The goal of Lent: Conformity to Christ

Jared Staudt

In my last column I looked at the need for conversion and repentance for sin. The goal of Lent, however, does not end there, but looks further toward our spiritual growth. Once we have broken with our sinful attachments, we become free and open to God’s grace, which conforms us to Christ. We are called to become Christ, embracing the adopted sonship bestowed on us at Baptism and entering into the love of the Father. Jesus offers us his own grace and virtues and calls us to live and love like him in the world.

The Beatitudes offer us as a portrait of Christ and a path of how to imitate him. The great spiritual writer and retreat master, Father Jacques Philippe, offers us a simple and profound reflection on how to practice them in his book, The Eight Doors of the Kingdom: Meditations of the Beatitudes (Scepter, 2018). Father Philippe has a gift for presenting the deep insights of the spiritual life in an accessible way and inspiring us to enter more deeply into prayer and communion with Christ. His book, rich in wisdom from the Scriptures and the saints (especially St. Thérèse of Lisieux), can serve as a great Lenten guide.

The beatitudes promise blessedness and happiness, in a seemingly paradoxical way, to the poor, mourning, meek, hungry for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted. Father Philippe argues that the first beatitude, focused on poverty of spirit, serves as a foundation for the spiritual life as a whole: “Poverty of heart, then, is really the freedom that is present in receiving everything freely and of giving everything freely, setting aside ego, with its pretensions and demands. It means dying to self, a radical detachment that leads us to the perfect transparency of God’s actions, and to the joy of receiving and giving freely” (25). This poverty represents the littleness, abandonment to God, and receptiveness that we need before God and others that allows God to act in and through us.

The next beatitude, which focuses on consolation in mourning, draws us directly into Christ’s Passion: “The source of all true consolation is found in the mystery of the Lord’s Passion. Because of his suffering on the cross, there is no longer any human pain or suffering that cannot be consoled, provided we trustingly approach Jesus or allow ourselves to be visited by him” (86). Lent is a time to mourn and embrace sorrow for our sin: “When the human heart is touched by the grace of repentance, when it realizes the gravity of its sin, when it recognizes its pride, its hardness, its egotism, and begins to lament sincerely over its faults, it receives the grace of consolation and peace very quickly” (87).

Two other beatitudes stand out in relation to Lent. First, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, which Father Philippe uses to focus on the desires that shape our life. “What is my deepest desire? What do I really hunger and thirst for? What desire is the principle unity of my life?” (134). The “process of the spiritual life is a purification of desire in its object and its foundation” (135). Lent gives us an opportunity to fix our deepest desire on Jesus, his truth, and his righteousness. Lent is also a time of mercy, calling us to forgive others so that we can, in turn, receive forgiveness from God. Father Phillipe tells us that “God’s love is powerful enough to heal everything, but you must find the courage to decide to pass through the ‘narrow gate’ of forgiveness” (146).

The Beatitudes as a whole call us to a greater conformity to Christ. They provide us with concrete steps of how to become holy and can guide us to spiritual growth this Lent.

COMING UP: AM[D]G           

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Last November 11, on the centenary of its relocation to a 93-acre campus in suburban Washington, D.C., Georgetown Preparatory School announced a $60 million capital campaign. In his message for the opening of the campaign, Georgetown Prep’s president, Father James Van Dyke, SJ, said that, in addition to improving the school’s residential facilities, the campaign intended to boost Prep’s endowment to meet increasing demands for financial aid. Like other high-end Catholic secondary schools, Georgetown Prep is rightly concerned about pricing itself out of reach of most families. So Prep’s determination to make itself more affordable through an enhanced endowment capable of funding scholarships and other forms of financial aid for less-than-wealthy students is all to the good.

What I find disturbing about the campaign is its “branding” slogan. I first became aware of it when, driving past the campus a few months ago, I noticed a billboard at the corner of Rockville Pike and Tuckerman Lane. In large, bold letters, it proclaimed, “FOR THE GREATER GLORY.” And I wondered, “…of what?” Then one day, when traffic allowed, I slowed down and espied the much smaller inscription in the bottom right corner: “Georgetown Prep’s Legacy Campaign.”

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam [For the greater glory of God], often reduced to the abbreviation, AMDG, was the Latin motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school. So what happened to the D-word? What happened to God? Why did AMDG become AM[D]G while being translated into fundraising English?

I made inquiries of Jesuit friends and learned that amputating the “D” in AMDG is not unique to Georgetown Prep; it’s a tactic used by other Jesuit institutions engaged in the heavy-lift fundraising of capital campaigns. That was not good news. Nor was I reassured by pondering Father Van Dyke’s campaign-opening message, in which the words “Jesus Christ” did not appear. Neither did Pope Francis’s call for the Church’s institutions to prepare missionary disciples as part of what the Pope has called a “Church permanently in mission.” And neither did the word “God,” save for a closing “Thanks, and God bless.”

Father Van Dyke did mention that “Ignatian values” were one of the “pillars” of Georgetown prep’s “reputation for excellence.” And he did conclude his message with a call for “men who will make a difference in a world that badly needs people who care, people who, in the words Ignatius wrote his best friend Francis Xavier as he sent him on the Society of Jesus’s first mission, will ‘set the world on fire’.” Fine. But ignition to what end?

Ignatius sent Francis Xavier to the Indies and on to East Asia to set the world on fire with love of the Lord Jesus Christ, by evangelizing those then known as “heathens” with the warmth of the Gospel and the enlivening flame of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. St. Ignatius was a New Evangelization man half a millennium before Pope St. John Paul II used the term. St. Ignatius’s chief “Ignatian value” was gloria Dei, the glory of God.

Forming young men into spiritually incandescent, intellectually formidable and courageous Christian disciples, radically conformed to Jesus Christ and just as deeply committed to converting the world, was the originating purpose of Jesuit schools in post-Reformation Europe. Those schools were not content to prepare generic “men for others;” they were passionately devoted to forming Catholic men for converting others, the “others” being those who had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism or secular rationalism. That was why the Jesuits were hated and feared by powerful leaders with other agendas, be they Protestant monarchs like Elizabeth I of England or rationalist politicians like Portugal’s 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

Religious education in U.S. Catholic elementary schools has been improved in recent decades. And we live in something of a golden age of Catholic campus ministry at American colleges and universities. It’s Catholic secondary education in the U.S. that remains to be thoroughly reformed so that Catholic high schools prepare future leaders of the New Evangelization: leaders who will bring others to Christ, heal a deeply wounded culture, and become agents of a sane politics. Jesuit secondary education, beginning with prominent and academically excellent schools like Georgetown Prep, could and should be at the forefront of that reform.

Jesuit secondary education is unlikely to provide that leadership, however, if its self-presentation brackets God and announces itself as committed to “the greater glory” of…whatever.