Fifth Sunday: The Church’s Mission to Each Individual Soul

Proposed design for a perpetual adoration chapel, St. Agnes Church, New York City.

I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, so that I may share in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:23).

St. Paul’s passionate words addressed to the earliest Christians in the city of Corinth certainly ring true when we consider the Church’s missionary efforts and the continuing work of evangelization that is at the heart of the Church’s life always. For us who have received the Gospel, what continues is our formation in Christ. The Church’s liturgical year is an invitation to continue our moral and spiritual formation as we live out our Christian lives and mature in our knowledge of Christs; that He may be formed in us (Gal. 4:19). The Gospel that we receive and live is ever ancient and ever new and we bring it to bear on the concrete circumstances of our lives as we live and change. At the human level, the Gospel’s starting point always and everywhere is the inviolability and sanctity of the individual person.

There is a saying that summarizes why the Church exists, and why and how we engage the world: The salvation of souls is the greatest law (Salus animarum suprema lex est); and this is the greatest blessing of the Gospel – the salvation of our soul.  This is both the commission and blessing that St. Paul speaks of in our second reading from the First Epistle to the Corinthians. The obligation to proclaim the Gospel of salvation which was his by virtue of his apostleship is likewise the work of the Church always and everywhere; because the Church is apostolic.

Our Gospel recounts miracles of healing and deliverance by Our Lord. Teaching and healing are not dissimilar. When we receive the truth with humility and docility we are healed of our ignorance and all that is attendant upon a state of ignorance. The Church, as you well know, has an unparalleled record of service in the field of education at all levels; just as she does in the field of health care. One quarter of the world’s health care facilities are run by the Church. Nevertheless, to return to the subject of education, this past month of January we celebrated the feasts of three great educators: St. Angela Merici, Foundress of the Ursuline Order, St. Thomas Aquinas, arguably one of history’s greatest theologians, and St. John Bosco, whose vocational schools and gentle pedagogy helped young boys to adjust to the changes in the world brought about by the industrial revolution. These are but a few of the many saints, known and unknown, who throughout history have dedicated themselves to the intellectual and moral formation of youth. Those of us who had the benefit of being taught by religious, notably Sisters, are grateful for their dedication. In her Spiritual Testament, St. Angela wrote these words to her daughters, Sisters dedicated to the education of poor girls in the Christian life: With the help of God, try to receive such good counsel that, led solely by the love of God and an eagerness to save souls, you may fulfill your charge (The Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. III, p. 1332). These words of counsel echo the Church’s supreme law: The salvation of souls is the greatest law.

In the early Church one of the terms used to describe the Sacrament of Baptism was Illumination. When we receive the truth and light of Christ our minds are enlightened and everything literally changes. The most profound change however is not simply intellectual. We do not simply pass from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge, though this is true enough. We are transformed by grace and we come to understand that we share in Our Lord’s work of salvation. The healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, though seemingly insignificant, enabled her to serve; and so it is with us. We are anointed for service. This is the mandate that we all received at our Confirmation and many of us then chose a Confirmation name; that is, the name of a Saint to whom we had developed a particular devotion or whose virtues we wished to emulate as we took our place in the ranks of the Church Militant. This term, militant describes the life of the Church and individual Christian vis-à-vis the world and the prince of this world, the devil. The Church is always engaged in a struggle to liberate and elevate the human condition. This is why so often the Church encounters opposition and even persecution, though her efforts aim not at domination, but the liberation of mankind from the darkness of ignorance, unbelief and sin.  

That evening, at sunset, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons…And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons (Mk. 1:32). Deliverance is indeed a blessing of the Gospel and the healing of the human condition everywhere has been and continues to be the work of the Church, our work. To undertake this work effectively and for the benefit of all, both servants and those served, we must be clear about the nature of our work. In the name of Christ Our Lord we engage the world with humility and a spirit of service but not without absolute clarity about both the nature of our struggle and the ultimate purpose of our work – the salvation and sanctification of every individual soul; for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul (Mk. 8:36)? How can one possibly dismiss the value of anyone’s soul for whom our Lord shed His most Precious Blood? This is why St. Paul passionately says, if I proclaim the Gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel! (1 Cor. 9:16). This is why our prayer always includes the conversion of poor sinners and those who do not yet know the liberating truth and healing grace of the Gospel. The blessings of the Gospel are indeed numberless and limitless.

In the work that is ours by virtue of our discipleship we serve humanity just as Our Lord did. That evening, at sunset, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons (Mk. 1:32-34).

We can imagine that each of those healed and delivered encountered Our Lord personally; each one was addressed and perhaps touched by Him. This is how we likewise encounter Him in the Word addressed to us and in the Eucharist that we receive. In like manner the Church addresses herself to each and every individual soul; so that in the heart of each disciple the Kingdom of Heaven will be established, with Our Lord’s law of love and Our Lord’s own way of life: gentleness, humility, and service.

The tyranny of socialism which predicates of the individual simply as part of a collective, expendable if necessary, has taken a firm hold of the Church’s structures. This impersonal approach to what is ultimately a very personal engagement in the work of salvation will be ritualized this year in the distribution of ashes as Lent begins. Priests have been instructed to say the formula once and simply administer the ashes without the customary address to the individual penitent: Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return /Repent, and believe in the Gospel. The call to repentance, conversion and transformation is intimately personal, as evidently, is also the response. Our Lord came into the world to heal the human condition; and He teaches us through His saving Word and Sacraments an altogether new way of being human. The blessings of such a life benefit each individual disciple of Christ and the world as a whole; and so we personally undertake all things for the sake of the Gospel, so that everyone may share in its blessings. In His mercy, may God grant us the grace of final perseverance and deliverance from tyranny of whatever sort, political, theological, spiritual.