In a world where mankind seems increasingly lost, I mean on the one hand people lie Dickie Dawkins suggesting the parents of a foetus with Downs syndrome aborting their child and starting again, as if even for a total secularist it was ever that easy, or the riots in Ferguson in the US, or the fragmentation of society we continually see around, not to mention the threats in Ukraine or the horrors of Boko Haram or the Islamic State, the question Jesus asks his disciples in the Gospel today, "Who do people say I am?" is of great relevance, because ultimately the question is about us: what is mankind.
The impressive clear thinking Provost of the London Oratory, Fr Julian Large, in part answers this question and demonstrates its implications, and indeed raises further questions.
If a Catholic priest or bishop in our age were to preach that there is no Zoroastrianism in Heaven, or Seventh Day Adventism or Hinduism or Anglicanism, I think we can imagine the reaction. The printing presses of the liberal media would probably explode.
But it is true that if we do manage to gain entry to Heaven – and one has to say ‘if’ because salvation is not something that anyone of us can take for granted – we shall not find religious pluralism or any type of denominational division. What we shall find is the One Mystical Body of Christ, with all of the Holy Angels and Saints united in one Body and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ at the Head. We shall find that the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that we have known on earth has been purified, perfected and glorified – the Church Militant taken up and subsumed for eternity in the Church Triumphant.
We often hear that if religion is to have any place in modern society then we shall all have to acknowledge that all religions are equal. But for a Christian this is something that cannot really be true. It doesn’t wash. The reason for this is that Christianity makes mighty claims that no other religion has ever attempted to match. We don’t just say that our religion has been established by a remarkable and saintly messenger of God, who has come to teach us unattainable truths and to set us a unique example of integrity, self-sacrifice and goodness. Our religion has been established by one Who actually is God, and Who is Truth itself. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is a Divine Person, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. And it is only because God took on our human flesh and died on the Cross for us that anyone is able to be saved. Our Lord is the one supreme Pontifex Who bridges the infinite chasm between man and God in His own Person.
This is not to say that those who have never had the Gospel preached to them, or never encountered credible witnesses to the Gospel, are beyond the scope of salvation. Certainly not. Yes, Christ has ordained that incorporation in His Mystical Body the Church is to be the means of man’s salvation. But His love and His grace are boundless. And the Church insists that there are reflections of Divine Truth in other religions. In so far as these truths pertain to salvation, however, She claims them as Her own. When a non-Christian dies, he will see with perfect clarity that Christ is God the Son. If he dies in the grace that is a prerequisite for entry into the eternal bliss of Heaven, he will see that Our Lord has been the source of his salvation all along, even if he never encountered a Christian or a Catholic in all of his life.
Hence the seriousness with which the Church has always taken the mission described by Our Lord to Peter after the miraculous catch of fish: “Henceforth you will catch men.” Ever since that commission, the Church that Christ founded on the Apostles has been fishing for souls in every age, and in every part of the globe that She can reach.
If you go to Rome on the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, you will find St Peter’s basilica festooned with fishing nets. That is a reminder that the Pope has a responsibility for souls on a universal scale. He and the bishops have been commissioned to work continuously to bring all souls in to the Barque of Peter. We must pray for them, because the prelude to the account of the miraculous catch of fish in the Gospel, in which Peter and his companions are presented as weary and disheartened after a whole night spent labouring without success, reminds us that on our own we can do nothing, and the human spirit easily grows weary and fails.
We too are called to be fishers of men. But rather than using the great trawling net that has been entrusted to the Successor of Peter, most of us will probably find that fishing with the line is so much more effective. We have to use friendship, kindness and example to draw souls in gently, reeling them in to the Barque of Peter with patience and great charity. And this can be far more effective than we ever imagine. Don’t be taken in by the lie that the world is becoming increasingly secularized. Great parts of the globe are, in fact, embracing Islam. And in the west, more and more people are happy to involve themselves in all sorts of spiritualism and New Age superstitions, even if it is fashionable to pooh-pooh ‘organized religion’.
This shows that there is a great thirst for spirituality, and that people do have a hunger for religion, whether they realize it or not.
Perhaps many of us who are converts to Catholicism were attracted because we were impressed and even amazed by the wonderful intellectual coherence that exists within the Catholic Faith. But we have to bear in mind that rational arguments hold very little sway with many or even most of our contemporaries today. They have been brought up in a culture of sentimentality, in which they have been encouraged to make decisions based on emotions and personal ‘intuition’. They may even feel threatened and repelled by logic. And it has to be admitted that, on their own, rational arguments for the Faith are like winter sunshine: they shed light, but they do not lend much warmth.
But even in this cult of sentimentality, our Faith actually has one distinct and powerful advantage. Christianity is the only religion that makes the extraordinary claim that ‘God IS love.’ And those words of St John open up an awe-inspiring vista into the very life of the Blessed Trinity, which is an eternal and infinite outpouring of self between Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
But it is not enough to talk about love. There is one thing that we can be sure that our contemporaries will demand from us as Catholics, and that is authenticity. We have to show that the reality of God’s love overflows from our hearts, in our conversation and in our actions. To be sure, authenticity is often judged today using the most shallow of criteria. The disciples of the cult of sentiment have an insatiable appetite for novelties, gestures and sound bites. Those of us who had an old fashioned upbringing would prefer when we give alms that our left hand should not know what our right is doing. If we are to have any hope of bringing souls into the Church in this age in which we live, however, then the Church has to be seen to be doing what, in former ages, She has always done in a less self conscious manner – reaching out to the needy, the sick and the abandoned. And if we are to succeed in bringing souls into the Barque of Peter, then we have to involve ourselves in this work of God, and not to be embarrassed to be seen doing good.
There is nothing arrogant in holding the conviction that the Church is true. Today there is a false notion of humility which says that it is meekness to play down our Faith. But our mission to bring souls into the Mystical Body of Christ is truly humble in the best sense, because it is carried out in obedience to our Saviour.
Fr Julian Large.