Practicing Catholic II: The Gospel and Discipleship

How does one learn to belong to the Catholic Church? One common mistake is to focus on the creed at the expense of the Gospel. Creeds are vital — they tell us what we believe. But we need to remember that they were shaped by controversies in the church, and show it. The Gospels, on the other hand, were written with one purpose: To introduce the generations who lived after the apostles to Jesus Christ, with the hope and expectation that they would fall in love with Him and follow Him.

Our church began as a movement of people who were drawn to Jesus and His way of life. “Disciple,” after all, means a person who follows someone else. Disciples listen to and (especially) imitate their Master — they do what the Master does so as to experience the world as the Master does, in the hope they will eventually be able to judge and act as the Master does. This is what it means for a disciple of Christ to “become like Christ”: to learn to see, judge, and act as Christ, the Master, sees, judges, and acts. And where do we meet the Risen Christ so that we can love Him, learn from Him, imitate Him, and eventually judge and act like Him? In the community of those who are already disciples, who read and study and hear the Gospel. To become a disciple, there is simply no substitute for hearing the Gospel in the community of disciples, and no substitute for imitating those who are more experienced and wiser in their discipleship.

This takes practical shape in the core practice of serious Catholics: Sunday Mass, every week. “Practice” means imitation, in the hope and expectation of getting better over time. To “practice” as a Catholic demands that we learn from Jesus in the most powerful place we find Him — in the Gospel heard and lived in the community of disciples. How do we do that?

Simply showing up doesn’t do it. That’s a vital first step, but there’s more. To meet Christ, we need personal preparation, and the key part of that is a powerful desire to “get out of the Mass” absolutely everything we can. We also need to give the Mass our full attention, to participate in the way that the experts of the past — the saints — have demonstrated, and to be ready to be changed in whatever way Christ seems to want to change us.

Think of it this way: If you wanted to become an excellent tennis player, you’d go to a professional for lessons. You’d expect to be corrected in your “instinctive” approach to the game; to be given lessons to practice; to have to invest time, money, and humility (in receiving criticism of your current level of play); and to reshape your customary life in certain ways in order to make the investment and the time to practice. It’s no different in becoming a “practicing” Catholic.

Being able to say, “I believe everything that’s in the creed” doesn’t require much of an investment. And one won’t get any better at discipleship by stopping there. (One may, in fact, get worse.) Excellence in discipleship — becoming a saint — is the only worthwhile standard to set for ourselves. And becoming excellent requires that we submit to “doing it God’s way” (as we discover that in the communion of the church and in the lives of the saints), not in the way we might prefer. “God’s way” will often cut against our natural preferences, and against the trends in the culture around us.

I’ll have more to say about this in the future, but I want you to think especially about one thing as I close: The role of silence in learning how to become a disciple. We live in a distracted culture, and that way of life leads into superficiality and away from discipleship. In the Bible, the great prayer of the Jewish people begins with “Listen!” In the Rule of St. Benedict, guiding monks toward holiness, the first word is, “Listen!” In the story of Elijah the prophet, God is present not in the storm or fire, but in the whispering wind… When we flee silence, we miss the opportunity to hear the Word of God. We distract ourselves from the hard work of learning to follow Christ. There’s a (sorely-neglected) role for silence before and at Mass, and that will be next week’s topic. But we need silence, to listen for God, each day. Few of us have been taught how to use silence profitably; but we can, if we choose, learn. Until next week, peace.