“What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
What does it mean that Christ’s teaching is new? Or more importantly, how is Christ’s teaching new for you? The world has frequently convinced us that Christianity, and especially Catholicism, is just the opposite of something new. It is, we regularly hear, something old and tired, an outdated set of views that need to be modified for the modern world. “Come on, you guys,” people say, “get with the times!” However, precisely the opposite is true. The celebrities, journalists, professors, and politicians who think that Catholicism is something old and tired are actually the ones peddling a worn out and failed way of living, just like the scribes that our Lord’s contemporaries had tired of hearing. Hedonism – the relentless pursuit of pleasure so dear to our modern culture – is nothing new, even if we have come up with more sophisticated ways of justifying it. We would like to think that we are daringly original in having thrown off the constraints of Christian morality, but that is far from true.
Christ came into the world at a pivotal point in history. The Romans had supplanted the Greeks as the greatest world power, but unbeknownst to them, they stood on a terrible precipice. In just a few years, this great and powerful civilization would be absolutely crumbling, ravaged by the attacks of the invading barbarians and led by an increasingly depraved and incompetent set of emperors. The Roman philosophers and intellectuals had already begun to note a great moral decline in the Roman people even 100 years before our Lord’s birth. They were giving themselves over to vices – especially those involving pursuits of fleshly pleasure – and had lost the disciple that had made them the greatest and most powerful civilization in the history of the world. They were increasingly isolated and preferred to withdraw to their walled estates rather than to engage in the life of the city.
Sound familiar? It should. The Roman world of our Lord’s day – into which Christianity is born – is a striking parallel of our own. Just as the leaders of Roman society withdrew to their villas outside of Rome, the civic leaders of America retreat into their gated suburban communities and abandon the cities built by their forebears to crime and violence. Just as the Romans replaced learning and discipline with a relentless pursuit of pleasure, so likewise our attention spans have been reduced to a matter of minutes or even seconds, rendering us nearly incapable of serious thought and reflection. Everyone is frantically searching for a solution to the ominous opioid crisis, but few people seem willing to look at the roots, at a culture that values pleasure over truth, and at the weakening of the family that has left people with nowhere to turn for support except into the arms of drug dealers. Like the Romans, our civilization is on track to descend into vice and malaise.
Into this morass of moral corruption, though, breaks something new: the liberation and redemption promised by Christ. The sunset of the Roman empire was the dawn of something new and even greater, Christendom, the uniting of Europe and the near East under the banner not of a political leader, but of a savior. Likewise, Christianity tamed the reckless ways of the barbarians who were invading the Roman empire, teaching them a morality that did not just restrict them, but freed them to do the genuine and authentic good as the result of an encounter with a God who loved them and even died for their sake.
This newness of Christianity is precisely what we need to propose to our culture. The world believes that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but the truth is that it has really yet to be tried. We all know how weak and imperfect each one of us is, and how we fail to live up to the high demands placed on us by the Gospel. And each of us has a responsibility for showing what this new way of life taught by Christ can really do to transform each of us individually and as a community, country, and even as a world.
In order to propose Christianity to the world as something new and exciting, rather than the drab and tired affair the world believes it to be, you need to discover the newness of Christ for yourself. This happened for me in my life in a surprising way. To explain it, though, I will have to give you some personal history: I was raised in a devoutly Catholic family and attended Catholic school all the way through twelfth grade. I went to youth group on Sundays and went on retreats several times a year. I had a relationship with Jesus and prayed every day. What I did not realize, though, is that that relationship was based largely on emotions and feelings. I had no idea how shallow my faith was.
At the college I attended, there was a professor who was known as the Catholic professor on campus (it was a secular, formerly Protestant school). I got to know him and he invited me to attend – of all things – a Mass celebrated in Latin, as it was before the Second Vatican Council. I agreed to go mostly out of a desire to impress my professor with my ability to fit in with the cultural sophistication I expected to find at this event.
