Friday, March 6, 2015

Precepts of the Church: Is Getting Our Foot in the Door Enough?

When we receive the sealing of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation, we are expected to know and live by the precepts of the Church. I was not as interested in the details of our faith when I was younger, so it's possible I missed this, but I don't remember hearing any mention of this growing up and I'd venture a guess that many of you have also not heard this.
Why are these precepts important? If we turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Church tells us that these precepts are obligatory, not because it wants to control, but because they constitute the minimum participation in the moral and sacramental life of the Church, both of which depend on and increase the other. 

The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor (CCC, 2041).


In other words, these precepts are the Church's definition of our minimum encounter with the One Triune God. That's right, minimum contact with the source of all Grace. Minimum.

The reason I stress this word, "minimum" is because I find it amazing that, having come to know the great power and justice of God, and yet, experiencing the eternally life-saving gift of His mercy, why would we be satisfied with the least amount of contact to keep us spiritually alive? Did Jesus come to give us life to the bare minimum? No, He came, "that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jhn 10:10).

The Church's precepts, so that we can know and live them better are:

You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation, and rest from servile labor.
Attending Mass on Sundays and holy days is a gift from God, in which we can thank Him for His blessings and mercy. Most importantly, we enter into the reality of being united with Christ in the Eucharist, which remits venial sin and gives the grace we need to conform our hearts to His. Resting from unnecessary work not only acknowledges God's providential care, but it also eliminates whatever may prevent us from honoring Him and His original covenant with Creation, which began on the seventh day and was fulfilled on the day of Christ's Resurrection.

You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
No one likes to admit fault or feel shame. I get it. We know, however, that, "nothing unclean shall enter [Heaven]" (Rev 21:27). With few exceptions, it is assumed that we are still sinners when we die. If nothing unclean enters into the presence of the King, what hope do we have? Grace. Grace is a gift, given by God to create hearts conformed to His Son for our perfection and (eventual) union with Him. Let's break that down, shall we.

The state of grace we refer to, as Catholics, is a state of cleanliness of the soul. Each person is given a soul, as well as the choices in life to keep that soul in good working order. As with a home, the lack of constant upkeep results in an ever-deteriorating home, leading to an eventual compromise in the stability and integrity of the home, dangerous territory. Therefore, we are given the opportunity, through the sacrifice of Christ and our participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to reconcile ourselves to God, cleaning our souls of unnecessary and damaging garbage.

When the soul is full of garbage, it lacks room for the Spirit, so being in a state of sin means there is so much garbage, the Spirit is limited in His ability to work in our lives. The reason this is important, is that entrance into the Kingdom requires a heart turned entirely toward Him, working completely with His will. I don't do that perfectly, and I'd gather that neither do most people. This isn't accomplished by brute force of the will, but rather, by active cooperation with the grace and plan made available by Christ's Resurrection.

In turning our eyes, hearts, and wills toward God, we invite the Holy Spirit into every corner of our souls to fill them with light and joy, even in the darkest recesses of pain and suffering, replacing the effects of sin with healing. When a soul is called into God's presence, and its interior is clean and lit up by the Spirit, the Father and Son, recognizing the third Triune Person, will joyfully receive that soul, pure and lit by the Spirit, into the Divine Life.

You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
We know that the Eucharist is important; it is Jesus Christ, substantially present in the form of bread and wine, given "for the forgiveness of sins" (Mat 26:28). The Catechism, quoting the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, declares this Sacrament as the "source and summit of the Christian life," and that, "The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch" (CCC 1324). In the Eucharist, we experience a small participation in the Beatific Vision, the full union with God. It is our invitation, as His sons and daughters, to be in the presence of the King.

You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
People do tend to associate fasting and abstinence with Catholics, and while our faith is much more than that, we should be proud to be people who hold up self-control and sacrificial love as virtues. The world today, and frankly, in any age, does not value selflessness. This world only lasts for its time, and its children, who are not the children of God, also believe they last only for a time, so it only makes sense that, from their nihilist worldvie
w, a self-serving hedonism should not be far behind. We, who are called to be light to a darkened world, must be the contrast, greater in magnitude than the darkness of sin and the rejection of God.

We accomplish this by periodically denying ourselves the comforts of the senses, so that we may realize that they are not the good, but only a good, and a gift from God, not gods to be served. We also experience the height of glory, when we sacrifice any part of our life for love of God and neighbor because we unite ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ, in which He first, is glorified for His obedience.

You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.
There are always the accusations against the Church that she is greedy and therefore, wealthy. It would surprise many to hear that the Church does so much with its "wealth", in the U.S. in particular, for example, hospitals and health care, homes for the elderly and ill, adoption services, Catholic schools, mission work in poor neighborhoods, rescue programs for victims of human trafficking, etc. Yet, all of these programs, with very high efficiency rates, are funded by American Catholics who donate, on average, only one percent of their income, and the higher percentage donors tend to be among the lower income brackets. The nature of the Gospel and the Christian life is always missionary, and when we provide for the needs of the Church, who serves the world, we provide, through the body of Christ, for the world.

This is why the Church's mission derives not only from the Lord's mandate but also from the profound demands of God's life within us. Those who are incorporated in the Catholic Church ought to sense their privilege and for that very reason their greater obligation of bearing witness to the faith and to the Christian life as a service to their brothers and sisters and as a fitting response to God. They should be ever mindful that "they owe their distinguished status not to their own merits but to Christ's special grace; and if they fail to respond to this grace in thought, word and deed, not only will they not be saved, they will be judged more severely."
St. John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio, quoting Lumen Gentium, 14


If we look through Sacred Scripture, we don't have to go far to find the right order of the use of our blessings. In Genesis 4, we see that Cain made an offering to God, but that Abel's offering was preferred because it was from his "firstlings." Abel gave God His portion before taking his own part of what was originally a gift from God to begin with. We see Abraham present the first tithe of ten percent of everything to the king of Salem, Melchizedek in Heb 7:1-2. Many people believe that Jesus essentially bagged this practice by not reaffirming it, but that's not only a very poor argument, it also poorly reflects His teaching, which asked those who would follow Him to give out of their poverty, "[their] whole living" (Mk 12:44). The early Church did exactly this when the people "had everything in common," selling their goods and providing for each, according to their needs (Act 2:44-45). If we are all members of the one Body, with Christ as its head, why wouldn't we be willing to sacrifice to be sure the entire Body works well? If one's whole body is hampered by a poor-working eye or leg, the entire body suffers. Is there anything we have that is so important, and to which, we are so entitled, that we are willing to cripple the Body of Christ? It may sound silly, but it really is that simple...if not as easy.

These precepts are short and simple, but they provide a basic map of the most basic way to encounter the living God. When we set out on a vacation or to explore a mountain path, do we only want to "get there and back," or is our experience and our whole life not greatly enriched by the many more experiences, memories, and blessings we gain by taking advantage of even the smallest of opportunities? None of us would encourage our children to do the bare minimum in school or spend the least amount of effort and time to keep our marriages alive, so why would we think we should do only the minimum when it comes to our relationship and our journey toward our greatest love, God Himself?

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