The appeal and the challenge of Jesus Christ

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on the twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time during the Annual Diocesan Young Adult Mass at St. Agnes Church in Arlington.

For the past few weeks, all of our media, from the Catholic to the most secular, has been eagerly anticipating Pope Francis' visit to the United States this week. Overall, the reception is overwhelmingly positive! He is certainly a popular international figure, and, therefore, people of all faiths, as well as those who claim no belief in a divine power, are excited to have Pope Francis bring his enthusiasm and joy to our shores. As our Holy Father and Shepherd of the Shepherds, he brings a message of charity, mercy and peace that speaks to the hearts of all.

The Holy Spirit led the Cardinals of the most recent conclave to choose Pope Francis as the Successor of the Saint Peter and the voice of Jesus Christ in our world today. So, just as the presence of Jesus drew crowds and led a great excitement when he walked through Galilee, we would expect the same for Pope Francis.

Yet, there will be some who will be challenged by the message he will speak to us while he is here, because he also speaks the divine truth that often contradicts what we want to believe in our hearts. For some, this will lead to a greater conversion. For others, this will lead to anger and rejection. Of course, this, also, is the experience of Jesus, Who in today's Gospel tells His disciples, "The Son of the Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise." So, the appeal of Jesus is yet a challenge: a real paradox.

This paradox, the appeal and the challenge of the Lord Jesus and His Gospel, is not unique to Jesus and Pope Francis. It is the lived experience which so many men and women who have set their hearts on following the will of God have known. Yes, there are many who are drawn to the beauty of both Jesus' and the Pope's words and actions, but there are those who will oppose those who follow the ways of God over the ways of the world. We even see it in today's first reading from the Book of Wisdom, written about 50 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, in which we hear the threat of the wicked men who say, "With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience."

The appeal and the challenge of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is also so evident in the Gospels: this paradox confronts every disciple of the Lord Jesus. Why? Because we do belong to Christ. From Baptism onwards, we are intimately united with Him and have, indeed, become His disciples, His followers. We are also members of His Body the Church, made so, once again, at our Baptism.

What does it mean, then, to be a disciple of Christ, His follower, to be a member of His Church? It means making Christ Jesus and His way of life the model and pattern of our own lives. In a word, we are called to discipleship, to trace in our lives the life of Jesus: to make His attitude ours, to walk in His footsteps and to share deeply His very life.

But, we often miss this essential point - our vocation to Christian discipleship. We are often like the disciples described in today's Gospel account: missing the point of Jesus' teaching. While Jesus was telling them about His mission, "the Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise," they instead were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. Yes, they missed the point, but we must not be too hard in our judgment of them. We often - too often - do the same; we miss the point of what Jesus is teaching us. You and I can honestly admit this.

It is not easy to follow Christ, to be His disciples. If He had to endure suffering and death, so must we. If He had to be the servant of all, so must we. Indeed, He tells this quite clearly today: "If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all the servant of all." Like the disciples, we find these "hard sayings." Like them, we do not understand and are afraid to question Him (cf. today's Gospel).

Nonetheless, imitating Christ is our primary vocation. Imitating Christ, being His disciple, is a life-long process. Yes, it begins with the Baptism and then continues on from childhood through adolescence to young adulthood, middle-age and old-age. The process of imitating Christ, following in His footsteps, ends only with human death when we pass over to share Christ's life fully and forever, provided we have remained untied to Him in the obedience of faith.

Imitating Christ, being His disciple, following His footsteps, sharing His life: this is the purpose of continuing Christian formation. This ongoing formation is concretely facilitated by our Catholic schools, by our programs of catechetical formation, by formation for the Sacrament of Confirmation and through adult catechesis and by fellowship.

As we are continuously formed in those concrete ways from childhood into adulthood, we persevere in our imitation of Christ, loving God through worship and prayer, and loving others through humble service and forgetfulness of self. Is this not how Jesus lived His life among us: loving God His Father intimately and deeply and loving others compassionately and generously? Indeed, in today's Gospel, Jesus does remind us that true humility involves serving others, becoming the last of all and the servant of all.

Therefore, the need for continuing formation in the faith is both necessary and especially critical in our time. This is so not only for our own personal growth in understanding the faith, but also for a convincing explanation to others when we are asked "what" we believe and "why" we believe what we believe. To respond: "I don't know" or "The church says so" is hardly convincing to our contemporaries. As young adults, you are involved in the world in a way that bishops, priests and many consecrated men and women are not able to be. Because of this, you may experience the rejection of the faith on a more severe level at your work, among your friends and acquaintances, and even among your families. For this my heart goes out to you.

Our culture and our society are prone to thinking that polls and surveys determine what we believe and practice. However, the teaching of Christ through the Church does not depend on percentages of what people think they should believe or practice. Truth is truth. How the truth continued in the teachings is proclaimed is key: We must teach in ways that enable people to understand the "what" and the "why" of what we believe and practice. Pope Francis teaches in a positive and welcoming way, but the "what" and the "why" of faith do not change. Of course, there is an authentic development of doctrine, but never a denial or rejection of what was earlier proclaimed as authentic teaching. This is so because Christ promised to give the Church the unfailing assistance and guidance of the Holy Spirit. After all, if our eternal salvation depends on what we believe and what we practice, there had better be no error or falsehood in what is taught to us.

Besides continuing formation in the faith, there must be daily prayer, that is, a deepening union and friendship, personal and intimate, between the Lord Jesus and each of His disciples. Pope Francis is so insistent on this. In the opening paragraphs of his first Apostolic Exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," he said: "I invite all Christians everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an opening to letting Him encounter them. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since 'no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.' The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that He is already there, waiting for us with open arms "(cf. "The Joy of the Gospel, No.3).

We are all eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis. Fundamentally, his message will both appeal to us and challenge us. May we listen with an open heart and a willing spirit. In the end, what Pope Francis will do is to invite us, as does Jesus Himself in today's Gospel, to follow the Lord; taking up the cross that is uniquely ours; serving others, especially the most needy and the poorest; and trusting in Jesus like a child. Yes, we will experience both the appeal and the challenge of Jesus and His Gospel, but if we persevere, if we cling to Him within His Church, we shall arrive one day in His presence, there to live forever in unending joy.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015