new and improved method in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Even that praiseworthy effort to commit to Christianity with the heart as well as the head is contrary to the message and spirit of Jesus that we encounter in the testimonies of commitment filling the pages of the New Testament.
We need to empower potential Christians, young and old, with new insight and awareness. It is definitely not to commit to memory the doctrines and dogmas, the decrees and declarations set up by ecclesiastic authority down through the ages, but how to commit to living with fierce devotion the spirit, message, and, yes, even the person of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, very particular to our time but crucial to our destiny is to disentangle the national flag from the cross so that, as Pope Francis suggested in referring to the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Christians who accept the title and the life commitment no longer find themselves as altar servers, bowing to the fallible whims and leanings of the political right or left. Christianity must travel a much higher road than to wallow in the cocksure and chaotic affairs of state. The early Christians were living in another world but with both feet well planted in this one. They were the remnant of Israel. We are becoming a remnant once again, and perhaps this time for the better. ♦
Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.