WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Archbishop Gerald Lacroix spoke at the April 19 session of Nothing More Beautiful
Let me begin by saying how proud and happy I am to be standing before you today to speak about the beauty of the moral life. Not only does the subject appeal to me for its importance in our lives but also for the timing of this presentation.
Hardly a fortnight ago, we were celebrating the great feast of Easter and praising God for having given us hope and joy in the resurrection of his beloved Son Jesus Christ.
Beyond all the difficulties we encounter in our private lives and in spite of all the wrongdoings of men and women in the world, we Christians have a special reason to be reflecting on the beauty of life: we have received the promise that the Spirit of Jesus Christ is with us every day and forever, that he is the faithful companion in all our efforts to make our lives and the world we live in more worthy of his grace.
We are the loved ones of Christ as he is loved by his Father (John 15.9). In this love, we are intended for happiness: "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete" (John 15.11). Is there any more extraordinary reason for us to assert that life is beautiful?
Every human being longs for a fulfilling life. Whoever we are and wherever we come from, we are all actively seeking happiness. We know that there are many ways of reaching this goal, some better, some not so good. The markers we rely on to make our way throughout our life are what we may call values.
Moral life acts like a compass in the conduct of one's life, and since many of us drive a car, a more relevant image would be a GPS (Global Positioning System) which helps us find our way provided that we know our point of departure and our destination.
The quality of the values which a human being is willing to choose and express throughout his life is what makes everyone a human being. We can find wonderful examples of this in the history of mankind, in whatever period of time people lived or philosophy of life some may have privileged.
Certain circumstances of life may even help bring into light the beauty of moral life although the surroundings seem very gloomy and threatening and some human beings may even show some of the darkest aspects of mankind's nature.
This is perfectly illustrated in the Italian film called La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) produced and played by Roberto Benigni in 1997.
The story is about a Jewish father who strives to protect his young boy from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp by pretending that all that happens is a game. Despite the terrible ordeal, this man remains straightforward in his belief that life is worth living, that life is a beautiful thing. He is willing to sacrifice his life for his son.
Our experience of life and knowledge of history show us that moral values are part of the human fabric of men and women of good will.
We Christians can easily relate such an episode to Our Lord's earthly life when just a few hours away from being betrayed, put on trial and crucified, he still speaks the words of pardon and love to his disciples whom he calls to do the same: "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 15.12-14).
We as Christians, together with our brothers and sisters in humanity, seek a way to live our life so that we may be rewarded with a sense of purpose, happiness, fulfillment and love.
Although many of our contemporaries do not believe in God and follow their own paths in many philosophical currents, nor even refer to any form of belief, we who believe that Christ is the way and the truth find comfort in him; he is the model we can imitate and follow because the values that guided his life are beacons on our own journey to make life beautiful.
The challenges of the beauty of moral life for Christians today
The world we live in is profoundly secularized and hedonistic. This doesn't mean that life is made easier because we as Christians are guided and supported by Christ. Christ, our model, is himself quite demanding, although so merciful.
Nothing seems easy when we want to follow our Lord's invitation to act in the same way he did: "I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do" (John 13.15). The very concepts of moral life and of beauty are often, and I dare say generally, understood in ways incompatible with Christian values inspired by the Word of Christ.
In fact, many in our society tend to confine the moral aspect of life to the realm of one's privacy and to the leisure of each individual person to choose whatever way one wishes to lead his life.
Many will even assert, often with a certain degree of aggressiveness, that everything about morality belongs to the sphere of religion and that it is most imperative to establish an impassable border between religion and secular life, between Church and state.
In this perspective, the Church must challenge such an opinion by reminding everyone that the human person is a whole, one in body and soul, and that there is no frontier nor contradiction between one's belief in the moral importance of our being and the way one conducts one's life.
Pope Paul VI reminded us that a Christian who lives in accordance with the Gospel becomes a witness of his faith and therefore is ready to attain a high degree of moral life that will answer the call of God to perfection and to a true definition of humanity (Evangelii nuntiandi).
Many years later, on the occasion of the 2000 jubilee year, Blessed John Paul II called for a new way for the Church to invite all men of good will, and mostly Christians, to be witnesses of the love and mercy of God in a world that is rapidly changing, a huge task he will refer to as a new evangelization:
"As the council itself explained, this ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few 'uncommon heroes' of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. . . .
