Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
In these darkening November days, as winter steals once more upon us, the church invites us to ponder the end of this earthly life. The great solemnity of All Saints on Nov. 1 reminds us of our true home and destiny, and the means Christ has given us in the church to get there. The feast of All Souls today, Nov. 2, reminds us of the cost of imperfection, which must be purged in this life or the next. And the solemnity of Christ the King points to the necessary judgment we shall all face when we die.
The false idea of universal salvation – that everyone will end up in heaven, that God’s mercy is so great that he could not possibly condemn anyone to hell for eternity – this false idea is quite widespread. If we come to think this way, we do not treasure our faith as something of great value, nor do we attach any urgency to striving to live our faith with consistency and fidelity. We keep our faith in a box, to be taken out once in a while, perhaps for Mass, or a funeral, or a family celebration like Thanksgiving. We offer God our leftovers, rather than our best.
Remember Christ’s own words: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14). Christ warns us that the easy way of getting along, of drifting through life, of compartmentalizing our faith, leads to an unwanted destination. We end up not challenging evils in our culture, not standing up for the truth. We make this fatal compromise, allowing the culture to form us in most things, not realizing the actual spiritual cost.
As G. K. Chesterton put it, “A dead thing floats downstream. Only a living thing can push upstream.” Too often, this can be true of our faith.
Consider the lives of the great saints the church continues to celebrate. Who among them achieved such admirable or exemplary sanctity by drifting with the culture? Many of them began by drifting – St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Ignatius of Loyola – but changed paths because of some dramatic encounter with Christ. They experienced a deeper, interior conversion. They discovered that drifting with the culture leads only away from Christ, and not closer to him. They grasped firmly the renewed desire to walk with our savior. They stopped putting their faith in a box and started letting faith shape everything they did and were. This is why we ought to remember them and strive to imitate them.
Compare their faith with that of the rich young man of the Gospel (see Mt 19:16-30, Lk 18:17-30, Mk 10:17-31), who, although righteous in piety and morality, refuses to follow Christ “because he had many possessions.” There is a warning in this Gospel passage about material wealth, which can consume us and turn us away from God. One continual test about whether we have wealth, or wealth has us, is whether we can give it away freely to those in need. In this sense, I am moved by the great generosity of your donations – more than $300,000 – for the victims of the several hurricanes and earthquakes recently. Thank you!
But we can also read this passage as a warning about spiritual “wealth,” the treasure of the heart (see Mt 6:21). What do we love in this life? It is not wrong to love the good things of this created world, and to treasure them as gifts for God. God indeed loves us, and wants us to have these good things that are, in some sense, good and just and conducive to human happiness. We should be grateful and appreciate them well.
But, heed also the warning: it is wrong to love them more than we love God, more than we value our faith – a mistake we sometimes fall into, especially when we have made that compromise with the world of compartmentalizing our faith and not explicitly challenging the evils of our time.
I urge you to think about these things not to scare you, but to take honest stock of your faith and life with Christ. God is very merciful. He desires “all people to be saved,” to gain the reward of heaven forever – but we cannot save ourselves. To be saved, we must allow God to save us according to his plan, which he revealed in Scripture, and especially in his life, passion, death, and resurrection.
That means surrendering all of our life, not just the little box labelled “faith,” to union with him. It means dying to self, to our selfish desires and our bad habits, in order to live with him. It means confronting the sins rooted in our heart and striving with the help of grace and the sacraments to let them be uprooted by him. It means wanting to walk the narrow way, not drifting down the broad and easy way.
In these final weeks of the year of grace 2017, I pray that each of you may grow in grace and in union with our Lord Jesus Christ. Please pray also for me.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City