THE PRAIRIE CATHOLIC
Why should anyone want to transform the world in Christ?
'Fourth Plan' calls Catholics to strive for holiness so as to serve others
by Sam Patet
The Prairie Catholic / January 2014
NEW ULM – Every job has its perks. For Linda Reising, hers is getting to hold newborn babies. As executive director of First Choice Pregnancy Services in New Ulm, she’s gotten to meet 13 babies whose mothers have been helped by the pro-life resource center ever since it opened its doors in 2010.
That perk, however, has come at a price. Some women she’s met haven’t chosen to give birth to their children. Instead, they’ve chosen the opposite.
“The deepest sorrow is when no matter what we say, no matter what we do, she still feels so … without a choice that she follows through and has the abortion,” Reising said. “That is just heartbreaking.”
Still, Reising doesn’t let that get her down. The St. Mary’s – New Ulm parishioner knows this is what the Lord wants her to be doing, even though it isn’t always easy.
She was asked to be executive director four years ago by the president of the center’s board of directors. While she had helped get the organization off the ground and had worked with post-abortive women earlier in life as a social worker, she didn’t think she was the right person for the job.
“I basically ran from that for three months,” she said. She felt that she wouldn’t be able to handle the administrative responsibilities. “I was very actively looking for someone else to take that job.”
But as she took it to prayer, she realized the Lord was asking her to take the position. With that assurance, she said yes to the board’s request.
And so Monday through Thursday she’s at the center’s tiny storefront office on South Broadway, answering the phone, scheduling appointments, coordinating volunteers, giving away baby clothes and diapers, and talking to parents who may have just found out they’re expecting a child.
“We have no idea in the morning who God’s going to bring through those doors,” she said. “For us, every person who walks through our door is an opportunity to shine the love of Christ into their life in some way.”
Christ the king
At first glance, Reising’s work doesn’t seem at all connected with the work Jesus did day-in and day-out. When did he ever schedule an appointment or give away clothes to a baby who needed them? And even if they were connected, the acts of love Jesus performed clearly outshine Reising’s. Is giving out baby formula to a mother-in-need any match for Jesus using five loaves and two fish to feed a hungry crowd? Or teaching parenting skills to married couples any competition for Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana?
According to the “Fourth Plan for Parishes,” there is a connection. Reising’s work and Jesus’ work – even some of the miracles he performed – are both manifestations of the kingly office of Christ.
For generations the Israelites had been awaiting a Messiah who would be their king, someone who would protect and provide for them as Kings Saul and David had done centuries earlier.
Jesus Christ was that long-awaited for Messiah. He exercised his kingship, however, not by using others for his own selfish desires. Rather, he “reveal(ed) God’s dominion over the things of the earth” by “govern(ing) created things on behalf of people” (“Fourth Plan for Parishes,” p. 4). That’s why the “Plan” can reference his miracles – multiplying loaves and fishes, changing water into wine – when talking about this office (see “Fourth Plan,” p. 4).
Kingly service to others
Baptized Catholics, then, are called to imitate Christ in his kingly office. “Christ’s kingly office revealed that we are called … to love others by using things for their benefit” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 5).
Pope John Paul II affirms this in his 1988 apostolic exhortation “Christifideles Laici.” After stating that all Catholics are called to spread Christ’s kingdom throughout the world, he says that they do this by serving others. Christians exercise their kingship when they “make a gift of themselves so as to serve, in justice and in charity, Jesus, who is himself present in all his brothers and sisters, above all in the very least” (no. 14, “Fourth Plan,” p. 6).
Deacon Tim Dolan is director of the Office of Social Concerns for the diocese. The “very least” the “Plan” has in mind aren’t simply those who don’t have material possessions, he said. Having spent time working with the poor in Brazil as part of the Peace Corps, he knows it also includes many others.
“In all my world travels, I’ve seen people in the poorest parts of the world that were spiritually much stronger than people in this country,” he said. “There are poverties in all the different areas.”
That’s why the chapter of the “Plan” on Christ’s kingly office is so lengthy – 17 pages in all. For the “Plan,” poverty doesn’t just include the homeless person, but also the woman who’s had an abortion, the couple that’s struggling in their marriage, the farmer who can’t make a moderate living for his family, and the Catholic who doesn’t understand how his faith should impact the political candidates he supports.
Thus, bringing Christ’s love and kingly reign to the world encompasses a whole host of activities. Some the “Plan” addresses include defending the sanctity of human life, reaching out to the homeless and the imprisoned, practicing Natural Family Planning, serving the elderly and persons with disabilities, and advancing laws that respect the authentic definition of marriage and religious freedom.
Path of self-mastery
For Pope John Paul II, however, the kingly office of Christ isn’t just concerned with serving others. As he makes clear in “Christifideles Laici,” it also includes striving to grow in holiness through self mastery.
The laity “exercise their kingship as Christians above all in the spiritual combat in which they seek to overcome in themselves the kingdom of sin (cf. Rom 6:12), and then to make a gift of themselves so as to serve … Jesus” (“Christifideles Laici,” no. 14, “Fourth Plan,” p. 6).
