Freed to be images of God

Four distinguished American theologians have died since the beginning of Advent: Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Father Richard John Neuhaus, Msgr. William B. Smith, and Father Francis Canavan, S.J. Each of these men enriched both Church and country with a noble idea of freedom. That idea has much to do with the events of salvation history we recall at this sacred season.

After receiving his vocation from God, Moses tried to tell the Israelites the good news of their impending liberation: they would be freed from the power of the Egyptians and brought into the land that God had given to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their offspring. It sounds like a very good deal: Israel comes into the possession of its ancestral land; Israel is brought into communion with God, who is truly the Lord.

But Israel isn’t buying: “Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel; but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9). After centuries of slavery, Israel could not imagine itself free. Israel had lost the image of God within itself.

As Father Dominique Barthelemy, O.P., puts it in a wonderful book, God and His Image (Ignatius Press), mankind after the Fall had “become wild; (man) flies in terror toward death, in terror because he can no longer bear the gaze of the Father, whose love he has in fact disowned and flouted.” Israel, trapped in the bondage of Egypt, had forgotten the loving gaze of the Father who had called Abraham and spared Isaac. So Israel would have to be tamed anew; Israel could only recover the truth about its freedom by casting off the bad habits of slavery.

“Jacob’s descendants in Egypt are a people in winter,” Father Barthelemy writes, “a people ready to die, who see death staring them in the face. God will be able to tame a people in conditions like these. It is not immediately that he will be able to take them by the hand on Sinai. He must begin by saving them from death in a wholly unexpected manner – hence the exodus from Egypt… . He will not expect this people to start calling him God, a name that evokes terrifying almighty power, immediately. He asks them to call him …Yahweh, which for Israel means ‘Savior’ … .

“And Israel will grasp the hand of this Savior as their guide, since it is he who has saved them from death. Afterward, they will allow this saving hand to fashion them anew. It is very necessary that God should fashion man once more in his own divine image. For man was made in the image of God. But this same man has fled … and has fashioned in himself a caricature of God’s image. God cannot therefore make himself recognized by man unless he first fashions in him (once again) the true image of God … .”

This is God’s fatherhood, reaching out to refashion us in true freedom: which, as St. Paul writes, is the freedom of the children of God – the freedom to be the images of God that we were created to be, and thus the freedom to bring into the world the healing power of God’s fatherly love. God begins the definitive work of refashioning his image in us in the Exodus. He completes that work in raising Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, from the dead, so that Jesus the Christ might be the first of many brothers – brothers who live true freedom in the communion of the Church, which is the Son’s mystical body, extended in time and space.

This is the truth about freedom that Cardinal Dulles, Father Neuhaus, Msgr. Smith, and Father Canavan tried to teach us: that true freedom consists in looking up, not looking down – in casting off our broken spirit and living according to the image of God within us. That is the truth of both Exodus and Easter. We learn it crossing the Red Seas of our own life-journeys, where we meet the Risen Lord.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash