Several months ago, a fellow approached me with an oft-repeated question about religion. He had been raised in a Pentecostal Christian denomination but was no longer comfortable with that religious experience. He had married a Catholic and attended Sunday Mass but found the ritual rather overwhelming. He was struggling with his relationship to organized religion and asked, “How can one know which is the right religion?”
My response to the man’s question probably wasn’t what he expected. I said, “The right religion is the one that makes you into a decent human being.” It might seem that little or no help should be needed in order to be a decent human being but the evidence indicates the contrary.
Recently, an automobile driver, who fled after being stopped by police, called the police station to taunt the police about their failure to capture him. He is convinced that his current incarceration is unjust; in his mind, he’s a good person. I’m certain that the man who shot a dozen of his co-workers in Virginia Beach last week thinks that he’s a good person. Everyone who has ever told a lie, gossiped, stolen someone else’s property, betrayed trust, committed murder, or started a war thinks that he or she was doing the right thing. These people, like almost everyone else, have complete faith in their own goodness; they are completely mistaken in that judgment.
All people are born with the capacity and desire to be good but no one is born a fully formed good person. Individuals become good or bad as a result of the many factors that influence the development of character. Religion is an activity that exists in order to help people become decent human beings.
If you think this definition of religion is a little too worldly or ephemeral, please keep in mind how Catholicism views human nature. Catholicism sees all human knowledge as the result of sensory experience. Nothing can be known except through the sensory experiences of seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing. Language, moral values, cultural practices, academics, and religious faith are communicated by means of sensory experience. Specifically, with regard to religious experience, one’s capacity to place one’s faith, hope, and love in God depends one’s prior experience of human trust and affection.
Jesus’ disciples, gathered in a locked room in today’s Gospel reading, considered themselves to be good men but they were mistaken. Up to and including the moment that they abandoned and betrayed Jesus they would have protested their innocence and basic goodness. Late in life, however, they learned what it meant to become decent human beings.
A decent human being repents of his or her selfishness and injustice, and avoids repeating those sins. A decent human being is generous in forgiving her or his persecutors. A decent human being trusts fully in God and can be trusted fully by others.
On the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples learned that the goodness each person seeks can be found only through personal experience of the Risen Lord. They saw, touched, and heard Jesus after his Resurrection; it was only because of those experiences that they repented and then believed.
Today, we celebrate Pentecost, the event that marked the beginning of the Church and the Church’s mission. On Pentecost, the first disciples experienced what St. Paul eventually wrote about, namely, that we are made righteous by the new life given to us in Baptism into Jesus’s death. (Rom. 8:10) For this reason, I contend that Catholicism, as lived and preached by the disciples who were eye-witnesses to the Resurrection, is the “right religion.” Catholicism neither requires nor recommends moral perfection. Rather, Catholicism teaches that being a decent human being is the result of being transformed by one’s personal experience of the resurrected Jesus.
At the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation this weekend, the prayer during the imposition of hands asks the following for those being confirmed: “Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.” Traditionally, these are called the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. These spiritual gifts are the perceptible evidence that one has been transformed by faith in the Resurrection; they are the substance of what it means to live a decent life. By the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, God offers the transformative power of these gifts to anyone who will accept them. The goodness that all people desire and seek is fully possible, but only for those who practice the “right religion,” the religion that teaches one to abandon faith in one’s own goodness and put one’s faith in the resurrected Lord.