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By Benedict Augustine
By Benedict Augustine
“And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
A few years ago after our graduate class on St. Augustine’s Confessions had concluded for that evening, I talked with my friend about converting to Catholicism. He was a Calvinist Reformed Baptist Protestant, but he had a special affinity for St. Augustine and seemed to tolerate my thoughts of religion well enough whenever we discussed it. I brought up this fact to him, and asked him why he had not considered converting.
I expected some reply involving some abstract expatiation on the differences he held concerning predestination, or the emphasis on faith or scripture alone, passages of scripture, or some such topic since he did this in past, relishing those opportunities to show off his intellect—even more than me. This time, however, he answered more candidly: “The Catholic Church is dying. It doesn’t bear fruit anymore, not like it did in the past. I do like St. Augustine, and I think he would probably go to the church that I go to now, one that is growing and alive.” He went on to tell me how his church had a vibrant singles group, mission trips, a charismatic pastor who gave inspiring talks, a new campus in the making, and all sorts of ministries and programs that benefited the community. From what he could tell, the Catholic church had none of these things. By this criteria, his church was a winner, and mine was a loser. Although I now find it ironic that he said this in a Catholic university (University of Dallas), after a class centered around a Catholic saint making a confession of his Catholic faith, at the time, I had no reply; not because I could not think of anything, but because I did not know where to start—something tells me that most Catholics have run into this situation.
My friend expressed a common sentiment held by the majority of American Christians. Conditioned by commercialism and centuries of Puritan theology which held that God picks winners and losers regardless of one’s actions, many people flock to churches with the most outward appeal. As they do with cars, houses, and country clubs, they shop around, consider their options, and pick the church that best fits. Many churches, and not a few atheist organizations, have adapted to this behavior, sending out flyers and pamphlets, making televisions ads, sponsoring programs on the radio, and even writing up contracts for prospective members to sign. Like my friend, they talk up their innumerable ministries, their successful fundraisers, their superior fellowship—which, compared to typical Catholic congregations, often have an eerily homogenous makeup—in the hopes of attracting new members and collecting more tithes, which many of them vigorously enforce. Unfortunately, in America one’s religion frequently resembles a brand of clothing more than a community’s way of life.
The Catholic church could do more on this front, and many desperate Catholics, seeing their family members leave one-by-one for various reasons, insist it should do more before our churches turn into museums as many have in Europe. However, before plunging into the competitive spiritual marketplace in the hopes of making a big splash, we should reflect on Jesus’ admonitions concerning such an outward display of piety. In His time, the pharisees made such a point of their spirituality, announcing their acts of charity, delivering their prayers to a crowd, making appearances in places of honor, and even drumming up their penance. In hopes of boosting numbers in a crowded spiritual market of Isreal, they wanted to show that they were winners and the others were losers in hopes of making a splash. Assuming that they succeeded with this strategy, and they likely did before the Romans destroyed their temple in 70 AD, they essentially made their church a superficial entity, appealing to people’s insecurities, not feeding their souls. They made faith more a matter of style than substance. For good reason, Jesus spoke against this repeatedly.
Contrary to popular belief, Catholics actually have much to brag about. Besides simply existing for nearly two millennia, braving every heresy and social movement that has attacked it, it is by far the largest charitable organization in the world. It has by far the most members who live all over the world. It has a rich spiritual tradition, world class universities, and a ridiculously vast collection of art and literature. It has the saints, the superheroes of humanity. Besides hosting one of the biggest gatherings in the last decade (over 3 million people for World Youth Day), Pope Francis even made it on the cover of Time.
And yet, most Catholics who know all this hardly talk about it. Not because they do not care, but because most of them know that these successes should not form the basis of their faith. God does not pick winners and losers; he only picks losers, hence the constant call for humility. Probably thinking of their future persecution, Jesus tells his disciples that “God rewards in secret.” These are words to live and die by. Catholics can take some joy in the accomplishments of their church, but they should take much more joy in the accomplishments of the Holy Trinity. They should not pick Catholicism because it is a winner, but because it is True. They should not pray, give alms, and fast because for the sake of increasing membership but for the sake of increasing holiness.
On the surface, this message to practice one’s faith in secret contradicts injunctions to to “be the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” but on a deeper level the two messages actually complement one another. Sincere faith shines more than the glossiest advertisements. True hope inspires people more than the catchiest song. Sacrificial love, that love that emanates from the Holy Trinity, creates a stronger bond than the coolest hippest congregation and speakers. A life of holiness will bring more souls to God than a life of success.
Jesus did not ask for salesmen; he asked for disciples. We should not sell our faith like a product, but live it because is the Way, the Truth, and Life.