As some of you know, I teach Religion at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, and we have just become an IB World School. IB stands for International Baclaureate, which is a world-wide program that is rather prestigious and somewhat rigorous. The program draws very good and hard working students from all over and from various religious backgrounds, not all of them Catholic or Christian.
I have a grade 10 religion class of students who will be entering the IB program next year, and there are a number of non-Christian students in the class—some very serious and devout Muslims in particular—, and so it was very interesting having to teach them the basic dogmas of Christianity, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, how his death redeems us from sin, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, etc.
But I’ve been impressed with many of the non-Christian students I’ve had over the years. I find there’s a genuine holiness about many of them, a love of virtue, a love of God—they take very seriously the precept to worship God, to make Him the center of their lives, much more seriously than many of our Catholic students, in fact. And they find Jesus appealing. One Hindu girl has been to Lourdes and often attends Catholic Mass—without going to communion. Another refers to Jesus as her “homeboy” and spends time in the school chapel every day. Many of them seem to feel at home in a Catholic Church. And although our Muslim students might not explicitly acknowledge that Jesus is God, they certainly honor Jesus as a prophet, as well as Mary as the mother of a prophet.
Now, we are never certain who is in a state of grace. We don’t even know with certainty whether we ourselves are in a state of grace. St. Thomas Aquinas made that point in the past, and at her trial, St. Joan of Arc said, in answer to the question whether she was in a state of grace: “If I am not in the state of grace, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”
But there are certain fruits that suggest a person is in a state of grace—although this is far from certain knowledge. Moreover, there is a kind of radiance that one often detects in the face of a person who loves the Lord, and I have to be honest, many of my non-Catholic students exhibit such radiance. They are uplifted to hear exhortations to love and worship God, and they are delighted to hear arguments that argue for God’s Supreme Greatness. Now a soul dead to the grace of God would not rise up and sing to the rhythm of such discourse, but would find it repulsive.
Some people, however, are inclined to wonder about that, especially in light of our gospel reading: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” Muslims do not believe what we believe about Jesus. Neither do Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews. So will they receive eternal life?
The most radical fundamentalist Christians say no. They maintain that one must explicitly and consciously declare Christ’s Lordship in order to be saved. But the Catholic Church does not hold that very narrow position. Allow me to try to explain why.
The Christian religion is not about us. It is about Christ. It’s all about him. And what about him? He is everything that the Father can possibly say about Himself. Christ is the Word spoken, the Father’s Word, and the Word is that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
Christ reconciled man to God. By his dying, he paid the debt of sin, a debt that man could not pay. What Adam lost for us, Christ gained back for us. Christ has become the source of grace for every son and daughter of Adam. Divine grace, which is a sharing in the divine life, runs once again through the veins of Adam as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection.
But none of us are fully conscious of whether or not we are in a state of grace anymore than we are conscious of the blood running through our veins. To be in a state of grace, one must freely consent to it, but the state of grace is for the most part unconscious.
Now our gospel today says: “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” What does it mean to believe in the name of the only Son of God? To believe in the name of someone is not the same as believing things about that person. For example, the demons acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God and they are right in what they believe about him, but they do not believe in him.
But can a person love Jesus with a genuine love, without having a correct theological understanding of him? Indeed he can. How many were moved by the holiness of the Holy Family and actually made holy as a result of having contact with them before Jesus’ public ministry, that is, before his identity as Son of God was revealed? According to the Venerable Mary of Agreda, there were many, especially during their seven year stay in Egypt after fleeing from Herod. Concerning his life in Nazareth, she writes: “…under the cover of secrecy He produced great effects in the souls and bodies of men. He visited the poor and infirm; He consoled the afflicted and sorrowful. By special enlightenment and holy inspirations He led many souls to the way of salvation, inducing them to turn to their Creator and to withdraw from the devil and the works of death. These labors were continuous and He was frequently absent from the house of the blessed Virgin. Although the persons thus assisted were aware that they were moved and converted by the words and the presence of Jesus, yet, as they were left in ignorance of the mystery of his assistance and could ascribe it only to the agency of God himself, they did not speak about it.”
Although her visions are private revelation, not dogma, who would doubt that Jesus influenced others as a boy?
Consider the following: “I claim to be a votary of truth from my childhood. It was the most natural thing to me. My prayerful search gave me the revealing maxim “Truth is God” instead of the usual one, ‘God is Truth’. That maxim enables me to see God face to face as it were. I feel Him pervade every fiber of my being. …Prayer from the heart can achieve what nothing else can in the world. …Jesus lived and died in vain if He did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love….Jesus---a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.”
These are the words of Mahatma Gandhi. Now there are many who understand the implications of Gandhi’s words better than Gandhi himself, but there are not many who have a greater and more intense love for God, for Truth, for Jesus, than he had.
To believe in the name of Christ is to believe in the Person of Christ. To believe in the Person of Christ is to freely choose to live in Him. Who is He? He is the divine life, the life of grace. He is the Truth. To believe in him is to live in the Truth that Christ is. It is to live in his grace.
Christianity is not a set of formulas; it is about a Person who became flesh, in whom we live supernaturally. Just as Jesus influenced others to love God and reject sin before his identity as Son of God was revealed, so too, if Christ lives in you and you in him, and you love others with the heart of Christ, then you give people who are not visible members of the Church the opportunity to love Christ in loving you. If they live unconsciously in the grace of Christ, that is, without knowing it, they will find you appealing, because they recognize something in you that is in the depths of their pre-conscious mind, namely divine grace. Their good deeds towards you are deeds of love towards Christ, and so you help them merit an increase in divine grace through their good actions towards you, an increase that could finally bring them to a conscious recognition of their savior and to the fullness of life in him.
The blessing of being a Catholic is that we have become consciously aware that He is present sacramentally on the altar and we can feed on him who has become food for us. We can become visibly incorporated into his Mystical Body through the waters of baptism and receive the gifts of faith, hope, and charity as well as the personal gifts of the Holy Spirit. We can grow as a result of receiving actual graces through the sacrament of reconciliation, receiving that weekly if we so desire. It means we are given so much more than our non-Christian brethren. It does not mean that they are excluded from the life of divine grace, and it does not mean they cannot love God more than we do. But it does mean that judgment will likely be much more difficult for us than it will be for them, because from those to whom more is given, more will be expected.