Two years ago, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll and found that barely 1/3 of self-described Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This realization that most of those who identify themselves as Catholics do not believe in a core doctrine of the Catholic Church, the teaching that, at the words of consecration, the bread and wine on the altar cease to be bread and wine and become the Body and Blood of Jesus.
The discovery that this essential belief of the Catholic Church is barely known and widely disbelieved galvanized the Church in the United States to begin a Eucharistic Revival, a period of study, prayer, and evangelization to breathe into flame this essential teaching and source of grace in the Church.
When I first read the articles about this poll, the thought that came into my mind was, “And how many Catholics believe in the graces of Baptism?” Baptism is the first sacrament, the foundation for receiving all the others. It is the sacrament of initiation and opens the door to the supernatural life of grace as a member of the Church. It enables us to share in the life of God Himself, but how many of us believe that? How many of us see Baptism as the beginning of a new, supernatural life, and how many of us see it simply as a rite of initiation, similar to the Rite of Passage in the military? Is it something that changes the person, or simply something that changes the person’s external situation?
The Church teaches that “by virtue of our Baptism, the first sacrament of the faith, the Holy Spirit in the Church communicates to us, intimately and personally, the life that originates in the Father and is offered to us in the Son.”[i] We can spend our whole life discovering what this means and how we are to live it. Here, I simply want to focus on one aspect of Baptism, and that is how we come to receive it.
This is important because in order to receive Baptism, we must ask for it. Someone in danger of death can be given Baptism, but this is a rarity. Normally, the person who is to be baptized must make a request. In the case of infant baptism, the godparents make the request on behalf of the child. The request is very simple: the priest asks the person who presents himself for baptism, “What do you ask of God’s Church?”
I come to the baptismal font with a request. There is something I want that I believe only the Church can give me. I come as a needy person, as a beggar who needs something that I do not have and cannot get by myself. This is the essential attitude of one who comes for baptism, and it is a very blessed attitude, for Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[ii]
I come as a beggar, and I am given a kingdom. This Beatitude is the first, and, like Baptism, the source of all the others because, in asking, I show that I am open to receive. Only those whose hands are not full have space within them to receive what God longs to give us.
This openness to receive, this poverty of spirit that characterizes Baptism, is the framework for the whole life in the Church. “What do you have that you did not receive?”[iii] Unlike Adam and Eve, who didn’t trust God’s willingness to give and who stretched out their hands to take what they wanted, in asking for Baptism, I imitate Jesus who, as the Son of God, receives everything from His Father. As the God-made-man, He receives His humanity from His Mother. He said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,”[iv] yet He received all that He is from others.
Mary herself was totally open to receiving all that God wanted to give her. She accepted a vocation she had not foreseen, and she trusted in God to lead her through that vocation at every moment. Receiving from another demands trust, and trust is not easy.
A story goes that a man posted an announcement that on a certain day at a certain time, he would cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He arrived at the spot and found the tightrope in place and a large crowd waiting to watch him.
“How many of you believe that I can do this?” he asked, and no one answered.
He stepped on the tightrope, walked across to the other side, turned, and walked back.
“I will now ride across the tightrope on a bicycle,” he announced, and again asked, “How many of you believe that I can do this?” Again, there was no reply.
He got on the bicycle, rode across the tightrope to the other side, dismounted, turned around, and rode back.
“Now I will ride across the tightrope on a unicycle. How many of you believe that I can do this?” Still, no one said anything. He straddled the unicycle, rode across, turned, and rode back.
“Finally, I will push a wheelbarrow across the tightrope. Do any of you believe that I can do that?”
This time there was a roar of approval from the crowd, and he smiled and said, “Good! Who will get into the wheelbarrow?”
Being open to receive from another means being dependent on that person. Being open to what God wants to give us means being dependent on God. What God gives is always freely given, given gratis, and that is why all His gifts are graces. That is why the poor in spirit are blessed: they accept to be dependent on God and so can be filled with His grace.
There are many different ways of being dependent on God. Much depends on the vocation to which He calls you. A diocesan priest is dependent on his bishop for assigning him his ministry. Religious men and women are dependent on their superiors in a similar way. They are also dependent on their superiors for the goods they use. I “have the use” of the computer on which I am writing this, but I don’t own it. By my solemn vow of poverty, I give up the possibility of owning or controlling anything. If I sign a contract to write a book without my Prioress’s permission, my signature is invalid. (Mike Lewis has a copy of my Prioress’s letter giving me permission to submit articles to Where Peter Is.)
It is this total dependence on God that challenged the rich young man beyond what he was willing to give. We know the story well. As Jesus was setting out on a journey, “a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” [v]
The challenge was not just to give up what he had and become poor; the challenge was to become dependent on another.
There are many ways to depend on God. Only some people are called to the kind of dependence demanded by a vow of poverty. Married couples and single persons will be called to other forms of dependence. One of the most courageous acts of dependence I know of was made by Scott and Kimberly Hahn. Kimberly describes it in their shared autobiography, Rome Sweet Home: “As evangelical Protestants, Scott and I took Christ’s lordship over our lives very seriously. In terms of money, we tithed regularly no matter how tight funds were because we wanted to be good stewards of the money he had put in our care. Over and over we had seen the Lord meet our needs beyond what we had given to him. In terms of time, we honored the Lord’s Day, setting aside our studies, which were our work, even if we had exams on Monday. Many times over, the Lord blessed us with that day off, and we aced every exam we took on Mondays.”[vi] I don’t know about you, but I cringe when I think of the trust it took not to study for an exam scheduled for the next day. To trust God with material things is one matter. To trust Him with my brain, that it will work adequately, is quite another!
But there is more: the question of birth control: “But our bodies? Our fertility? Did Christ’s lordship extend that far? Then I read 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: ‘You are not your own. You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your bodies.’ Perhaps it was more of an American attitude than a godly one to think of our fertility as something for us to control as we deemed best. Did our use of birth control demonstrate faithfully living out the lordship of Jesus Christ?”[vii]
It would take time and much prayer for them to answer this question. Ultimately, “when Scott and I discussed it, he agreed that he, too, was convicted against contraception; however, he suggested that perhaps we could just put our contraceptives on the shelf, just in case we changed our minds. I felt that would be too much of a temptation to go back on our convictions. So together we threw the birth control out and began a new level of trusting God with our lives and our fertility.”[viii]
It takes a great deal of trust in God to get into His wheelbarrow and let Him take me where He wills. But it opens me to His grace, and, as Elizabeth said of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed!”[ix]
[i] “Catechism of the Catholic Church” #683
[ii] Matt. 5, 3
[iii] 1 Cor. 4, 7
[iv] Act. 20, 35
[v] Mk 10, 17-22
[vi] “Rome Sweet Home” Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1993 p. 36
[viii] Idem. P. 40
[ix] Lk 1, 45
Image: Adobe Stock. By freshidea.
Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.