With some regularity people tell me that they have difficulty understanding religion. Each time I hear this sort of comment I’m a little surprised by it. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.
There are certainly a lot of opinions about how to practice Catholicism. Popular piety is a good example of this diversity of opinion. There was a time when almost every Catholic wore the brown scapular; today, many Catholics don’t know what that is. The brown scapular was replaced by the Miraculous Medal. The Miraculous Medal was replaced by several Marian apparitions. The Benedictine Cross was popular briefly, and then fell out of favor. Which one is the right one? If there is a right one, does that make all the others wrong?
In addition to popular piety, Catholicism has myriad prayers and devotions. There are prayers and devotions addressed to every known Saint and Deity, and then some. A random selection of those could occupy a person’s every waking hour. There are other complicated things about Catholicism. Many people seem to worry about the possibility of eternal salvation for themselves or their loved ones. Others obsess about Catholic rituals as if there is some magical power in the Sacraments. I’m going to try to un-complicate Catholicism for you, but be forewarned, it might not work.
Today’s Gospel reading contains a story so familiar to us that we probably don’t notice how strange an event it was. Jesus was walking along the lake shore. He called four men; they followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22) We’ve heard this story so many times that we know the outcome even before the story is read in its entirety. Wasn’t that a curious thing for those fishermen to do? The men left behind their families and everything familiar to them. If any of our acquaintances did such a thing we might think they’d lost their minds.
One explanation given for this surprising act on the part of the fishermen suggests that this event happened during the dry season when fishing would not have been productive. I don’t find this explanation particularly satisfying. A slow season is insufficient reason to abandon one’s livelihood. Of course, the fishermen’s reward for their precipitous decision was that they came to live in the company of the incarnate Word of God. However, on the day they followed Jesus, they had no way of knowing the outcome of their lives. We know the outcome, but only in retrospect, and only because the Gospel stories are so familiar.
Ponder, for a moment, what would make you leave behind your life’s work and plans, to begin something completely new? The choice by those four fishermen to leave everything to follow Jesus was an extraordinary event. Jesus must have had a very compelling personality. Despite the potential darkness of embarking on an uncertain endeavor, Jesus was truly a ray of light for those men. (Matthew 4:16) I suggest to you that this is a good example and metaphor for the practice of religion.
Jesus preached the necessity of faith in God, and loyalty to his personal teachings. He described this life of faith and discipleship as leaving darkness behind in order live in the light. (Matthew 5:14-16) Practicing the Catholic religion requires no more, and no less, than acknowledging Jesus to be the light of the world, and then following him by imitating his life.
A few disciples are called to a radical application of this principle. A few of the baptized are called to live monastic or eremitic lifestyles. Some are called to be clergy or religious. Most of the baptized, however, are called to live according to Jesus’ teachings while pursuing a typical life in secular society. For all of us, the only thing that is required is that we follow Jesus in the same manner that his first disciples did. For every baptized person, discipleship requires a radical change of heart, and a single-hearted choice to follow Jesus.
I don’t think it really matters which, if any, prayers and devotions you choose to practice. The only thing that really matters is that those practices actually help you follow Jesus. With regard to anyone’s eternal salvation, if you are following Jesus daily, there is no need for concern about anything. (Matthew 6:25-34) Catholicism is, I think, rather uncomplicated. Catholicism is a call by God for us to follow, and a means for us to be faithful to this call. The only thing required of us is that we follow Jesus.
I warned you above that my attempt to un-complicate Catholicism might not work. The warning was given for one, simple reason: there are many options available that allow us to walk in darkness, while there is only one option available for walking in the light. Familiarity with the words of the Gospels can be a help to prayer, but it can also lead to the darkness of complacency. To assume that we understand all that the Scriptures say is to preclude the possibility of hearing God speak in our daily lives. Familiarity with Catholic beliefs and practices can support one’s growth in faith, or it can lead to the darkness of assuming that one is in control of one’s own eternal destiny.
The only path of faith is to follow Jesus, with complete abandon, that is, to abandon our attempts to create our own light in the darkness, and to follow the light of Jesus. Jesus invited the four fishermen, and many others, to follow him. Those who followed found a path to God. Through this Gospel passage, Jesus issues the same invitation to you today.
A life of holiness, justice and peace is no more, or less, complicated than making the extraordinary choice to follow Jesus. Will you do the extraordinary? Will you follow him? Being a disciple of Jesus is not merely an alternative to the many ways in which our lives can be overshadowed by death; it is the only possibility for living in the light. (Matthew 4:16)