The editorial of the month

Father Sebastian White, o.p.

by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

Fifteen years ago in a little seaside town north of Boston someone handed me a small glossy booklet. It resisted easy definition—smaller but thicker than a typical magazine, more elegant than your usual missalette, and clearly not a book. “Whatever it is,” I thought, “I like it. It’s nice to hold, beautiful, and it can help me participate in Mass. It will help me pray.”

That was roughly what I thought the first time I saw Magnificat: here’s something that helps us live a Catholic life. Conveniently, my friend Tom had a bunch of old copies. “We just can’t bring ourselves to throw them away each month,” his wife Lovelace explained one day. A bookshelf in the cellar served as the archive, as I recall, almost as if they were so many bottles of wine, but with the strange quality of being best preserved after consumption.

At the time I was just beginning to discover the Catholic Faith. Though I had been baptized as an infant at our local Catholic parish in Maine, soon after my family had gotten involved in a Protestant community. When I went off to college and was on my own—that mythical state every eighteen-year-old imagines to be life’s summit—I began the bewildering search for the right place to worship each week. Every denomination was on the table.

But I had been, in truth, a Catholic since I was a month old and that baptismal grace reared its head. A more earnest searching and deeper questioning began. So in the fall of 2003, ink barely dry on my college diploma, I registered for yet another class. But instead of an economics textbook I was reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church; rather than a classroom crowded with desks in Frost Hall, I was sitting in RCIA at Saint Mary, Star of the Sea in Beverly, Massachusetts.

A few liturgical seasons later, at the Easter Vigil of 2004—that splendid Mass Saint Augustine called “the Mother of all holy vigils”—I received the Sacrament of Confirmation and my first Holy Communion. My parents rejoiced with me that evening, having returned to the Catholic Faith some weeks before. Tom, who had given me that old copy of Magnificat, was my sponsor.

What it means to be a Christian

In December 1964, long before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger preached a sermon to college students in Germany. “Being a Christian,” he began, “means having love. That is unbelievably difficult and, at the same time, incredibly simple. Yet however difficult it may be in many respects, discovering this is still a profoundly liberating experience.”

It is unbelievably difficult because, deep down, we believe having love means earning love, being loved because of who we are or what we’ve done. Because the mercy of God is “an abyss beyond our comprehension,” as Pope Francis has said, we easily fall into a kind of slavery, thinking that “unless we are strong, attractive, and beautiful, then no one will take care of us.”

But Christianity reveals—and this is the incredibly simple part—we are loved because of who God is. And that is a much, much better arrangement, for God is good, infinite, and eternal, which means he never changes. God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). So why fear offering him our neediness and even our failures? Why worry that he gives up on us when God is love (1 Jn 4:8)?

The young Father Ratzinger knew that many would hold an objection: priests and theologians have come up with intolerant dogma, they have “constructed a doctrine of Christ…instead of urging people to love, they have demanded belief and made being a Christian depend on a confession of faith.”

It is true. Being a Christian depends on a confession of faith. After all, we recite an ancient Creed every Sunday. But confessing the Catholic Faith is not a boring recitation of company policy, like the notices one sees in the staff room, or even, important as it is, a flight attendant’s speech about emergency procedures (which never seems to provoke the slightest interest in anyone around me). The first is a legal pronouncement of rights and obligations, the second applicable in only the rarest of circumstances and thus barely relevant, we assume.

What it means to have faith

But we do not follow cleverly devised myths (2 Pt 1:16). In confessing the Catholic Faith we confess a coherent, reliable, beautiful, complete, saving reality. Practicing this faith liberates us from the exhausting and futile effort to make ourselves good, or the illusion that by ourselves we already are. As Ratzinger said to those students, “what faith basically means is just that this shortfall that we all have in our love is made up by the surplus of Jesus Christ’s love, acting on our behalf. He simply tells us that God himself has poured out among us a superabundance of his love and has thus made good in advance all our deficiency. Ultimately, faith means nothing other than admitting that we have this kind of shortfall; it means opening our hand and accepting a gift.” In Pope Francis’ words, “God does not even tie his benevolence to our conversion; if anything this is a consequence of God’s love.”

Advent and Christmas come as an annual wake-up call to live squarely within the superabundance, the “incomprehensible abyss,” of God’s love—which means not uncomprehensible but endlessly comprehensible. In heaven, our whole heart’s longing to love and be loved will be so blissfully complete that “the joy of that instant will never pass away. Its newness, its freshness, will be eternally present” (Father Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, o.p.).

Fifteen years ago I would have lost a lot of money had I bet on where God would lead me: the religious life, the priesthood, and now the Magnificat family. But then God has a habit of exceeding our wildest imaginings: the Virgin conceives, the Word becomes flesh, and we become like God (cf. 1 Jn 3:2). What a grace it is to know what it means to be a Christian