"The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction. . . . A new millennium is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ" (Novo Millennio Ineunte).
Since the criteria for the moral life of a disciple of Christ emanate straight from the Gospels as they are recalled by the teachings of the Church, they tend to be more and more difficult to rekindle due to the lack of religious culture and to the desertion of many of our fellow citizens from schools and churches where they may be taught.
So for the Christian person, we must admit that it is no easy task to assert in such a context one's moral values especially if they refer directly to Jesus Christ. But in this way, we are comforted by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (Apostolicam Actuasitatem) which recalls that the moral life is inseparable from one's everyday life:
"All their activities, their prayers, . . . their marital and family life, their daily work, their leisure activities . . . when they are lived in the Spirit of God, and even their pains and sorrows, . . . become an offering to God in Jesus Christ."
What a wonderful way of giving strength and comfort to our quest for the beauty of the moral life in our secular world! Moral life is not only beautiful, it is contagious. We must become contagious disciples of Christ to attract people and invite them to discover the One who makes our life so beautiful.
Another challenge to a Christian in this day and age lies in the very meaning of "beauty," a word generally defined by those, mostly in the media and in the world of publicity, who draw up the canons of what we should all consider as beautiful.
In this perspective, what is beautiful is mostly whatever is visible, socially and politically correct. We seldom hear that beauty will be associated to something spiritual, especially when it is related to religion.
But let's not generalize. True, many people will acknowledge that beauty lies elsewhere, in the great and small things of nature, or in some kind and loving gesture of a human being.
I then think of the psalmist who writes: "The heavens cry out the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his works" (Psalm 19). But why don't we all accept that a person's values, his goodness, his solidarity with others, his sense of justice, for example, are beautiful?
The disciples of Christ will be comforted in their belief that God is at work in this world, that his Spirit is shaping a new and better world and that he inspires all our efforts in making this happen.
Our brother St. Francis has marvelously translated how the beauty of the moral life transformed the way he lived and the way he considered even the most humble things as a beautiful gift of God: "Praised be you my Lord with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun who is the day through whom You give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour, of you Most High."
The poem goes on in praising the Lord for everything he has created beautiful. What a wonderful way to pray! Isn't this a way every Christian should see beauty in all that the Creator has put into this world, visible and invisible, and to enrich one's life with the joy of being part of it?
The beauty of the moral life of the disciples of Christ
The message of the Gospel which inspires the moral way of living for Christians refers predominantly to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, he who teaches us that he is "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14.6).
The Christian way of living bears a meaning, the grace of a purpose that guides a person in all his works, in all his thinking and in his beliefs, in his personal relationships, in his professional and social life. It means that one is willing to find beauty and happiness in a way of conducting one's life in accordance with the values which guided the Lord Jesus himself, he who is the inspiration of our life.
A Christian looks to Jesus and to the values which guided him in his own life, the very values that he regarded as being in accordance with the will of his Father: "If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love." (John 14.10).
That gave rise to such admiration from all those who had the pleasure of knowing or meeting him and accepted his teaching.
The most important values in the Lord's life are those that should be inspiring for us in order to discover and appreciate the moral beauty of life. It is important for us to reflect on these values in order to be in perfect harmony with the way Christ expects his disciples to live and to become witness of God's presence in today's world.
So let's look at some ways our Lord Jesus acted in certain circumstances that are still valid for us in our day and age and discover how they paved a new way of living, of finding meaning to a life of beauty and happiness.
Individual liberty is one of the first values which Jesus regarded as fundamental in his teaching and in the conduct of his own life. We must remember that in his time, the individual person, unless he be king, high priest or having a very high position in society, had no social status other than being part of a social group, a tribe or a people.
True to this principle, Christ will select and call personally and individually each of his disciples to follow him. He will also teach a new way of leading a moral life based on a personal choice rather than on a collective obedience to the commandments.
In one of his most beautiful teachings, he will call upon the responsibility to obey not only from the law but from the heart. And in six examples he will recall what is said by the Law but how he expects it to be put into practice by the heart: "You have heard that . . . But I say to you . . ." (Matthew 5.21-43).
In the same way, the Apostle Paul teaches the Christians in Rome that their choice to follow Christ has made every individual person a son and daughter of God: "For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, Father!" (Romans 8.14-15).
