Miriam writes: In the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday we say ‘we believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church…’ Does this mean that members of other religions won’t be included in God’s salvation – only Catholics? Weren’t Jesus himself and his earthly parents practising members of the Jewish faith? Fr Bernard replies.
Your question, if I am not mistaken, reveals a concern for the fate of about five billion of our contemporaries who are not officially members of what we believe to be the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’. For good measure, we could throw in all those numberless Children of Eve, of all sorts of religions and none, who have inhabited our planet since time began and for whose salvation also the Saviour shed his blood.
Message of happiness
The eternal happiness of every single member of our race has always been the desire of God, something made clear at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. This vast project, announced early one morning by a bunch of country yokels in the middle of the city so astonished his listeners that they thought that Peter and his companions were drunk.
Before the end of the day, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, three thousand of them had accepted the message and asked for Baptism. However, there were several thousands more who also heard the message that day but did not ask for Baptism. The ultimate destiny of this latter group was to be as much the concern of Peter, chief steward of Christ’s Church on earth, as that of the former.
God deals with each single one of us ‘where we are at’. Peter, a God-fearing Jew, came to realize this slowly. First of all he learned it through trial and error in his own life. Like all of us he had his shortcomings and his prejudices but after three years in the presence of Jesus and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he reached a very advanced understanding of God’s ways in this world.
`I now really understand that God has no favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Ac. 10:34-35). We should remember that this is the unchangeable teaching of the first Pope and that it is as true today as it was when Peter first expressed it in the house of Cornelius. This was also the teaching of Paul. ‘God wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth’ (I Tim.2:4).
We should not underestimate how big a step forward this was for a faithful Jew like Peter. The Jews believed themselves, rightly, to be the Chosen People. Understandably they gloried in this calling. They adored the One, True God and would have nothing to do with the ‘gods’ of the gentiles. But Peter was learning that having nothing to do with the `gods’ of the gentiles was a different thing from having nothing to do with the Gentiles themselves.
Our brothers’ keepers
He was beginning to see that God expects all of us, both Jews and Gentiles, to be our ‘brothers’ keepers’, something revealed in Genesis, the very first book of the Bible. Indeed the only thing on the agenda at the Last Judgement, as Jesus made clear, is our dealings with the ‘least of our brothers and sisters’, especially when they are in trying circumstances. Through the centuries the Hebrew prophets had to keep challenging their own people to raise their sights. Like the rest of us, they tended to underestimate their vocation. As God’s chosen people their role extended far beyond their parochial preoccupations on the little parcel of land situated between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. The destiny of all humanity was part of their brief.
Light to the nations
`It is not enough for you to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel; I shall make you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach the remotest parts of earth’ (Is 49:6). Peter and his companions, all Jews, saw this prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, the Light of the World. We Christians are called to carry on this work until the end of time with as much urgency as ever.
Every authentic expression of Christian life helps spread this light to the nations. The first place where this happens is in the family where the Ten Commandments and the precepts of the Church are observed faithfully. Jesus spent nearly all his time on earth living unobtrusively in a family like the rest of us. Surely this is a divine endorsement of the importance of what happens in each of our homes.
The good example of parents has been the first inspiration of the great witnesses to Christ, those. women and men who have made such a contribution over the last two thousand years to the work of evangelization. One of the great glories of Ireland, the home of this magazine, is that so many thousands of her sons and daughters, over the centuries, have responded to the call to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. They learned in their homes that the most ordinary things could contribute to the spread of the Kingdom if offered wholeheartedly to God.
`Whatever you eat then, or drink, and whatever else you do, do it all for the glory of God’ (1.Cor.10:31). This ideal is the driving force behind the prayer, preaching, teaching, caring, nursing, nurturing and countless other evangelical activities that have changed the world.
Enlisted for Christ
Every baptized person is enlisted in this great work for Christ. We do not know how God involves all those billions of other people in the work of their own and the salvation of others. Unlike us they do not know the identity of the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It may be only on the Day they meet Him as a welcoming Judge that they will learn that every time they dealt kindly with someone in need, it was actually to Him that ‘they were doing it’ (Mt.25:41). More will be expected of those who knew Him by faith during life. As God’s ‘spoiled children’ in the household of the faith much is expected of us. We cannot have it both ways.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (July 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.