Couple of weeks ago I mentioned to you how the radiance, glow, and temptation to self-satisfaction that accompanied my elevation to the College of Cardinals was all set aside when the Holy Father reminded us, the new cardinals, that we now wore red because it is the color of blood (like the vestments at Mass on the feast of a martyr). In case we didn’t get the point, he told us that we were expected to be ready to give our very blood in defense of the faith.
I guess I should not have been startled. Aren’t we all called to sacrifice, selflessness, service—even at the cost of our lives—for the enduring values of our faith, out of love for God and neighbor?
Is that not one of the potent lessons of this holy season of Lent?
It was the day after Ash Wednesday that we heard Jesus say, “Whoever wishes to be my disciple, must pick up his cross and follow me.”
If there is not some sacrifice, hardship, and challenge to living our Catholic faith, we usually end up taking it for granted and setting it aside.
Dr. Philip Jenkins, the scholar of religion at Penn State University, observes a bit of raw data: the Church grows rapidly, and the faith of her believers is deep and vibrant, in countries where there is persecution of the Church; the Church languishes and gradually loses its luster in countries where it is prosperous, and where it is privileged.
The great Father of the Church, Tertullian, made the same claim 19 centuries ago as he watched the Church suffer persecution in the Roman Empire: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith.”
Uh-oh...what’s that say about us? We live in America where there is religious freedom (even though it is under pressure!). Here we are in a country where there is no danger or external hardship involved in being a loyal Catholic. Are we in for trouble, then? Is our faith becoming listless?
Last week I had the honor of preaching a day of recollection for our great priests of the archdiocese. We try to come together for prayer twice a year, in Advent and Lent. There we have conferences, confessions, a holy hour.
In one of my talks I repeated to the priests the famous quote from Pope Paul VI: “When it’s easy to be a Catholic, it’s actually harder to be a good Catholic; and when it’s hard to be a good Catholic, it’s actually easier to be one.”
Read that again and let it sink in...
Convenience, ease, no demands, no sacrifice, blending in, drifting along, just-like-everybody-else, no “cost of discipleship”—that’s a poisonous recipe for faith.
Hardship, sacrifice, tough choices, harassment, ridicule, standing for Gospel values, loyalty to our faith to the point of persecution or even blood—that’s the recipe for a deep, sincere, dynamic faith.
We see it in the Old Testament: when the People of Israel are at peace, prosperous, free and unfettered in their faith...they turn to false gods!
When they are under attack, persecuted, and vilified for their faith, their religion is pure and strong.
Scholars tell us that people who leave our Catholic faith for another religion—and a somber fact today is that many do—usually (not always), but more often than not, join a religion that is stricter and more demanding.
Seems like “easy religion” languishes; “hard discipleship” flourishes.
So, what do we do? Should we long for harassment or persecution to revive and renew the faith? Hardly.
But we do admit that, if the practice of our faith does not result in some hardship, or make us somewhat different from “the crowd” to the point of occasional derision and exclusion, something’s wrong.
And we can also voluntarily take on sacrifices to remind us of the cross Jesus asks us to carry with Him.
Voila! Lent! The time we are encouraged to penance and mortification.
The old-timers will recall the rigors of past Lents, and scoff at the negligible penance we’re expected to take up nowadays: abstinence from meat on six lousy Fridays? Fasting and abstinence on two measly days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday)? Get serious! the veterans annually remind us.
(And I annually get sack loads of mail asking for a “dispensation” from even these light demands!)
If we are fortunate enough to live in a country where there is no overt, external, explicit persecution of the faith—and we Americans are—we praise God, but then are constantly vigilant to make sure our faith does not become listless.
One way to avoid that is by taking upon ourselves penance, sacrifice, and mortification.
To some, that’s “old school.” To some, that’s pharisaical.
To me, it’s pure Gospel...and very wise.
Because, when it’s easy to be a Catholic—and today it is—look out, because it’s tougher to be a good Catholic; and when it’s hard to be a good Catholic—and that’s your choice—it’s easier to be one!
A blessed Lent!