On March 28, 2019, the Catholic News Agency reported on a lecture given the previous day by Archbishop Charles Chaput to seminarians at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.
During his address, Archbishop Chaput said, “Do we really believe in Jesus Christ or not? That’s the central question in our lives. Everything turns on the answer. Because if our Christian faith really grounds and organizes our lives, then we have no reason to fear, and we have every reason to hope.”
What a stunning question to ask seminarians at the Josephinum, which, according to the news report, is a college-level and major seminary directly accountable to the Holy See and overseen by the apostolic nuncio to the United States.
An affirmative answer comes so easily for most of us. Of course we believe in Jesus Christ. We say so every Sunday during the Creed. But Archbishop Chaput adds the important qualifier: do we really believe in Jesus Christ? He asks us to go beyond mere words recited by rote. There are consequences to believing in Jesus Christ.
Two days prior to the archbishop’s lecture, the Church observed the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast could just as validly be called the Feast of the Incarnation. As we ponder what it means to really believe in Jesus Christ, this is a good place to begin. It is the first mystery of the Holy Rosary for a reason.
Do we really believe that God became man? Do we really believe that Jesus Christ is that man? When we kneel during the Creed at the words, “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man,” do we know and believe why we mark these words? When we kneel during the Last Gospel at the words Et Verbum caro factum est, do we assent to the reality of this event?
As Archbishop Chaput put it, everything turns on our answer. The Incarnation is the bedrock of Catholicism. Everything else is built on this doctrine. If we do not believe that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, Catholicism is a waste of time. If we do believe it, we are led to the awesome reality of salvation, which is to say, to our ultimate return to the Father, by means of the Church that Christ founded and the precepts that He established. If we really believe in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, then we must believe in the one church that He established; we must offer the perpetual sacrifice that He instituted; and we must live our lives according to all that He taught.
These days, some important voices are suggesting that mere “acknowledgment” of the “Creator” is sufficient for salvation. (See, for example, the “Document on Human Fraternity,” signed by the pope in Abu Dhabi in February 2019, which went so far as to proclaim that it is the Creator “who on the last day will judge mankind.”) It is natural, therefore, that the faithful today would have doubts about the person of Jesus Christ, or why a Redeemer is even necessary. (Perhaps this is why Archbishop Chaput challenged this group of seminarians to look deep into their hearts.)
To doubt is human. The most famous doubter in history was Christ’s own apostle, Thomas. We all know the story about Thomas’s doubting the reports of the Resurrection. But the colloquy between Jesus and Thomas after the Last Supper and before the Crucifixion, as recounted in John, Chapter 14, is more instructive for these times.
Jesus begins, “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.”
Jesus explains that He is going ahead of the apostles to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house. He assures the apostles, “I will come again, and will take you to myself; that where I am, you also may be.”
Thomas protests that they do not know the way to where Jesus is going. Jesus answers, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No man cometh to the Father but by me.”
Then Jesus doubles down, making His divine identity clear. “If you had known me, you would without doubt have known my Father also; and from henceforth you shall know him, and you have seen him.”
Lest there still be doubt about His divinity and incarnation, Jesus says, “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and I go to the Father.”
We are here confronted with the direct, personal testimony of Christ Himself regarding His identity and the eternal joy that will belong to those who believe in Him. It was meant to reassure the apostles in the near term and the faithful down through the ages against the turmoil and persecution that awaited those who believe. “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world.”
Do we take Him at His word or not? This is Archbishop Chaput’s challenge to the seminarians and to all of us. Do we really believe in Jesus Christ and embrace the consequences of our answer?
Within hours of His speaking these words, Christ’s apostles were confronted with the challenge of belief. Their teacher, commander of the waves and wind, healer of the sick, master of demons, had been brutally and publicly tortured and killed — an example to all who might consider themselves a follower of this radical.
After learning of Christ’s Resurrection, the eleven disciples went to the appointed mountain in Galilee. “And seeing him they adored: but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17.).
After reaffirming that “all power is given to me in heaven and in earth,” Christ sent them out into the world:
Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matthew 28:18–20.)
They had been sifted, put to the test. Now confirmed in their belief in Christ, they went out with zeal to carry out their commission, knowing full well that, as a consequence, they would drink from the same chalice.
In our time, martyrdom is a less likely consequence of belief in Christ, although it is making a comeback in many parts of the world. For now, our news media report on priests being stabbed at Mass in Montreal and statues of the Virgin Mary being beheaded in the Los Angeles area. For now.
In our time, the most likely consequence of belief in Jesus Christ, and observance of all things whatsoever He has commanded, is conflict: conflict between parents and children; conflict between friends; conflict between parishioners; and, perhaps most tragically, conflict between believers and their clergy.
This is the lesson to take away. If you really believe in Jesus Christ, be prepared for conflict.
Raymond Kowalski is from Rochester, New York. He is a product of parochial elementary schools and The Aquinas Institute. He holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University and a law degree from The George Washington University. After a forty-year career in communications law, he is retired and living with his wife in Gainesville, Virginia. They are the parents of three and grandparents of five.