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Fr. Michael's Thoughts on Biblical Imagery: Catholicity


(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)


            As we close the curtain on the first half of the Ordinary Season for Year A and prepare for the season of Lent and Easter, I thought it appropriate to write on Catholicity. What is Catholicity? To define it to fit my reflection on today’s readings, I decided to use the definition of catholicity in Merriam-Webster dictionary. The learned scholars who assembled those words and meanings in Merriam-Webster defines Catholicity as “The character of being in conformity with the Catholic church.” I would like to define catholicity as the quality or state of being catholic. It is widely accepted that St. Ignatius of Antioch was the first to attest the use of the word “catholic” and he linked it inseparably with the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Since that time the words “Christian” and “catholic” have formed an unbreakable whole.

            Today’s readings highlight three important elements in the “theology of catholicity.” Christ is at the center of this theology and if Christ is at the center, then the author to the book of Leviticus is right to give a clarion call and invite the people to holiness with the words “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God is holy.” If we define catholicity as the quality or the state of being catholic, then one should consider a call to holiness as a “conditio sine qua non.” If one accepts this call to holiness then (s)he should note with Paul in the second reading that “all things belongs to the believer, and the believer to Christ, and Christ to God.” If one has made the covenant commitment to give his life to God, whole and entire, then (s)he has to accept the Lord’s words in the Gospel and “Love his/her enemies.” If one can regale his/her life with these key elements in Catholicity, then (s)he is not far from the kingdom of heaven.

            In the first reading today, we heard the Lord directing Moses to say to the sons of Israel, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” At the end of the gospel reading Jesus said to his disciples, “You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Both statements actually mean the same thing. To be holy is to be perfect, and to be perfect is to be holy. The two statements were addressed to the entire people of Israel and all the disciples of Jesus respectively. They were not addressed to any elite group or group of religious specialists. It was within such a catholicity that the Fathers at Vatican II drafted and decreed “Lumen Gentium” (Universal call to holiness of all Christ Faithful). That is to say, the Lord demanded holiness of the entire people of Israel, while Jesus made it mandatory for all his disciples to seek perfection. In other words, the quest for holiness or perfection is not optional for any disciples of Jesus. It is a “must”. That is what has led the Catholic Church to conclude that holiness or perfection is the vocation of every disciple of Christ; that is, every Christian.

            Both the first reading and the Gospel agree on the means to achieve holiness or perfection. It is love. But it is not just any kind of love. Rather it is a love that extends to even so-called enemies – this I would like to call the ‘catholicity of God.’ If God is love, he can hate nothing that he has created. The Book of Wisdom has already said this (Wisdom 1:6, 13-15). God’s love cannot be led astray by man’s hatred, aversion, and indifference: he lets his grace govern good and evil depending on whether men perceive his grace as sunshine or rain. He tolerates it when one accuses, scolds, or simply denies him, but he does not tolerate out of sublime indifference, for he is deeply affected by man’s inclination toward him or aversion from him. If a man really rejects God’s love, then it is not God who condemns him, rather he condemns himself by not recognizing and practicing what God is – Love. God’s justice is not an “eye-for-eye, tooth-for tooth” justice. God does not love halfway, he loves totally, which is the meaning of the word “catholic.”

            Jesus portrays to us graphically the “catholicity” of his Father’s love and he does so by refusing to counter force with force. He turns the other check in his Passion, when he travels the second mile, indeed all the miles, with sinners. He lets the soldiers take not only his cloak but also his tunic. All the force of sin rages over him precisely “because he made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7). But his nonresistance can outlast all earthly force. It would be a distortion to elevate Jesus’ behavior to a political model, for it is clear (to him too) that public order cannot dispense with punitive force (In his parable Jesus himself speaks of such force, for example, in Matthew 12:29; Luke 14:31; Matthew 22:7, 13 etc.). In this world of violence Christ’s portrays God’s way of nonviolence, a way of meekness that he said was blessed for his followers (Matthew 5:5) and which he invites them to practice. I am of the opinion that, until we creed in the “catholicity” of God’s kind of love, we can never feel safe in this world. God’s kind of Love transcends race, tribe, color and nationality, it is universal and all embracing.

            Carefully reading the Old Testament texts, one can find instances where catholicity can be linked with covenant. In the Old Testament love was primarily something for one’s own clan (first reading vv. 17-18) which constituted “one’s neighbor “in that era. In Christ every man – for whom Christ lived and suffered – has become a neighbor. Therefore, they too must follow Christ’s example and surpass the limited sense of common humanity that characterizes the “tax collectors” and “Gentiles”. In the second reading Paul reveals the form this covenant-catholicity takes. Christian wisdom realizes that it cannot be partisan, since, on account of the catholicity of redemption, all mankind, indeed the entire world, belongs to the Christian, yet it belongs to him precisely to the degree that he has made his own the catholicity of Christ, who himself reveals the Father’s catholicity: “All these are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” A Christian’s true catholicity consists less in outward tolerance of developments than in an inner attitude: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, so that you might become sons of your Father in heaven. Do you want to be a catholic and practice catholicity? This is the way.


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