Jesus is not optional

Mary Beth Bonacci

Sometimes I decide what I’m going to write about. And sometimes God does.

I just came back from the FOCUS conference in Phoenix. It was awesome, incidentally, and I highly recommend that you all look into it for next year. Yes, it is sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. And yes, there are a lot of college kids there. But there is also a marvelous adult track, with wonderful speakers and fabulous activities. 

But I digress. The very first speaker was Father Mike Schmitz, and the theme of his talk was that Jesus is not “optional.” It was a wonderful talk and gave me so much spiritual food for thought.

I wrote “Jesus is not optional” in my little column ideas list.

Then I came home and went to a movie. The movie, A Hidden Life, was about Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian conscientious objector who was executed by the Nazis in 1943. Also highly recommended. In the movie, there is a scene where Franz is talking to a man who paints frescos in the church. He’s talking about how he paints Jesus as nice, unthreatening. He says he does it because “[W]e create admirers. We do not create followers. Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it.”

Similar message strikes me twice? That’s my message from God. And it’s my column.

So, let’s talk about Jesus.

I don’t think, in our culture, you’ll find a lot of people who openly regard Him negatively. Even the Doobie Brothers said that “Jesus is Just Alright.” (Which, in the parlance of the day, meant that He is “cool.”) It’s kind of a form of weak virtue signaling to speak highly — but vaguely — of Him. Of course, the “Jesus” to whom people frequently refer bears little if any resemblance to the actual Jesus who walked the earth — the one whose life and message are recorded in Scripture.  No, He is mild and pleasant and somewhat feminized, and He just wants everybody to get along.

I actually read a Facebook post the other day (I don’t remember the context) in which a woman was lecturing someone about how Jesus’ message was all about UNITY and EQUALITY. Apparently, she never got to the part about how a father will be divided against his sons, and a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law.

We all see “outsiders” shape-shifting Jesus to fit their own agendas. But what about those of us who call ourselves Christian — followers of Christ? Where does Jesus fit into our lives?

I maintain that a vast majority of “Christians” probably fall more into the “admirer” category than the “follower.” We speak of Him, occasionally, but always in reverent tones. We put his picture in a corner of the house somewhere. Perhaps we even quote Him when his words bolster our argument.

But is that what He asks of us? Did He say “Join my church, and give me lip service every once in a while”? Did He say “As long as you’re a basically good person, you really don’t need to pay too much attention to me”?

No. He said “Follow me.” Actually, technically, it was “deny yourself, take up your Cross and follow me.” He invited us to lose our lives for His sake. He commanded us to love Him with our whole heart and soul.

What does it look like to follow Him? It looks like St. Teresa of Calcutta, who never worried about funding her ministries, but prayed for an hour every day and the funds arrived when they were needed. It looks like St. John Paul II, who risked his life pursuing the priesthood in an underground seminary in defiance of the Nazis. It looks like Bl. Franz Jagerstatter, who refused to swear allegiance to the murderous dictator Hitler, even when it led to his execution.

It also means you and I strive to put Him first in our everyday lives. It means we read his word and ponder what He is telling us through it. It means we work to live lives of service instead of merely comfort. It means we see his image and likeness in every person we encounter. It means we stand up for his truth in our own little ways, even when doing so will cost us popularity or business or “likes.”

But that can be unpleasant at best, and can cost us our lives at worst. Why do we have to go through it all? Are these just the hoops we are supposed to jump through so we can get to Heaven?

No. We bother not because He needs us, but because we need Him. We need Him at the center of our lives. We need him because, as Father Mike said in his talk, we are not “fine” without him. We are desperate, in need of a savior, to save us in this life and in the next.

Also, lest you think I am preaching at you from some high spiritual perch where I have attained this incredible one-ness with him, think again. I’m just the girl who heard a reminder twice in a week and had to take a good hard look at her own life.

Let’s all make a commitment to take Him out of the corner in 2020. Let’s put Him first. Let’s make sure his voice is the first one we seek in the morning, and that his word informs our every decision. Let’s ask Him to shine his love through us. Let’s recommit to his sacraments.

And then we can show the world who He really is.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.