The Unvarnished Truth
Twenty-First Sunday of the Year. Fr Dominic Ryan goes, in spirit, with the pilgrims to World Youth Day in Madrid.
Last Friday evening I watched as a group of young pilgrims gathered at St Dominic’s Priory in London. The pilgrims had come together from across the country to travel with a group of Dominicans to Madrid for World Youth Day. Similar scenes will be repeated across Europe and further afield as well: more than a million pilgrims are expected to converge on Madrid.
Many of these pilgrims will have to endure difficult journeys. Some of these pilgrims will have to face unsatisfactory accommodation. Many of these pilgrims will face a substantial financial outlay. Why do they come? At one level, the answer is clear – the pilgrims come because they want to see the Pope. But that just begs the question, why should the pilgrims want to see the Pope? The answer lies deeper. The pilgrims want to see the Pope because they want to be taught by him.
The Gospel tells us why. Many people find Jesus confusing. Some people think Jesus is John the Baptist. Some people think Jesus is Elijah, others Jeremiah and yet more people one of the prophets. Peter, uniquely among the twelve, knows the truth: Jesus is ‘… the Christ… the Son of the living God.’ But if Peter can see the truth and the Pope is the successor of Peter, then the Pope can see the truth and thus he can teach it to other people.
So what the pilgrims seek is the truth of the faith, the truth of the faith which is unvarnished and expounded by the visible head of the church, the Vicar of Christ. Why should this matter though? Surely, the gist of the faith is enough? Unfortunately not. If we want to get from A to B, we need accurate directions. The same principle extends to our salvation.
Thinking about it, we need to note two points. Firstly, when Christ saves us, he doesn’t just restore us to the state human beings were in before sin. Rather, our human natures are elevated so that we can aspire to the vision of God as our end. Secondly, being in a state of sin, being restored and being elevated through grace, all correspond to real changes in human beings. Sin actually damages us, both the personal sins we commit and the original sin we inherit. Sin genuinely affects our ability to do good. Grace on the other hand actually heals and elevates our wounded natures and without it, we remain stuck in sin with all the consequences which that entails.
An example may help. A human being in a state of sin is like a glass half full of water. A human being in a state of grace on the other hand, is like the same glass but overflowing with water. And just as whether a glass is half-full or overflowing, makes a big difference to the glass, so to whether a human being is in a state of sin or grace, makes a big difference to a human being. And similarly, changing from one state to the other requires that something actually happen: in the case of the glass, that water be poured into it, in the case of the human being, that he or she be elevated by grace.
Therefore if our salvation consists in being elevated by grace and such elevation effects a real change on our part, then we need clear guidance in how this can be brought about. In a nutshell what we need to know is how the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection are applied to us directly and how once they have been applied to us, we can remain rooted in those events.
This is the Pope’s task and just as Peter uniquely among the twelve recognised the truth about Christ so also his successor the Pope can teach us what we need to know. Over the next few days in Madrid, the Pope will teach the pilgrims there how these things can be brought about. We, no less than they, need to pay attention. Let us pray then that we remain rooted in the unvarnished truth of the faith.