Thursday, July 21, 2016

Turning Toward the Lord -- An Evangelical and Ecumenical Perspective for Support

Billy Graham teaching
Cardinal Sarah’s challenge that priests celebrate Mass “ad orientem” has sparked controversy and heated discussion throughout the Catholic world. Hyperbole aside, some think this would imply we’re going back to the dark ages. Others see this subtle yet important change as the salvation of the Christian West. Whether you’re with Cardinal Nichols or Cardinal Sarah, it’s a big deal.

As one who converted from the Evangelical faith in 2004, I’d like to offer my support for Cardinal Sarah and simultaneously identify some points where his vision would bring about positive ecumenism with our Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters.

For the Evangelical Christian, the person Jesus Christ is so fundamentally important, that he has become the lens for all of human history. All things are “through him, with him, and in him.” As with the larger movement of history, so also Jesus Christ is seen as involved in the story of our own personal lives. For the Evangelical, the Christian life is not so much embracing a political movement or a community, or even becoming a certain personality type, as much as it is a turning toward the person of Jesus Christ and allowing Him access to transform us from the inside out. This is what an Evangelical Christian means when they ask, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?" Christianity is about understanding one’s life in and through Jesus Christ. Therefore what Jesus says and does really matters for the Evangelical Christian.

Our Catholic liturgy ought to reflect this too, insofar as everyone ought to “turn” toward Jesus in this way. The irony of this “turning” is that not everyone turns from the same spot; accordingly, Catholic tradition has always offered breadth and depth of authentic content in order to cast a wider net. I might need to become gentler; you might need to grow a spine. The Holy Spirit, who flows from the Father and the Son, and animates the Church, brings “rest in toil, coolness in the heat, and solace in grief.” Further, this same Spirit “bends what is rigid, thaws what is frozen, and sets right what is lost.” (Sequence for Pentecost). Of course the commandments and precepts are the same for everyone, but what marks conversion for me, might be different for you; Jesus Christ, however, brings all these separate “turnings” together, and unifies the result. He is the focus of all true conversion, and each Christian seeks to make himself like him.

And this is precisely where the obedient and reverent liturgy comes into play. It is what makes the whole Christ visible, so that each participant can turn toward Him from their unique perspective. There are as many paths to sainthood as there are persons, because each person is “capax Dei” or “capable of God,” as St. Augustine says; however all saints become so by modeling their lives after Jesus Christ. If we are turned toward Jesus, each liturgy becomes a little conversion and we are born again. When we receive the Eucharist, we are accepting Jesus into our hearts. When we fail, we come to the altar and ask the Lord to have mercy. When we confess and receive absolution, we pray the sinner's prayer in the presence of God and the priest. When we pray the daily office, we are having daily devotional time and offering our praise to GodI use italics here to identify key terms that Evangelicals use frequently, ways in which our Catholic liturgy can fulfill Evangelical practice. Ironically, these are also the ways in which the Eucharist becomes the “source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium, 11).  This understanding of the liturgy was the bridge on which I crossed the Tiber. Even today I have not forsaken the Evangelical teachings of my upbringing, but have rather brought them to fullness in God’s Church.

If ecumenism and evangelization are still worthy goals -- and I think they are, thank God -- we Catholics must retain the fullness of truth in our teaching and liturgical practice in order to cast a wider net. A sermon I heard from a Evangelical pastor in Kenya in 2001 comes to mind. The pastor recalled a mission to a violent and remote tribe, where no missionaries had ever been successful in preaching the gospel, nor had any lived to tell the story of their failure. Eager for a challenge, a young missionary went to them. He prayed to God, asking for help; and somehow, humorously, he received an answer in prayer. He was to begin his evangelization by reading the Gospel of Matthew aloud, starting with the “begats” in chapter 1. I don’t know about you, but pastorally speaking, many of us would see minimal spiritual benefit in reading the whole genealogy of Jesus in a liturgy, let alone to a remote tribe armed to the teeth. “Can we please do the abridged version...?” Not so: the young missionary responded in faith and obedience to the answer God had given, and as he read the genealogies, the men and women of the tribe knelt down peacefully, one by one, in rapt, full attention. What all previous attempts had failed to understand and could not have known without God’s help, was that this tribe had intense admiration for their forebears. It wasn’t hearing about the baby Jesus, the beatitudes, or even the cross, but rather about the respect Matthew has for Jesus’ heritage, that started them on the path to conversion. Not a single word of the Bible is worthless or unintentional on God’s part, nor does any word come back unanswered (Isaiah 55:11). If you ever wondered why all of the “begats” were there, perhaps it was for the salvation of this little tribe... and to save the life of the young missionary!

