Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit central Europe, and in early August, 40 hours before I returned home to a muggy 99 degrees at Saint Meinrad, I was standing at 12,736 feet in a brisk 29 degrees at the top of the Little Matterhorn. In front of me and to the right was Switzerland; at my back, Italy; and far to the left, France. Immediately below me was the raw power of centuries-old glaciers, frozen water slowly sculpting the hard, barren rock and soil. Far below, in the lush and green valley town of Zermatt from which I had ascended (by cable car), it was a balmy 80 degrees.
It seemed to me that all the complexities and contradictions of this earth had converged and risen to that very mountain peak. At no other point in my life had I plainly seen so many incongruities laid out before me in such a harsh yet profoundly exhilarating manner that suddenly made all the sense in the world. In fact, it was the only thing that made sense in the world.
What made this so was not the view itself, as beautiful as it was. Rather, it was something in the foreground that paradoxically put everything else into perspective — a towering, weatherbeaten crucifix. Of itself, that is not unusual; a crucifix is planted on practically every mountain peak in Switzerland. What caught my eye was a small, engraved plaque beneath the corpus. It bore a simple message in several different languages: Be more human.
Those three words opened up for me a portal of understanding — in terms of my faith, my vocation as a monk, my self-understanding, and on a more universal level as well. The scene atop that mountain, I realized, reflected the landscape of the human soul — my soul — with all its harsh yet beautiful complexities and contradictions. And at the center of it all stands Christ crucified — God made man — urging, “Be more human.”
As a Catholic, I had long ago intellectually and spiritually accepted the paradox of two natures in the one person of Christ — fully human, fully divine. Like many others, however, I have struggled to accept that truth in human terms, to live with imperfection in the process of being redeemed by Christ — in regard to myself, others, and in the circumstances of ordinary life.
In a moment of grace, the reality of that seemingly incompatible co-existence of humanity and divinity was finally evident to me from a mountaintop perch halfway around the world. Paradoxically, to become more human is to become more like Christ, who, “coming in human likeness, humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
So, what in the world does all that have to do with Catholic identity?
Absolutely everything, I think.
Obviously, not everyone is afforded precisely the same vantage point, and mine came into view only after a very long and arduous climb, figuratively speaking, over the course of more than 40 years (which I must continue to make each and every day). But the message is the same for us all:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).
He put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way (Ephesians 1:22-23).
Do we believe this? We say we do, or at least we profess it each Sunday when we recite the Creed. But do we believe it so deeply that we live it out each day according to the words of St. Paul: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)?
This amazing news stretches back to the early days of the Church, and invites a response that many — if not, most — Christians and Catholics seem to forget. God the Creator of all that is and was and will be inserted himself into the midst of human perplexity to bring us all together through Christ so that we might all have everlasting life. In the words of such Early Church Fathers as St. Athanasius (c. 296-373) and St. Augustine (354-430), “God became man so that man might be made God” (cf. "Catechism of the Catholic Church" No. 460).
This has always been at the heart of our Catholic identity, and is a truth that must recapture our imagination in the 21st Century. We proclaim a Risen Christ as Savior who was crucified as a common criminal, who is present always but cannot always be recognized in ways we expect, and who promises to unite a humanity that is as diverse and divided as it is large. As the Body of Christ, the Church heralds what St. Irenaeus called the “scandal of the incarnation” — that God and humanity, as distant and divergent as they seem, can co-exist, no matter how messy or sinful everything seems. Nowhere, of course, is this more evident than in the celebration of the Eucharist.
That is what I finally realized on that mountaintop in Switzerland (and which I must strive to live each day).
Unfortunately, it is not something we Catholics speak much about. American culture at large seems to portray the Catholic Church in terms of scandal and incongruity. It is an ancient and often abusive power structure that insists on controlling every aspect of our lives. It is divided between liberals and conservatives debating issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage.
Is that really who we are? It sounds more like Congress.
That is not to suggest that such issues are outside the realm of acceptable dialogue; quite the contrary. However, if they are the only issues by which our American Catholic identity is framed, then the picture is dreadfully distorted.
