Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not 100 people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are many who hate what they wrongly think the Catholic Church to be.” He was speaking of people who look at the Church and her teachings through the eyes of ignorance.
One of the primary reasons for this magazine, especially this issue, is to dispel ignorance. All around the world, people, even Catholics, defame apostolates like Opus Dei, belittle Church feast days like “the Purification of Mary,” lose confidence in the power of prayer, and denigrate the Church for her “many rules,” when the real underlying problem is that they just don’t understand; or, more accurately, they don’t have the data. That’s what ignorance means: not stupidity, but a “lack of knowledge or information.”
And I can’t point fingers. For most of my life, I rejected the Church and her teachings out of ignorance, and something Russell Shaw wrote in this issue reminded me of this. He stated that for members of Opus Dei, “Mortification is strongly recommended: celibate members practice mild physical mortifications one day a week, others do something else of their choosing.”
Images came to mind of anti-Catholic caricatures of monastic acts of mortification, monks hitting themselves in the head with boards, or nuns wrapping themselves with barbed wire under their clothing! WHY?!
I used to presume that this was some misguided form of Catholic works righteousness: that they were doing this to win or merit favor with God. And I believed these poor souls needed to be saved, especially from their Catholic superstitions!
Even after becoming a Catholic, after I learned the theology behind fasting and abstinence, I still didn’t quite get the radical forms of self-mortification that I read about in the lives of the saints. Were these overzealous acts of ignorance and superstition? Then I got older. Not only in my understanding of the Church’s teachings, but just plain older. I began to suffer, and ache, and complain. My body began breaking down, adding one more voice to my constant spiritual battle against “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”
Jesus warned that if we have chosen to follow Him, we will be in a spiritual battle; no one is immune from this. But aided by the graces we receive in the sacraments, we are called to form our consciences and discipline our wills so that we can successfully fight this daily battle (see 1 Cor 10:13).
Scripture also promises that this walk with Christ will involve, even require, suffering (see Rom 8:17), but by grace we are not to complain, but rather learn to be content “in whatever situation” we find ourselves (Phil 4:11); even learn to “rejoice in . . . sufferings” (Col 1:24)!
And, friends, this does not get easier with age, which is precisely why St. Paul used the imagery of an athlete to describe how, for the rest of our lives, we are in training: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing” (1 Cor 9:24-26).
Paul applied self-mortification — telling us to imitate him (see Phil 3:17) — not to win or merit favor with God, but to subdue and discipline our bodies and wills so that, as the battle gets tougher, especially with age as the finish line draws near, we can conquer the spiritual battle and not end up “disqualified.”
When the sufferings of life get you down, and the disciplines of our faith seem too demanding, remember what St. Paul said, an old man in the faith: “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:13). TCA