We ourselves believe that the liberty to walk in the footsteps of Christ is truly helpful in giving us the freedom to lead our life in a satisfactory way that helps us be generous towards others, loving and welcoming, happy and feeling blessed, which altogether makes us appreciate the beauty of the moral life.
The acknowledgment of the dignity of the human being, of women in particular, is another fundamental value in the way Christ led his life and this should help men and women who follow his leadership choose these values in their daily life.
The Gospels relate many episodes which show Our Lord breaking social taboos despite the hostility such an attitude raised around him. He dared to show comprehension towards people who were neglected and banished from public respectability - children for example - and compassion towards the many sick people whom he healed, and in particular lepers who were ostracized.
One of the most daring and outstanding attitudes for a man of his time was his attitude towards women, especially those who were rejected for all kinds of reasons: some being strangers (Samaritan), prostitutes, plagued by a shameful illness (hemorrhage), widows or mothers in mourning, or simply very dear friends (Martha and Mary).
Jesus was remarkable in affirming the full dignity of women.
Until the very end, he shows compassion towards the thief that is crucified close to his own cross uttering a few good words, promising salvation: "Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' He replied to him, 'Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise'" (Luke 24.43-44). Here again are examples of values dear to Our Lord liable to give beauty to the moral life; moreover, these are relevant attitudes for life in our contemporary world.
Social justice is another of the important values praised by Jesus in his lifetime and in his ministry despite the anger that would be provoked by many of his decisions.
He is most welcoming towards the poor, the desperate, those who no longer have reasons for hope and compassion because they have been rejected by the "good society" of their time: the widow who casts her small offering in the Temple trunk; Levi, the tax collector who will be called to follow him and become Matthew, the Apostle; the man named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and a wealthy man, who will convert and become a friend.
Jesus will define his true values regarding social justice and equality in the Beatitudes, a brilliant and authoritative teaching that can truly be regarded as a charter of rights and duties for all mankind, prelude to those that will be written in modern times. What a way for Christians to imitate their master in this way and encounter the beauty of a moral life!
It would be impossible to end this short listing of the values praised by Christ without speaking of the most important ones: non-violence and forgiveness, the twin sisters of love.
Jesus showed mercy and spoke of love in a time when slavery was the lot of many, when class prejudice was common, when life was harsh for many men and women and led them to despair. He proclaimed that God loved his people and that he as his envoy made this love visible and readily available to all who greeted it with hope and joy.
In fact, he made love a beacon of life in all circumstances, even when the Law allowed vengeance to prevail: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well" (Matthew 5.38-40).
In our world where Charters of Rights and Freedoms are the basic foundations of respect in progressive societies, Christians may rejoice in acknowledging that these values are fundamentally what Christ is expecting from his disciples who long for the beauty of the moral life. Moreover, Christ invites his followers to go much further in the love of their brothers and sisters.
The Gospels give evidence of a great many ways Jesus fulfilled his earthly life in a manner that reflected the beauty and perfection of his moral life; they are wonderful examples for people of all times and places to follow, but particularly for Christians who have been called to live in this world as perfectly as possible.
The mission of the Church is to recall these teachings insistently, clearly and surely; the Church also has the duty to comply with these values and to teach the ways of the Lord in a language that is comprehensible and relevant for men and women of this day, within reach for whoever is of good will.
The moral life of a Christian is beautiful as it finds its inspiration in the Spirit of God, in communion with the aspirations of mankind to goodness and happiness.
The Holy Spirit guides us to a beautiful moral life. In our vocabulary, that is called holiness; and we call upon his help to be our one and reassuring GPS (Great Prophetic Spirit) as we are comforted by the Prophet Ezekiel: "I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my ways" (Ezekiel 36.26-27).
Moral life is not only beautiful; it is helpful in taking up the challenge of welcoming the Word of Christ in our lives and making it bear the fruits of grace.
The cornerstone of this moral life is love, love as it was shown to us by Christ, the Son of God, our saviour and brother: "If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.
"This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 15.10-13). What better way to live than to obey such a command!
As true believers and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are invited to holiness and called to proclaim through the witness of our life the beauty of the Gospel: As our brother St. Francis so rightly said: "Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words."
May the love of Christ be the beacon on our way of living together, on our way to perfection in search of the beauty of the moral life.
La vità e bella! La vie est belle! Life is beautiful! Moral life even more so. In fact, we can say without hesitation, nothing is more beautiful.