In his 2009 book "The Future Church," Vatican journalist John Allen, Jr., identifies the rapidly rising tide of global Catholicism as perhaps the key trend among several reshaping tomorrow’s Church. Catholicism in this century, he says, will become steadily more non-Western, non-white, and non-affluent. It will be led to a greater degree by the global South—Africa, Latin America, and Asia—where the number of Catholics is rising dramatically (The Future Church, p.432).
In this context, he asserts, the division (Allen calls it “tribalism”), with which the culture identifies the Church—or, more importantly, the division with which American Catholics self-identify—will be “utterly unsustainable”:
American Catholics spent the first half of the twentieth century clawing their way out of a ghetto that had been imposed upon them by a hostile Protestant majority and the second half reconstructing ghettoes of their own ideological choice. … Too many Catholics have been evangelized by the psychology of secular politics, seeing the Church as a terrain upon which interest-group battles are fought, rather than as the common table of the Lord around which these differences dissolve. The tenor of much Catholic conversation these days might be expressed as an ideologue’s spin on the Lord’s Prayer: ‘MY will be done’ ("The Future Church," p.454).
In a sense, then, as Catholics in this country, we need to not only catechize and evangelize, but also be evangelized (or re-evangelized) ourselves (and if Allen is right, it just may be the Global South that does it). Catholicism must be much more than political debate, on one end of the spectrum, or on the other, a purely private affair with no real claims on us.
So what does re-evangelization look like? For me, it is the Swiss mountaintop insight that I described above: Be more human. And to become more human is to become more like Christ, who, “coming in human likeness, humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
This is nothing new, of course, but it is (and always has been) quite radical. Jesus was clear about it: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. … Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 16:24-25; 28:19).
This is our Catholic identity, and it is explicit not only in the Gospels but in numerous Church documents. It is bare-knuckled, no-holds barred, down-and-dirty discipleship — with Christ at the center of it all, urging us: Be more human. It is a three-fold call that echoes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1999 document "Our Hearts were Burning within Us." The bishops set forth three major goals in achieving mature adult faith formation and genuine Christian discipleship:
1. Invite and enable ongoing conversion to Jesus in holiness of life.
2. Promote and support active membership in the Christian community.
3. Call and prepare adults to act as disciples in mission to the world.
I have streamlined these goals further for the purpose of easy recall (think three ‘C’s — as in Catechism of the Catholic Church):
This is the three-fold invitation of Christ that will recapture the heart of American Catholic identity, and what it means to be more human.
By conversion, I mean a perpetual process of turning toward God in prayer, Scripture, the Eucharist, and the entire life of the Church—not only for the purpose of growing in virtue and overcoming vice, but above all, to genuinely seek union with God.
By communion, I mean a common expression of the Catholic faith, not merely individualistic praise and thanksgiving. As Our Hearts were Burning within Us states: “Adult faith is clearly and explicitly rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus lived in the Christian community.” Catholic, after all, means universal. Though many, we are one Body, and when we come together, we come as Christ.
Finally, crucifixion (the term is meant to startle), encompasses many aspects of our daily lives. Above all, it means loving self-sacrifice, as demonstrated most fully by Jesus’ giving of his life on the cross, shortly after telling his disciples: “This is my body, given for you. Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). This is the mystery we recall and participate in during each mass we celebrate. As St. Augustine pointed out, “You are the mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table. You receive the mystery that is yourself. To that which you are, you will respond.”
This response as the Body of Christ — being “crucified” with him — means many things, depending on one’s state of life and circumstances. At the least, it means proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Christ whether it is convenient or inconvenient; extending the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; and giving of ourselves not when we receive something in return, but especially when it truly costs us. Sometimes that may simply—and most painfully—mean letting go of everything that possesses us.
By heeding Christ’s call to Conversion, Communion, and Crucifixion, we become that mountaintop in Switzerland with the weatherbeaten crucifix. We insert ourselves into the midst of human perplexity as a living sign of contradiction, proclaiming to the world: Be more human — so that in Christ we might all be brought together to the everlasting life of the Resurrection.
This is the radical grace at the heart of our American Catholic identity. Ultimately, it means letting God love us, and then allowing that “treasure in earthen vessels” (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7) to transform the world from the inside out.