I thought that this Mass in Latin would be attended by cultural elites like my sophisticated professor. Wrong. The average attendee was a young couple in their mid-thirties with eight to ten children. They did not strike me as particularly sophisticated or well dressed. I also thought that I would survive this experience with enough aplomb and poise to impress my professor (maybe enough to get invited to one of the fancy dinners he was famous for hosting), and then would go back to singing in the college praise and worship band. Very wrong. As I knelt towards the back of that church, somewhat confused as to what was going on, I was enveloped in Gregorian chant, incense, and an overwhelming sense of my own sinfulness and unworthiness to be present at what looked like the vision of Heaven from the book of Revelation. In that moment, I realized that there was something there, something that these young families had discovered, that I had been missing, and I resolved to figure out what it was.
That day began an incredible process of discovery for me. I devoured books about the history of the Mass, about Catholic doctrine, about the sacraments, about what really happened in the Church in the mid-twentieth century with this great promised renewal that I was told my entire had something to do with this thing called “Vatican II.” I read all of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and came to the surprising conclusion that the Church (not the building, but everything else) in which I was raised looked very little like what was foreseen by Vatican II itself.
All of a sudden, Catholicism was something new to me, not just the things I had memorized in high school religion classes, or the emotional highs that I had confused with spiritual experiences, but something real and different than I had ever encountered before. Ironically, it was something that an outsider would describe as cold and unapproachable – a Mass celebrated in a language that I did not understand – that actually moved me to a deeply personal and intimate encounter with the Lord, grounded not in my own emotions but in the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. That discovery of Catholicism as something new and different kept me engaged in my faith through four years of a secular education that was designed more to break down my Catholic faith than to build it up. To discover something new, though, I had to discover something old.
This is what at our Lord is inviting us to do today, to discover something new amidst something old, to appreciate the great riches we have in the history of the Church that are so seldom opened up because we fear being perceived as old-fashioned and behind the times – to discover the genuine newness of Christ’s teaching, a newness not found in changing the teachings of Christ upheld by the Church for centuries, but in rediscovering what has often been lost.
If we want to convince our culture that there is something new in Catholicism worth exploring, and if we want to be the disciples the Lord is calling us to be, we need to discover this newness of Christ’s teaching for ourselves. A good place to start would be to consider what are the ways that you have bought into the idea that Christianity is old and worn out – what are the teachings of the Church you have been led to question, and then resolve to do something about those doubts. That could mean spending time reading the Catechism, finding a relevant video on the formed.org website to which we have access as a parish, or attending more faith formation events that are offered.
We also need to consider this reality of experiencing Catholicism as new as a parish. Experiencing Christ’s work as a new teaching with authority means that doing the same old – same old that we have always been doing will not be sufficient to lead us to that encounter that we need with the newness of the Gospel. We have to be ready to adapt, to discern the needs of the world around us and the times in which we live in order to be able to search in the great treasure trove of Tradition, and use our own creativity to find the particular solutions needed in our own day and age. This does not mean reckless change for change’s sake or arbitrarily negating good things that have been done in the past. But it does mean that we need a certain flexibility, a certain detachment from the way that things have always been. Again, the goal will never be change for change’s sake, or even accommodating the personal taste of a new priest, but rather to experience the Gospel in all of the newness of our Lord’s teaching, re-discovering the newness of that which seems to have grown old or even been forgotten, and shedding our fear of the unknown that is to come.
“What is this? A new teaching with authority.” These words of the people who listened to our Lord as He preached in the synagogue for the first time ought to be ours as well. We should approach our Lord with the same sense of wonder that captured the hearts of those people almost 2,000 years ago. We must cast aside the false teachings of the scribes of our own days – the celebrities, journalists, professors, and politicians who think that Catholicism is something old and tired – in order to discover the new and authoritative teaching that Christ continues to proclaim through His bride, the Church. Then we can have a bold and confident Catholicism that is not afraid of the truths that are so often looked down upon, but instead can help the world to recapture the newness of Christ.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
St. John the Evangelist Parish, Goshen
IV Sunday through the Year. A.D. MMXVIII