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The heart of Christianity

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... practically speaking, how do we know Christ? We know him through reading the Gospels ...


The Christian life must have a heart; it must have a home. When Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem in the procession of palms, he returned in the evening to stay with friends in Bethany, to the quiet home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. The shepherds were led by the choirs of angels to a quiet scene of a mother cradling a child. The wise men returned to their lands in the east with this scene in their hearts.

Read the noble histories of the great saints of Catholicism, look at the splendid churches such as Il Duomo or Sagrada Familia, read the Summa of Aquinas, and all of these works are "but straw," as St. Thomas said, in comparison with friendship with Christ, which has inspired all of that activity of love.

Everyday I see this truth verified at Catholic University of America, where I work. The university has a vast and beautiful campus, with the National Shrine, and venerable gothic buildings, and libraries, laboratories, concert halls, and museums, and lots of talented people busily at work. But follow a pilgrim as he walks up the steps to the shrine, and then descends into the dark but lovely Crypt Church underneath, with its mosaics and Marian shrines. Watch from a distance as he kneels down in a front pew, in the darkness. If you look up, you'll see a flickering candle flame in a small red glass, next to a golden door, and there Our Lord is present, and he waits for him -- and for me and you -- and we can go there and speak with him intimately.

And when we do, or when we visit any tabernacle, or receive Holy Communion, or discover Our Lord in the "distressing disguise" of our neighbor, or the poor -- then we see what the heart of Christianity is, which is to know Christ, to love Christ, and to follow Christ. Everything else, the great buildings and the activity and so on, is for the sake of this and based on it.

And yet, practically speaking, how do we know Christ? We know him through reading the Gospels, I mean, the so-called "synoptic Gospels," of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, together with the meditative Gospel of John.

The ordinary means for a Christian to know Christ is through knowing the Gospels. As the Catechism states: "The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful... to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ."

And yet, do we have the habit of daily reading of the Gospels, as something like the minimal way of growing in knowledge of Christ? Pope Francis has on many occasions asked Christians to do this. "It is good to have a little Bible that you carry with you in your pocket or in your bag. Always carry a Bible with you, even on the bus!" (Lent 2014). "What would happen if we treated the Bible as we do our mobile phones? If we turned around to retrieve it when we forgot it? If we carried it with us always, even a small pocket version? If we read God's messages in the Bible as we read messages on the mobile phone?" (Lent 2017).

If you do not have such a habit -- why not make a resolution to acquire one? Our Protestant brethren are more faithful at this than we. They call it a "daily quiet time": they say, wake up 10 minutes before everyone else; read a couple of verses of from the Gospel; and take them to heart.

If we love Christ through the Scripture, we will go more deeply into Scripture in an attitude of study. What do I mean by study? I mean the way a serious person deals with anything he loves. I have seen friends over the years get serious about many subjects, to become an expert in them -- coffee, wine, auto repair, golf, wood working, opera, single malt whiskey, Lincoln, World War II, screwball comedy, chess. You are like that too, so the question can be raised: Have you studied the Gospels with like passion? Or are we Christians who can speak on the proper degree of bounce for a sand wedge, or the best oaking for chardonnay, but we don't have an opinion on, say, the structure of the Sermon on the Mount, or the difference between Mark and Luke?

"When you open the Holy Gospel," St. Josemaria Escriva advised, "think that what is written there -- the words and deeds of Christ -- is something that you should not only know, but live. Everything, every point that is told there, has been gathered, detail-by-detail, for you to make it come alive in the individual circumstances of your life."

"God has called us Catholics to follow him closely," he continues. "In that holy writing you will find the Life of Jesus, but you should also find your own life there. You too, like the Apostles, will learn to ask, full of love, 'Lord, what would you have me do?' And in your soul you will hear the conclusive answer, 'The Will of God!' Take up the Gospel every day, then, and read it and live it as a definite rule. This is what the saints have done," ("Forge," n. 754).

This is the heart of a Christian life.

- Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.

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