A young lady came to church and asked me one question that still has me thinking. She said, "I had some upbringing in the church when I was little, but I have been away from the church for quite a few years. I really do not know much about it. I am just coming back. I would just like to know, what will be expected of me if I join this church?"
What would you tell her? How would you summarize what it means to be a member of a Catholic church? What do we expect of a person who wants to become a member of our church?
Some may suggest starting going to Mass weekly and picking up the registration form to register to the parish. Others may talk to her about belief in the presence of the Lord in the Holy Eucharist, or to have love and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and pray the rosary. Some would recommend her to go to confession. Others would explain to her about ministry of stewardship and personal commitment of times, talents and treasure. Some others stress caring for one another or witnessing to our faith in daily lives and many other religious practices and activities.
It seems that the Pharisees have a similar concern when they ask Jesus: Which is the greatest commandment in the law? Among all the things that are asked of us, what is truly essential? The Jews had 613 laws surrounding the Decalogue: 365 prohibitions and 248 positive directions divided between heavy and light, great or small laws. Jesus summarizes them into the two most important commandments. You shall love the Lord you God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
In Jewish circles the single most famous verse from the Torah is the so-called Shema. "Shema" is the Hebrew word for "hear" or "listen" and it comes from that verse, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6). The Shema was traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start of each day and at the conclusion of each day. There was no single verse from the entire Torah that the average Jew knew better than this one. So when Jesus responded to the Pharisees' tricky question by quoting a portion of the Shema, he was throwing back in their faces something they took to be exceedingly basic, something that was second-nature to even the youngest Jewish child. Therefore He was slyly insulting the Pharisees, demonstrating that even the youngest person there knew that answer already.1
The most important command from God is to love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's famous poem begins: "How do I love thee, let me count the ways." When we love someone we have some evidence flowing from our interior disposition out into actions revealing that love. A recently married man received a letter and some photographs from an old friend. Among the photographs was a picture of a beautiful patio deck the friend had made with his own hands. Impressed with his friend's skill, the man began to feel inadequate, since he knew he was "all thumbs" when it came to working with tools. Consequently, when he showed the photo to his wife he asked rather dejectedly, "But what do I make?" Without missing a beat his wife answered, "You make me happy." When we love someone, we are capable to make that person happy.
Love also requires having an object. And Jesus is telling us that the objects of our love are God and neighbor. God is the first object of our love. And neighbor is the second object. To love God and others means that we can please God and make others happy.
A man was asked to be the godfather for his nephew. And he was disappointed that he was not qualified for that role. He was married outside the church. His wife was a baptized non-practicing Christian. He told me that the reason they did not have a church wedding because it was not convenient at the time. She was not a Catholic and was not interested in church wedding. They were in college; they did not have money; they were busy with their studying and working at the same time etc. So they continued to live a busy life and got used to it. And then when he was asked to be the godfather and also expecting a child of his own, he began to think about his religion and God's role in his life. So he said, "Father, now I want to make it right. My wife also agrees to learn about the Catholic faith. What do we need to do?"
"I want to make it right. What do we need to do?" That is the starting point to put God first in their lives. That is the beginning of loving God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with their entire mind. Every day and every week we are trying to put God first in our life. We pray; we go to church; we try to do the right thing; we fight against temptation; we forgive others etc. When you are in love with someone, you think about that person all the time. You call the person; you talk to that person. You send text messages to that person. You want to be with that person.
A couple in marriage preparation class express their love for each other this way, "You are the first person I think of in the morning when I wake up. And you are the last person I remember at night before I close my eyes to sleep."
The sad reality is that God is not always the first and the most important object of our love. Many people tend to put other things and other people before God. They let other things and other people come first in their life. They appreciate and value other things more than God or even without God. There is a strong force in our society today to switch the order around or to ignore God completely. God is not the First. God is not the number ONE. Our society bombards us almost daily with the message that we should care only about ourselves. We hear in advertisements for vacation trips, "You owe it to yourself." We hear from people selling expensive products, "You deserve the best." Many people, including some Catholics, value pro-choice as a right of a woman without taking God and God's commandments into their consideration. They support abortion and consider that abortion is the basic right of a woman. They disregard God's commandment "You shall not kill." The only concern is their right "to pursue happiness" in this life.
Jesus' teachings run exactly counter to this prevalent attitude. The mark of a Christian is the love we show for God and for one another. As Jesus says, "The greatest and the first commandment is: You shall love the Lord you God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with your entire mind." We love God, less by emotion and more by acknowledging and counting the ways God loves us and faithfully responding to His love every day.
What does it means to love others? Frederick Buechner describes, "The love for equals is a human thing--of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles."
"The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing--the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, and the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world."
"The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing--to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints."
"And then there is the love for the enemy--love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured's love for the torturer. This is God's love. It conquers the world."2
To love others is an indispensable quality of a Christian. Jesus says, "By this sign people will recognize that you are my disciples: your love for one another." St. John the Apostle says, "Those who say, I love God and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also" (Jn 4:20- 21).
To be a Catholic means to love. The qualification, the requirement or the condition to be a member of a Christian community is to love God with all our mind, all our heart and all our soul, and to love others as ourselves. There is no holding off, no reservation, and no limit.
At age 17 Jennie Todd found fault with everything about the church--from the teaching methods to the time worship was held. She resented her parents forcing her to go to church and Sunday school every week. She would sit in her class with her arms folded across her chest, slumped in a folding chair in the back of the class. She refused to make friends or to participate in class discussions. It was clear to everyone Jennie did not want to be there.
One night, though, Jennie came home to find her parents huddled in the driveway in their bathrobes. Their house was engulfed in flames. They watched all their worldly possessions consumed in blazes as the fire department desperately worked in vain. It was a tragedy she would never forget.
Then shortly after the fire, something happened that took Jennie by surprise. Some of the girls from her Sunday school class came to visit her. One of the girls handed her an envelope. Jennie opened the envelope with trembling hands to discover it was filled with money. "It's from everyone in the class," one of the girls told her. "We took a collection."
Jennie was overwhelmed by the love and affection she was shown that day. She never really wanted to be part of the class, but the class showed her how much they cared for her. "I received a lot more than money that day," she reflected, "I received unconditional love and a fresh realization of what it means to belong to the church."3