Most Rev. Alexander SampleArchbishop of Portland
I hope our readers will pardon a little wading into the Code of Canon Law, the system of law that governs the Catholic Church. I can’t help it — after all, I am a trained canon lawyer! Jesus teaches us in the Gospel that the two greatest commandments are love of God and love of neighbor, for sure.
But what is the greatest love we show for God and neighbor? Is it not to see as many people as possible, including ourselves, come to know the love and mercy of God and be with him one day forever in heaven?
The Church’s Code of Canon Law contains 1,752 laws covering everything from the structural organization of the Church as the people of God, the teaching of the Faith, the sacramental life of the Church, the administration of the material goods of the Church, and even penal and procedural law. But lest any of us (especially canon lawyers) forget the purpose of all of this body of law, the very last law (or “canon”) states that the “salvation of souls”, which must always be the supreme law of the Church, must be kept before our eyes.
The salvation of souls. How often do we hear this language in the Church today? Not very often, I am afraid. And yet that is the very mission of the Church! To emphasize this very point, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (# 776), quoting the Second Vatican Council, states: “As sacrament, the Church is Christ’s instrument. ‘She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all,’ ‘the universal sacrament of salvation,’ by which Christ is ‘at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God’s love for men.’ The Church ‘is the visible plan of God’s love for humanity,’ because God desires ‘that the whole human race may become one People of God, form one Body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit.’”
Why am I emphasizing this point, you may ask? Because I sincerely think that we are in danger of losing our focus in fulfilling the mission that Christ has entrusted to all of us in the Church. Our ultimate mission is to bring as many people as possible into the one People of God, to incorporate them into the one Body of Christ, and be built up as the temple of God, animated by the Holy Spirit. The gift of eternal salvation is the greatest gift God has given to us, a gift that was purchased at a great price, the blood of his only begotten Son.
Jesus began his public ministry by boldly proclaiming, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” His last words to the Apostles of his Church before his Ascension were, “Go forth and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The message is clear. Repent, believe, go forth and baptize. The essential mission is spiritual, focused on bringing people to life in Christ.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus speaks of the dangers of losing the gift of salvation, missing the moment of his redemption, and risking eternal punishment by rejecting the offer God has given us in the death and resurrection of his Son. One of Jesus’ most startling statements is: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
It seems our current environment cultivates the opposite view. Our culture seems to tell us that the way to life is easy and wide, and most people find it, while to find the road to destruction is narrow and hard, and really very few people end up there. I go by our blessed Lord’s words.
Part of the reason I think that we are in danger of losing the essential and primary message of salvation of souls is based on how I see many people defining what it means to be a good Catholic. Many people have reduced being a good and faithful Catholic to being nice, tolerant and doing good works. They think if we do service projects for the poor and needy, and don’t make any judgments about human behavior and sin, then we are fulfilling the Gospel mandate.
While it is a good and even essential thing that a disciple of Jesus care for the poor and seek justice for the oppressed in this world, there is so much more to the message of redemption in Jesus Christ. We must follow the Ten Commandments, avoid sin, and repent and seek forgiveness when we fail. Our eternal salvation depends on all these things, as Jesus himself taught. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
God’s mercy extends to all of us when we have sinned and repented. There is no limit to this mercy. It is infinite. But we must seek it. If we say we are not sinners and are not in need of God’s mercy, we make God a liar. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:5-10)
True mercy goes beyond justice. But mercy does not oppose justice. Our mission is, only by the grace of God, to seek the salvation of our souls, and to bring as many with us to Heaven as we can, again only as God uses us as his instruments of grace and mercy. The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls.
In the Liturgy, the priest brings souls to Christ. The priest offers up to God the prayers of the people. Through him, the priest, Christ becomes present in the Holy Eucharist. In the world, we lay faithful, a priestly people (CCC 781 - 810), are called to bring Christ to people and people to Christ. Through each faithful disciple, Christ becomes present to others. We see this most clearly in the witness of the saints, especially the martyr saints who image most beautifully the love of Christ. The saints are icons of Christ.
In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying, and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world.
They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ.—Blessed Pope Paul VI, Apostolicam Actuositatem (1965).
At all times, let us strive to radiate the joy and goodness of the Holy Gospel. Let each stone in the temple of God, the Church (1 Peter 2:4-6), be a living witness, a faithful witness, a joy-filled witness to the saving Truth of the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us seek to be holy in speech and deed. May we be docile to the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.