…these well-meaning Catholics (and of course this applies to a multitude of well-meaning Protestant Christians as well) who think they can “be good without going to church” are really in the same position as the polite atheists who also say they can “be good without God.”
By this, they mean they can start a charity, raise money for helpless people, run a soup kitchen and special Olympics, campaign for poor workers and ecological causes without starting their meetings with a prayer. True enough. All those things are possible.
They may go further in their definition of what it means to be good and suggest that this also means “reaching one’s full human potential” or “being self actualized” or “being fully mature and caring and loving.” This too is possible with a certain amount of determination, hard work, good manners, working out at the gym and reading the right self-help books.
Fr Longenecker says, though, that this is about doing good, not about being good.
Catholicism is about a supernatural transaction between an individual and God. God’s power, which we call “grace,” works on the person’s whole being to effect a transformation from the inside out. We call this “divinization.” The ancient church of the East calls it “theosis.” This transformation allows a human being to live in a new dimension of power and glory unimagined by most of us. The second century theologian Saint Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive” or as Jesus Christ himself said, “I have come to give you life—life more abundant!”
This “abundant life” means something greater than just doing good. It means being good. It means every cell and muscle, every sinew and particle of soul, every part of us being transformed with the radiant power and glory of God. It means the individual lives in a new, more dynamic dimension of reality. He or she begins to display even in this life a “god-like” quality.
You can read for yourself his answer to the inevitable comments about those whose Church attendance doesn’t have this effect – the hypocrites, the judgemental bullies, the predators who hide behind their church position in order to continue to do evil.
In this post, I’d rather focus on what he says about those who are transformed.
…in the saints we do not find what we expected to find.
We thought the saint’s story would be one of exclusive piety, sweet suffering and a sort of rose-scented limp through life. Instead, we find what the church calls “heroic sanctity”—amazing stories of ordinary individuals who achieve extraordinary things because they have become extraordinary people.
The life of the Polish priest Maximillian Kolbe is just one example: a physically sickly man living on one lung because of tuberculosis, in the 1930s he led thousands of young Polish men in a renewed Franciscan order. He started a printing press, a national newspaper with circulation in the millions, and pioneered radio broadcasting to spread the faith. Then he went to Japan as a missionary, learned the language and lived in extreme poverty, enduring persecution and misunderstanding. He built a monastery and started a seminary, wrote and printed a Japanese language paper, established a printing operation and radio station, before being summoned back to his country because of the outbreak of war.
Because of his passive resistance to the Nazi regime, he ended up in Auschwitz where, witnesses say, his wasted body was physically radiant with light. Giving up his own meager rations, he finally also gave up his life—stepping up to take the place of a man with a wife and children who had been sentenced to death. Even in the death cell he radiated a love and goodness beyond imagining—lasting far longer in his slow starvation than anyone thought possible until he was finally dispatched with a lethal injection.
Maximillian Kolbe is just one. Should anyone doubt that this power has been released into the lives of ordinary people, let him read the real stories of more saints, for each one (in a vast variety of people around the world and down through the ages) exhibits this same unimaginable heroism—this same supernatural transformation.