Last month, I was excited to learn that Father Robert Barron would be hosting a Catholic program on commercial television. He is the first priest to do so since Bishop Fulton Sheen some forty years ago. The program airs Sunday mornings on WGN America at about the same time I am attending Eucharistic Adoration, but thanks to my newly obtained DVR, I have them all recorded.
Father Barron is a very energetic and engaging speaker who relates well to the common man. His messages may reference the Beatles or Bob Dylan, who he calls one of his great heroes, but do not mistake him for one of those new age modern priests. His Catholicism is pristinely orthodox. Every presentation I have seen has given me new perspective.
In a recent talk (10-31-2010), Father Barron talked about laws and freedom. Since he explained the relationship so much more eloquently than I ever could, I hope he won’t mind if I borrow some of his words. He noted that Americans place a premium on autonomy. To most people, freedom means determining their own lives, or setting their own agendas. They view laws as an affront to their freedom.
Fr. Barron says another way of looking at freedom is a “disciplining of desire so as to make the achievement of good possible and then effortless.” He cited several examples. Musicians who approach perfection are free to play any music they desire, yet the freedom to do that came through discipline. Michael Jordan was the freest player to ever play basketball. He was capable of doing most anything he wanted on the basketball court, yet that freedom came through discipline. To achieve perfection, one must first submit to discipline. Discipline is not an affront to freedom. It makes freedom possible.
God’s law is not an obstacle to our freedom. As Father Barron puts it, “What God gives us in the law is a way of disciplining our desires and our bodies that we may become conduits of his love.” By submitting to the law, the achievement of good becomes possible and then effortless. I thought about this idea and I would like to take it a step further.
We know nothing unclean will get to heaven. Matthew 5:48 says, “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our goal is to get to heaven someday. As Catholics, we are on this journey toward perfection. To get to heaven, we must submit to discipline. How is this discipline manifested in our lives? Jesus gave us a Church with the authority to bind and loose. He did this not as an affront to our freedom, but rather to make the achievement of good possible that we may become conduits of His love.
We often hear people complain that the Catholic Church is too encumbered by rules. Is it really a mortal sin to eat a hamburger on a Friday during Lent or to miss Mass on Sunday? Does such a seemingly innocent infraction really suspend our relationship with Our Lord? Suppose Peyton Manning decided he didn’t feel like going to the team practice one day, or decided he was too tired to play football one Sunday, so he just slept in. Do you think he would be penalized? I will guarantee you, if Peyton Manning did not show up for a Colts game simply because he didn’t feel like going, he would face repercussions. He would probably be suspended from the team until he made reparation. Professional athletes are paid big money by the team owners are expected to strive for perfection. Season ticket holders paid a huge price to watch these players give their best effort.
As Catholics, we are members of the team known as the Body of Christ. Certain disciplines are demanded of us, not as affronts to our freedom, but rather to keep us on the path to perfection. Jesus Christ paid a huge price for our sins. We owe Him our best effort. Sleeping in on Sunday because we are too tired to go to Mass is unacceptable and is subject to penalty. Mortal sin suspends us from grace. We are cut off until we make reparation. Which is more important -- getting to the Super Bowl or getting to heaven? Skipping a football game or skipping Mass –- which has greater consequences over the long haul?
There was a time when I thought requiring Catholics to attend Mass under penalty of mortal sin was a counter-productive. We should go to Mass because we want to be there, not because we have to be there. That is true, but I wonder how many people would stay home if they were not obligated to attend every Sunday. How many people would pay their income tax if not for the IRS? How many people would obey the speed limit if there were no fines for not doing so? While some people may submit to self-imposed discipline, the majority may not. Having the majority not paying taxes and driving recklessly could jeopardize the survival of the rest of us. Some imposed discipline is necessary for the benefit of everyone. Children need to understand there are consequences for disobeying their parents. As children of God, the same holds true for all of us.
Wikipedia says the following: “In its most general sense, discipline refers to the systematic instruction given to a disciple. To discipline thus means to instruct a person to follow a particular code of conduct or order.” Therefore, to be true disciples of Christ, we must submit to the divinely authorized discipline prescribed by His Church. Doing so enables us to discipline our desires and our bodies in such a way to allow grace to flow. We become conduits for God's love. Discipline turns us in the direction toward perfection that ultimately sets us free.