According to Dr. Matthew Tsakanikas, director of the diocesan Office of the New Evangelization and a doctor in sacred theology, the pope makes this claim because striving for holiness is a necessary condition for giving oneself to others. “You can’t give yourself if you don’t possess yourself,” he said. “The kingdom of sin is those things that turn us from being an authentic gift of self.”
The “Plan” makes this point, explaining that Jesus was able to serve others and to reveal God’s truth and love precisely because he had kingly self-mastery over his body (p. 4).
“With God’s help, we learn to imitate Christ by gaining mastery over our own bodies,” the “Plan” states. “This permits us to love others as they should be loved, that is, as Christ loves them” (p. 50).
Reising admitted that if she isn’t continually striving to overcome her own sinfulness, her work at First Choice isn’t as fruitful. “If I am not grounded in prayer and not making use of the sacraments, it impacts what I do here,” she said. Specifically, when she’s preoccupied with herself, she’s not able to listen as attentively to her clients. “They know if I’m present to them or if I’m just going through motions.”
This striving for holiness isn’t something that one can do on a part-time basis. It involves submitting one’s entire life – body and soul – to God.
For Americans, this can be especially difficult to do, Deacon Dolan said. That’s because they’re not used to submitting their lives to anyone.
In ancient kingdoms – and even in those that exist today – when a person did something for the king, he submitted his entire life to him, Deacon Dolan said. The same applies to Christ, he continued. “When you’re living for him (Jesus Christ), you’ve submitted body and soul.”
An important way, then, that Catholics are called to exercise the kingly office of Christ is by doing those things that will help them gain mastery of themselves: praying, fasting, frequenting the sacraments, and practicing the virtues.
These activities, however, have to be motivated by Christ’s unconditional love, Tsakanikas said. “Why would I even own up to my condition (the tendency to sin) unless I believed God loved me and there was hope for salvation?” he said. “I’d never talk about self-mastery apart from, first, God’s love moving me to find fulfillment in what’s good, true, and beautiful.”
Grounded in the truth
After establishing that the kingly office of Christ entails giving oneself to others, the “Plan” outlines the theological vision that must motivate this. All the Church’s pastoral activity – that is, all the activities Catholics do when they exercise the kingly office of Christ – must be founded on the truth about the human person, namely, that he was created good, fell into sin, and was redeemed by Christ (“Fourth Plan,” p. 52; see also pp. 50-51).
“How else can we begin to discern the nature of the problems that affect our relationships with each other and propose realistic solutions?” the “Plan” asks. “Can issues regarding human life, justice, peace, work, economic development, and international relations be surmounted without reference to the Gospel and its imperative that we love God above all things and our neighbor as ourself?” (p. 52).
Unfortunately, practicing this in 21st century America isn’t always easy. Catholics oftentimes are greeted with hostility when they bring up God’s truth when discussing abortion, immigration reform, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, contraceptive use, and religious freedom.
Clearly, one has to be ready to rock the boat when exercising the kingly office.
“Kingship is ultimately about promoting and defending the good,” Tsakanikas said. “If God is affirming me as good by loving me, then I want to protect what’s good in me and (that) which is good in my neighbor.”
Pope Francis affirms this idea in his first apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” Tsakanikas said. When a person receives God’s unconditional love for him, the pope says, he will respond by desiring, seeking, and protecting the good of his brothers and sisters (no. 178).
‘The most basic and fundamental right’
Catholics, then, are called to promote and defend the good in concrete ways. But with so many issues that need attention, how can we discern which ones God wants us to pursue?
The “Plan” doesn’t give a blueprint for what every Catholic in the diocese should be doing. Rather, it provides principles to help them form their consciences.
First, it states that Catholics need to understand the social doctrine of the Church in its wholeness. Without this, “one quickly falls prey to the distortions of one ideology or another” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 52). To help Catholics in the diocese do this, it instructs diocesan staff to educate them through presentations and other resources.
Second, the “Plan” notes there is an ordering, or hierarchy, among these issues. At the top of the list is the defense of human life, for it “is the condition for the exercise of all other rights” (“Fourth Plan,” pp. 52).
“The common outcry which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 52, quoting Pope John Paul II, “Christifideles Laici,” no. 38).
“In everything there is a hierarchy, and the right to life is simply the most important right,” Deacon Dolan said.
It’s important, Reising said, for Catholics to be defending life in public ways through things like the March for Life and the 40 Days for Life campaign.
But it’s just as important, she continued, that Catholics engage women and men who are contemplating an abortion with gentleness and compassion.
“The women who come through my doors are beautiful, magnificent women,” she said.
“Too often I have encountered people who want … to condemn the woman who’s had the abortion right along with the abortion, or at least their language does.”
And so for her, giving soon-to-be parents the love and hope of Jesus Christ is an important way she can bring Christ’s kingly reign to the world.
“It’s not about me. It’s about really coming alongside of her and journeying behind her. … That’s the privilege God has given to the volunteers and myself.”