The Gospel reading on Tuesday of this week, the Memorial of St. Anthony of Padua, was from Matthew 5:13–16. In this reading, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord tells his hearers, “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
This seemed a providential Gospel for the day before the USCCB’s spring assembly began. As shepherds of the faithful, they are commissioned to guide the Church in shining the light so that the world will find its way and glorify God.
The Church called is to show others the way of peaceful and joyful living, by living out the the teachings of Our Lord. Our neighbors will pay attention and praise God who is goodness itself.
What good works could we possibly perform? The rest of the Sermon on the Mount outlines that agenda. Forgive debts (cf. Mt 6:12). Reconcile with adversaries before going to court (cf. Mt 5:25). Address the roots of anger (cf. Mt 5:22–24) and marital infidelity (cf. Mt 5:27–28). Be generous with your time and service to others (cf. Mt 7:12). Don’t retaliate (cf. Mt 5:38–42). Pray, fast, and give alms for their own sake, not to get congratulations (cf. Mt 6:1–8,16–18). Don’t condemn other people (cf. Mt 7:1–2). Understand that a tree is known by its fruits, not by titles or station in life (cf. Mt 7:16–20).
Jesus affirms that people who live like this will set an example for others, who will glorify God.
Living this supernaturally good life brings happiness to others. People feel a sense of relief and delight when their debts are forgiven, helped by their neighbors, and not condemned. Disputes get resolved, marriages thrive, and neighbors get along with one another. All that goes beyond the usual — in Jesus’ day and in ours.
The early disciples were Jews living in a Hellenized society under Roman occupation. Debtors’ prison was a daily possibility, as was indiscriminate harassment by military authorities. Jesus asserts that following his teachings would help keep folks out of prison by settling debts and maintaining a community’s harmony. It isn’t hard to imagine someone resolving their debt crisis and exclaiming, “Thank God!”
A self-referential faith performs good works to draw attention to itself, and those “good works” might have little resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount. So often at Mass, someone will announce some good works the parish or the Church at large has done. People will applaud and agree that this indicates the Church is making the world a better place.
At their biannual meetings, we typically see bishops celebrating their initiatives, programs, and legislative victories. They will announce all the good they’ve accomplished. Of course, reporting on the progress of programs is necessary, but there is always a risk of this becoming a self-congratulatory salute or a living reenactment of a story Jesus told “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” (Lk 18:9).
Two men went to the temple to pray. The first one felt pretty good about himself. He “stood up and said this prayer to himself: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and pay tithes on all my income.’” He performed a lot of good works, but he prayed to himself and condemned the other man who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk 18:11–12).
Sadly, there is very little praising God in society at large for the works that the Church regularly performs. In fact, it’s typically the opposite. Corruption, political partisanship, and antagonism toward Pope Francis have brought disrepute upon the Church and distracts from the good works it does perform in the world.
How might the Church regain its credibility?
The US bishops have apparently written a playbook and picked their three favorite plays. The first is to claim the Church is under attack. This rallies the troops, places blame for internal problems on outside agitators, and justifies retaliatory attacks. The second is to launch a counteroffensive against perceived political and social opponents. Unfortunately, this play widens social divisions, foments anger, and makes reconciliation more difficult to achieve. The third play is new: invest heavily on a national Eucharistic Revival, complete with four cross-country processions of the Blessed Sacrament with the help of “a support vehicle for legs of the journey in which safety, terrain, and/or climate may present obstacles.” It will all culminate with a Eucharistic Congress in the summer of 2024. Why not? The eight Eucharistic congresses held in the US between 1895 and 1941 and the one held in 1976 seemed to have a positive impact, so maybe the next one will save the Church from falling into complete irrelevancy, right?
We can’t predict the future, but given the situation today it seems unlikely that many people, especially non-Catholics, will look at these efforts and glorify our heavenly Father. There seems to be a real risk of perpetuating what Pope Francis describes as a “self-referential” Church. After all, none of it resembles the Sermon on the Mount.
Maybe there’s another way. Perhaps Church leaders could shift their emphasis to prayerfully discerning ways to renew the Church through an imaginative implementation of the Sermon on the Mount. Maybe they could model this renewal after the US Church’s holy and commendable work on behalf of migrants and refugees.
A focus on the Sermon on the Mount might involve finding ways to provide debt relief and rent relief for people living in and near poverty. The Church could become open to learning from and partnering with non-Catholic organizations that work for social justice — even if our beliefs aren’t in alignment on every issue. The US Church could focus its institutional strength to lobby more diligently for peace in the world and for solutions to end gun violence domestically. The US Church could begin to take seriously Pope Francis’s call to care for our Common Home, and become leading voices in the movement to address climate change.
Rather than prioritizing outward acts of protest and pageantry, renewal of the US Church must begin with the will to true conversion, which Pope Francis says “becomes tangible in the response to the love of God that is received and accepted. It is a correspondence that manifests itself in the change of life and in the works of mercy that follow on from this.” Francis reminded us, when reflecting on the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery (cf. Jn 8:1–11), that “Every true conversion is oriented toward a new future, a new life, a beautiful life, a life free from sin, a generous life.” It is in the outward sign of true conversion, good works and acts of charity, that allow the Church to, as Pope Benedict put it, to grow by attraction.
True, you can find many in the US Church who are already actively engaged in good works and works of mercy, but you would not know this from the issues at the center of the Church’s actions in the public square. It seems that the bulk of our county’s bishops tend to be focused outward — responding to perceived threats against the Church and engaging in the never-ending culture war. If the bishops’ conference truly wants people to look at the Church’s and be inspired to glorify God, it must transform what it has been doing for nearly a generation and instead seek the conversion that is necessary to let the light shine. This is the way to help people take notice and say, “Thank God.”
Image: Screenshot of US bishops in Orlando.
Kevin Beck is a former educator who lives in Colorado Springs with his family. After being diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder, he began writing on disability, grief and the intersection of disability and faith.