I had a conversation recently with a member of a nearby parish. He bragged, in a good-natured way, about the size, activity and wealth of his parish. I made the (spurious), claim that the Catholic parishes in this part of the county don’t consider his parish to be truly Catholic. When he expressed dismay about this judgment, I responded, “We consider that place to be more of a cult than a church.”
Rivalries between pastors, and between parishes, are nothing new. Every pastor is thoroughly convinced that his parish is the only one worth joining. In our diocese those sorts of rivalries tend to be light-hearted because, although every parish is different, all pastors face the same kinds of challenges. Joking one-up-man-ship can be an entertaining form of camaraderie as long as it’s not taken too seriously. There is, however, a huge difference between witticism and ridicule.
It is very easy to cross the line between drollness and denigration. This is true even with regard to serious matters of faith, and St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians has a stark warning for those who are tempted to cross that line. He wrote, “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
There was boasting occurring in the church community at Galatia, and it wasn’t friendly banter. The church community to which this letter was written was experiencing a serious challenge to its unity and faith. Paul had founded the church in Galatia during his second missionary journey. At some point after Paul departed, a group of itinerant preachers arrived who tried to convince the Galatians that Paul had preached an incomplete Gospel. These itinerants told the Galatians that they could not truly participate in the Baptismal covenant until they had become members of the Mosaic Covenant.
Paul responded to this novelty by writing, “circumcision has no more merit than the lack of circumcision; salvation comes solely from being made a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15) The “new creation” to which Paul referred is the new life offered through baptism into the death of Jesus. The Galatians who had embraced the novel teaching began to boast about their “higher” degree of faithfulness to God. Paul pointed out that to boast about anything but the divine benevolence poured out in the death of Jesus amounted to turning one’s back on God.
Boasting, of course, is not the same as faithlessness. Boasting is a symptom of self-righteousness. To boast about personal accomplishments, even when they occur in secular activities, is the equivalent of denying God who makes all good things possible. It was the self-righteousness of some of the Galatians that led them to boast, and pre-disposed them to the sin of faithlessness. Their tendency toward faithlessness was expressed in boasting, and for this reason Paul warned them to boast of nothing but the Cross of Christ.
The self-serving boasting that occasioned the Letter to the Galatians is still with us. There are Catholics who brag that Catholicism is superior to other Christian religions because Catholicism has the Sacraments, the Pope, etc., as if the Sacraments and the Pope were possessions to be coveted. There are Catholics who become much too pleased with their personal piety, their devotional practices, their individual accomplishments or their charitable actions, as if these were the result of their own righteousness.
Just as with the Galatians, any boasting we allow ourselves can quickly become a rejection of the Cross of Jesus. In the Gospel, Jesus warned the seventy-two disciples not to rejoice about their personal successes, but rejoice over God’s mercy. (Luke 10:20) Personal virtue, when publicized, becomes vice. Our virtue is safeguarded only when we focus on God, give God the credit for our blessings and give God thanks for God’s mercy.
Instead of bragging about “having” the Eucharist, we should rather let the Eucharist have us – in the sense of letting Jesus’ self-sacrifice represented in the Eucharist become the pattern of our lives and the inspiration for on-going repentance. Instead of bragging about having the Pope, we should lead lives that would make the Pope brag about the good works God has accomplished in us. Instead of being impressed with our personal accomplishments or our personal devotion, we should allow ourselves to be impressed again each day by God’s mercy.
Despite the claims of a few misguided individuals in Galatia, Paul preached the entire and complete Gospel of salvation: the good news that by the death of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, we are saved from our faithlessness, our self-righteousness and even ourselves. If there is anything in that about which to boast, it is the fact that God loves the world so much that God has revealed the unadulterated truth about human existence, namely, that we are saved and forgiven when we allow God’s Grace to make of us a new creation in Christ.