Holiness and Popularity

Our warmest congratulations and heartfelt sentiments of esteem go out to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. This tremendous honor, added to the dignity of his important office, is both fitting and well-merited. But Cardinal Dolan, with his familiar serio-comic humor, was quick to put his elevation in perspective, saying that he would sooner be a saint than a cardinal. And why not all of us, as he, aim for the heights of heaven?

Archbishop Dolan’s inspirited earthiness suggests to us that aspirations to sainthood do not require us to abandon our love for life and all created things. If we might be so bold as to indulge a thread of chit-chat that started before Ash Wednesday, rumor has it that the new cardinal’s first two decrees would be to ban the consumption of instant mashed potatoes and lite beer among his “subjects.” It is Lent now and we will postpone immediate indulgence. The cardinal himself promises to set the example by rationing his own pasta helpings, so that his new ring will fit less snugly.

As one who understands the almost sacramental value in the camaraderie of a good meal, he is, in effect, inviting us to enjoy the connection between the “liturgies” of everyday life and the eternal Liturgy of Heaven made present at every Mass. Taking the time to enjoy our friendships around a table and getting to know new friends is at least as important as the work we do. Or perhaps it is the work that we do best as Christians. A Trinitarian God, after all, is all about relationships: three Persons revolving totally around each other for all eternity in ecstatic communion.

In Lent, our focus on Jesus and His sacrifice intensifies as no other time during the liturgical year. Of course, our lives as Christians are always centered around Christ, but most especially now on the sacrificial nature of His mission as the Son of Man. The heart of Gospel conversion is that we will live no longer for ourselves, but for Him. That is why the Church, semper reformanda, understands its mission to extend beyond itself. In fact, its own reform depends upon its resistance to the temptations of triumphalism and its readiness to sacrifice its comfort by emptying itself, like our Lord, for the salvation of souls.

No one knows what sacrifices will be demanded of us as Catholics in America during the months and years ahead. We cannot be seduced by the delusion that “keeping up with the times” will enhance the relevance of the Gospel to the world in which we live. Two things that Christ did consistently throughout His public ministry was to put people’s lives back together by giving them the healing they asked for but also, by preaching and dying, revealing to them a deeper need that they did not know or ask for: forgiveness from sin.

To fulfill the mission that our Lord has given us as His Church, it is our role to continue both aspects of His saving ministry. Thus we cannot and will not be confined to our churches alone, but will reach out into the highways and byways as He did and as we have always done through our hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, orphanages, halfway houses, immigration services and many other agencies and apostolates. At the same time, we will proclaim the kerygma of the Gospel of life that, as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday, calls us to turn away from sin — to repent and believe the Good News! Thus the instruments of death that lead us into addiction or slavery of any form will always be opposed by the Church, even if means the witness of refusing to comply with unjust laws or ways of living that may be commonplace among our contemporaries.

As Cardinal Dolan suggests by his own higher aspirations, it is more important for us all to become holier than more popular in the eyes of the world. Lent is a particularly good time to ask ourselves whether or not we are living to please others who want us to conform to their expectations of us or to please the Lord in whose true image and likeness alone we were re-fashioned through our Baptism into Him.