One of the lessons I learned from my dad was, whenever you come into a room full of people, greet everyone, and be sure to introduce yourself to those you don’t know so that they feel at home.
That’s just one of the reasons why I was so impressed with Cardinal Jorge Bergolio (now Pope Francis) during the meetings of cardinals prior to the 2013 conclave. I was the new kid on the block, struggling to begin to put faces and names together. I was relieved when this cardinal I had never met came up to me, extended his hand and said, “I’m Jorge Bergolio from Buenos Aires.” I smiled and replied, “and I’m Tim Dolan from New York.”
It’s natural for us to identify ourselves by our names, where we are from, maybe what we do. But, I think you’d agree, our identity of who we are really goes much deeper than that.
I invite us to see who we are: At the core of our being, each one of us has the identity of being a child of God, made in his image and likeness, redeemed by the precious blood of his Son, Jesus, and destined to enjoy eternity with him in heaven. That’s who we are. As Pope St. John Paul II taught, “being is more important than having and doing.”
|Cardinal Timothy Dolan
As Christians, however, we have to ensure that this truth of our faith doesn’t somehow make us the center of the world. There is a heavy stress today on individualism: my needs, my wants, my career, my sexual preferences, my convenience and my time are most important. But being made in the image and likeness of God means that God happens to be the center of the world!
It’s not just that I’m made in God’s image and likeness, but that every human person is as well, thus deserving dignity and respect. This is our belief in the Imago Dei (“Image of God”) central to Judeo-Christian revelation, cherished by other creeds as well.
If we properly understand who we are in God’s eyes, and in relation to other creatures and all of creation, we will sense that there are certain duties and obligations that simply flow from who we are.
Unfortunately, words like “obligation” and “duty” are somewhat frowned upon today. When we speak about duties and obligations, however, what we have to do as a Church is to reclaim the fact that duties are not arbitrary. Obligations are not impositions. Instead, the duties and obligations that we have flow from who we are. Pope Francis is wise in reminding us that duties and obligations are not something that are imposed, but are something that come from within.
His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, once said that, in the biblical view of life, the “ought” — that is, the ethics, the duties, the moral obligations — always flow from the “is.” In other words, once you get a sense of who God is and who God has destined us to be, certain “oughts” flow from that. And these obligations bring us joy.
A woman who often spoke about our obligations and duties is Dorothy Day. In fact, one of her beautiful biographies is called “The Duty of Delight.” Duty for her was not something imposed from the outside, a heavy burden laid upon her shoulders. It was a joy! So, her feeding of the poor was not a duty as in “I have to do this, because the Church tells me to.” No! It was spontaneous and natural, because it flowed from who she knew she was: a child of God created in his image and likeness. And who they were: people also created in the image and likeness of God.
Where you most readily see this sense of “the ought” flowing from “the is”, I like to think, is in the family. A father does not complain about the burdens — although, if your father was like mine, he could sometimes gripe — but his sense of obligation, whether it be going to work every day, coming home and loving his wife and his kids, cutting the grass and painting the house, the things we might take for granted, were all something that simply flowed from who he was as a husband and a father.
My mom, too, didn’t show her love to my siblings and me only in the tasks that she ought to have done, like making meals or doing laundry, but those things naturally flowed out of who she was, as a child of God, a wife and a mother, giving of herself in a spirit of generosity. The family is the place where I saw not just what my parents ought to have done. It’s where I saw who they were. They gave themselves to each other, and to us, not simply out of obligation but truly out of love. And it brought them joy.
St. John Paul II often spoke about the “law of the gift.” Simply put: We are at our best — we are acting most consistent with the way our Creator intends us to be — when we give ourselves freely and lovingly to another person. This is at the heart of the whole Christian ethic.
Our families aren’t always perfect. But the Church is reminding us that our actions should be consonant with who we are. When a wife says to a husband after he slips up in something, “Honey, did you really do that? Is that what a faithful husband would do?” The husband can hardly say, “Why is she barking at me with all these rules?” The wife is simply saying that, if you are my loving and faithful husband, which you are, 99 percent of the time, can you see that what you just did is not consonant with that? This is what the Church does.
And the Church, as our spiritual family, is made up of an extremely awkward and bumbling group of sinners. I happen to be a big one. So when we look at the Church, like all families, we see people who are striving, with God’s grace and mercy, to live in accord with God’s expectations as revealed in Jesus, but who often do not live up to them.
There is an exciting adventure here: an adventure in fidelity, to look like Jesus, to image him to others. That, ultimately, is what brings us our greatest joy. To live out what it means to be made in God’s image and likeness is the path to happiness, now and in eternity.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan is the Archbishop of New York.