Comfort and Challenge

After teaching eight years at New York's Saint Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, I began an eight year period of teaching at the Maryknoll School of Theology. Though only thirty miles apart, they were, in those days, different theological worlds.

The first time I had occasion to preach at Maryknoll, it occurred to me that I would preach the same text differently in each seminary, because, at least in my discernment, the challenge of the Gospel would take on a different thrust in each context.

These thoughts came back to me after a wonderful dinner conversation last evening with two very committed parishioners. We were speaking, naturally, of Pope Francis and the effect he was having on so many. The words that came to my friends were "comforting" and "consoling." I agreed, but suggested it was necessary to complement them with "challenging."

Some of that challenge is present in the Pope's homily in Saint Peter's this morning:

In the passage from Saint Paul which we have heard, the Apostle tells his disciple Timothy: remember Jesus Christ. If we persevere with him, we will also reign with him (cf. 2 Tim 2:8-13). This is the second thing: to remember Christ always – to be mindful of Jesus Christ – and thus to persevere in faith. God surprises us with his love, but he demands that we be faithful in following him. We can be unfaithful, but he cannot: he is “the faithful one” and he demands of us that same fidelity. Think of all the times when we were excited about something or other, some initiative, some task, but afterwards, at the first sign of difficulty, we threw in the towel. Sadly, this also happens in the case of fundamental decisions, such as marriage. It is the difficulty of remaining steadfast, faithful to decisions we have made and to commitments we have made. Often it is easy enough to say “yes”, but then we fail to repeat this “yes” each and every day. We fail to be faithful.

And I ask myself: am I a Christian by fits and starts, or am I a Christian full-time? Our culture of the ephemeral, the relative, also takes its toll on the way we live our faith. God asks us to be faithful to him, daily, in our everyday life. He goes on to say that, even if we are sometimes unfaithful to him, he remains faithful. In his mercy, he never tires of stretching out his hand to lift us up, to encourage us to continue our journey, to come back and tell him of our weakness, so that he can grant us his strength. This is the real journey: to walk with the Lord always, even at moments of weakness, even in our sins. Never to prefer a makeshift path of our own. That kills us. Faith is ultimate fidelity, like that of Mary.

Robert P. Imbelli, a long-time Commonweal contributor, is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. A book of essays in his honor, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself, edited by Andrew Meszaros, was published this year by The Catholic University of America Press.

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