This weekend I will meet with a young man who has decided to enter the Church. He is entering the RCIA program a little late so I am going to do some one-on-one time with him to catch him up with the RCIA class. I’ve been mulling over what I really need to tell him. What is the essential nugget he needs to know? Do I start with the Eucharist? Do I start with God’s love and mercy? I’ve been developing the ideas of what does it mean to be Catholic and what does it mean to be in communion with the Church for over a year as I’ve posted on my blog. Stay with me here and let me see if I can take you down the short but very challenging road I think this young man needs to traverse to be ready to enter the Church. He has been baptized so he is preparing for confirmation. This is a sacrament of initiation not a graduate degree in theology.
First consider the Gospel of John 6: 51-66
I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.
Then the Jews started arguing among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Jesus replied to them: In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Anyone who does not eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person. As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me. This is the read which has come down from heaven; it is not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live forever.
This is what he taught at Capernaum in the synagogue. After hearing it, many of his followers said, ‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’ Jesus was aware that his followers were complaining about it and said, ‘Does this disturb you? What if you should see the Son of man ascend to where he was before?
‘It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.
‘But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the outset who did not believe and who was to betray him. He went on, ‘This is why I told you that no one could come to me except by the gift of the Father.’ After this, many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more.
I have always pointed to this Gospel as the justification for the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Today, however, I found another concept central to our faith nestled in these words. Many disciples left because they found the teaching too hard. But some disciples stayed. Why? They didn’t understand Jesus’ words any more than those who left? The idea of eating flesh was just as repulsive to them as it was to those who walked away. Why did they stay?
The disciples who stayed trusted Jesus. All through the Gospels are notations of how the Apostles or other disciples did not understand Jesus’ words. Yet even with their imperfect understanding they continued to follow Him. They believed in Him and trusted Jesus would not lead them astray.
Jesus established His Church to continue teaching His message from generation to generation. Just like His disciples, we sometimes do not fully grasp the lesson. Some will hear the Church’s teaching on sexuality, priestly celibacy, an all-male priesthood, divorce, abortion, contraception, or a whole host of other topics and say, “That is too hard”. They will leave. But we must be like the disciples who stayed. We must continue to listen to Jesus through the Church. When we don’t understand we do not discard the Church or the teaching but rather trust that with God’s grace the insight will eventually develop. To humbly obey the Church in light of our imperfect understanding is a great act of faith.
So before I delve into the Mass, the Sacraments, or the Precepts of the Church with this young man, I want him to know that finding a teaching hard is to be expected. If he wants to be Catholic he must be willing to stick with it even when his understanding is incomplete. He must humbly submit to the Church’s authority because like the faithful disciples, he trusts that Jesus through His Church will never lead him astray. With patience and with God’s grace, some understanding will come. However, our understanding is never complete. The process of growth and development in our faith never ends.