Meanwhile for the rest of us, if the anecdote is worth anything, apocryphal as it may be, it demonstrates that we can never anticipate how God will draw us to himself. Therefore, we ought never to limit God’s power and action to our own understanding. We ought never to change the plain meaning of the scripture to suit our own purposes, or change the liturgy to reflect our own personal whims, even if we think we’re helping God’s mission along. Rather we must turn our hearts and minds toward Jesus, listening to what he has to say without interrupting him or putting words in his mouth. The priest ought to be the chief example of this “turning.” No level of theological training, subtlety, or popularity can replace the simple value of obedience. God can work with obedience, and he can teach people who are listening, who are turned toward Him.

Evangelical Christians look on most Catholic parishes with grave disappointment. Often, they say, neither does the preaching reflect obedience to the plain meaning of the Biblical text, nor do Catholics take Jesus’ call to conversion seriously enough to make them any different from the mainstream culture. Catholic marriages fall apart at exactly the same rate as secular ones. Most Catholic children don’t know how to pray, let alone show understanding of the Scriptures. Many Catholics don’t even sing or participate in Church, some Evangelicals say, but rather sit there like lumps on a log, with their mouths hung open and their minds empty. The external signs are useless, they say, if not accompanied by sincerity of heart. Very few are able to explain why they are Christian or what being Christian means in terms of the Scriptures, let alone why someone else might want to become one. And so, for these and other reasons, the criticism is made that, if “you shall know them by their fruits,” Catholics have lost the spark of true faith. When I was received into the Church in 2004, the most favorable reply I received from my Evangelical friends was that, begrudgingly, it was possible for me to remain a Christian in spite of being Catholic -- provided I maintained a regimen of private prayer and Scripture study --  but that the Catholic Church itself wouldn’t provide the encouragement I would need to remain faithful. Further, they suggested that the general apathy and apostasy of Catholics would be a drain on my spiritual growth.

These are hard words to hear, and it would be understandable for many Catholics to be offended by this sort of criticism. Really, however, much of this critique is the basis for the New Evangelization efforts initiated by St. John Paul II. In other words, we Catholics have known for some while about our spiritual diseases, too, and we’re working on them. I don't mean to be cheeky, but perhaps God would help us with the New Evangelization, if we would only turn toward Him. It seems so simple: turning is necessary for conversion. The fact that so many Catholics don't understand worship facing the Lord, is a sign that we do not understand our need for conversion, and it is further proof of our need for the New Evangelization. We have Jesus among us, and yet we have forgotten how to turn to Him and pray.

After twelve years, I’m still Catholic. I knew what I was getting myself into then, as I do now. It can seem like a mess at times, but I have not regretted my decision once. But this critique needs an answer. 

If Catholics hope for any unity with Evangelicals, “ad orientem” could be a big step. Evangelicals are looking for conversion, or at least a warm-blooded attempt, as a sign of true faith. Why not give them the sign they seek? Cardinal Sarah isn’t arguing for tradition for tradition’s sake, but rather that each of us turn toward the Lord with a sincere heart. Jesus the Lord is the cornerstone of the Church, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last; if we wish to rebuild ourselves or our Church, we have to turn toward Him. For the sake of the New Evangelization, let’s turn to the Lord and pray for the success of Cardinal Sarah’s exhortation.

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