Follow Christ's sacrificial example

  • February 8, 2008

I have a friend, a fellow writer, whom I’m here calling Peter. That’s not his real name, but I can assure you he’s real.

Peter is a man with remarkable gifts, both intellectual and artistic. He is also a man possessed by a rare and powerful hunger for God. But like other passionate souls committed to disbelief, he has many principled reasons for rejecting God’s mercy and love. They include philosophical objections grounded in deep familiarity with modern critical thought, and disagreements with this or that teaching of Christianity. But his key contention with God is not the idea of God, but the realities of history.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. While living in Paris a few years ago, Peter found himself one afternoon in Notre Dame Cathedral. A Mass was under way. His description of the event recalled Masses I had attended in that great church, with their jubilant atmosphere and magnificent music, beautifully executed liturgy and (in the days when I went) the energetic preaching of Cardinal Lustiger, then archbishop of Paris.

For Peter, however, the Mass that day was more than a wonderful public ceremony of the kind Catholics know (or knew) how to do very well. It was a sudden, unexpected glimpse of the divine glory that had been calling him for years, a breathtaking experience of the warmth that radiates from the furnace of love forever blazing in the heart of the Catholic Church. He was thrilled by what he saw— so exhilarated, in fact, that he could not sleep the following night.

But the next morning, his joy drained away, and was replaced by doubts. While Peter did not question that the beauty he had witnessed at Notre Dame was vividly real, old facts resurfaced from memory, palling his mind with discouragement. How, he wondered, could so splendid a church — if, indeed, it was splendid — have sponsored the Inquisition or the trial of Galileo? How could nominally Christian nations, such as Germany and Romania and Poland, have willingly colluded with the Nazis in their attempted destruction of the Jewish people?

Convinced that no church capable of doing such deeds could be the site of mercy and truth, Peter concluded that what he had seen at Notre Dame was a kind of mirage, a fantasy produced by his profound desire. Delight fled, sad disbelief returned — a disbelief that persists to this day.

Catholic apologists, of course, have arguments — convincing ones, in my view — to explain the co-existence of good and evil in the Christian church. I don’t need to rehearse them now. But don’t all the intelligent arguments of our theologians seem like glib rationalizations when confronted by the historical facts that overwhelmed Peter in Paris? Be that as it may, it’s hard to believe that fresh propositions about Christian truth are what is needed by the Peters of this world, and by the countless other people dismayed by the discrepancy between what Christians say and what we do.

What’s surely needed, instead, are new and wonderful facts that are as impossible to ignore or argue away as the old, dire ones history gives us. I am speaking here of lives lived according to Christ’s sacrificial example, men and women who embody the love of Jesus and who express it in the real-world circumstances of daily existence. Such people — the people Lent calls all of us to become — offer the only genuinely decisive, persuasive proof that God has acted in history and that the reign of Christ has begun in the contemporary city and world.

In his message for Lent (accessible at the web site of the Holy See,, Pope Benedict urges us to become living proof of the Gospel in a very practical way: by becoming poorer for the sake of the world. Almsgiving, he writes, “represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods.” He cites a question asked long ago by St. John, but directly relevant to those of us who live in the world’s affluent societies: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. We should take to heart St. John’s “ringing rebuke” — as the Holy Father calls it — during Lent and throughout the year, and thereby let God transform us into instruments of grace in the unbelieving world.

And pray for Peter— that he may see in the Christians he knows the indisputable evidence of the new life he longs for.

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