Living and dying Catholic means running the race with dedication, as did St. Paul, displaying an ardent desire to boldly proclaim the gospel and the faith of the one, true Church—even if it means death.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 October 2019
Our second reading on this 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, taken from St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy (4:6-8, 16-18), is especially beautiful and meaningful. Perhaps written just prior to about AD 67, it’s the parting letter of an old and imprisoned man, an Apostle of Christ, who is soon to be executed for his love of the gospel and his courageous insistence on proclaiming it. Paul is writing to his young disciple, Timothy, who had been his beloved traveling companion in his ministry of preaching. Ordained to the priesthood earlier, tradition has it that Timothy later became the Bishop of Ephesus and, following in the footsteps of his mentor, was martyred there in his old age.
In many ways, Paul’s letter speaks to the heart of the Christian life. It zeros on what it means to walk in fellowship with Christ. And, when we understand some of its cultural context, it has a lot to say about how we should be reacting to some of the secular, anti-Catholic and anti-Christian forces at work in our nation today, some of which have penetrated into the Church as a modernist invasion. It says a lot about living not as a lukewarm, culturally comfortable Christian, but as a zealous “little christ” who puts everything he has into evangelizing others in the truth of the faith and building up the one true Church of God.
More than anything, Paul’s letter is about courageous and persistent dedication in Christ—all the way to the point of death.
It’s about living and dying Catholic.
“I am already being poured out like a libation.”
In ancient Roman times, people frequently ended their celebrations with a libation, by pouring out a cup of wine onto the ground as a sacrificial gift to the gods, as if to share it with the many false deities they worshipped.
When Paul speaks about being “already poured out like a libation,” he is saying that he poured out his entire life as an offering to Christ, the sovereign Lord and Creator. Paul deliberately emptied himself for love of Jesus, down to the last drops of his earthly life. He’s also saying that he’s at the point of being sacrificed—executed—for the divine faith of the Church. He knows the sword of Roman capital punishment will soon fall on his neck.
The world of ancient Rome was very different from our own but not entirely so. It was a non-Christian world: its culture was based on the pursuits of pleasure, power, and economic prosperity. Pleasure and economic health are not bad things in and of themselves, but when they become the measure and end of a man’s life, it’s a problem. Further, ancient Rome was pagan, meaning its citizens worshipped false gods, including giving allegiance to Caesar as a deity.
Our nation is now, in many ways, a non-Christian nation in that it is a post-Christian nation. Although the first missionaries to North America planted the seeds of the divine faith of the Church, which began to grow and flourish into a beautiful garden of faith, the fruits of their holy labors were soon checked by the liberal free-love and modernist forces of the 20th century.
Sure, there are lots of people in America who claim to be Christian, but many of them live as if God does not exist. They’ve been drawn, perhaps unwittingly, into the currents of secular humanism, relativism, and a new kind of paganism that doesn’t see much of anything as sacred. The poisonous doctrine of modernism, with its push for religious syncretism, has spread through American society at an astonishing rate. Americans, in many cases, have given themselves over to seeking pleasure as an end in itself. Decisions are gauged by the pursuit of wealth. The health of the economy rules supreme in the minds of Americans in the voting booth, even over the lives of pre-born children.
As a Christian Nation, America is in decline. It’s a missionary field where the faith must once again be announced, planted, and nourished. There are many signs indicating this:
- American culture is morally fractured. For instance, nearly 70% of Americans approve of immoral activities like contraception, cohabitation (as in fornication), and homosexual “marriage,” each of which is an objective mortal sin and intrinsically evil.
- Sexual ethics has evolved to the point of pagan ethics.
- Even though many Americans claim to live by Christian moral principles, they continue to elect political candidates into positions of power who triumphantly oppose those same principles, lending support to intrinsic evils and promoting the Culture of Death.
- Less than 30% of American Protestants attend weekly worship services. Less than 30% of Catholics attend the holy sacrifice of the Mass each Sunday.
- Atheism has reached record levels among young adults.
- The acceptance of religious indifferentism and pluralism continues to rise. Religion is increasingly viewed merely as a socially helpful, pliable system that grows out of a community, with little or no connection to what is really true.
- Different religions are often seen as created equally, each in its own way a path to God of equal value.
- Most Catholics no longer view the evangelization of Protestants and members of man-made religions, such as Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., as urgent.
- The Catholic Identity—defined as a particular Catholic’s complete immersion into the divine faith of the Church—continues to dissipate.
- For every Catholic who enters the Church, about six others leave her.
Paul: Not Two Masters But One.
In Paul’s day, religious freedom was tolerated but suppressed. It was tolerated only to a point, as long as it didn’t interfere with the prevailing culture of self-indulgence, greed, and the worship of false gods. Sound familiar? Provided that Christians followed the cultural and pagan religious practices of Rome, they would be free to practice their faith on the side and thus might be left alone. Therefore Paul and others could have escaped scrutiny if they’d played along with pagan practices—something unthinkable for committed disciples of Christ.
However, it’s not possible to belong to Christ yet subscribe to that kind of dualism. One cannot be both a disciple and a pagan. One cannot worship Caesar and bow down to false gods and, at the same time, claim to be Christian. As Christ said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt 6:24).
Today, Catholics often find they’re pressured to privatize their faith. That is, Catholicism is tolerated so long as it remains unseen and unannounced. The message is: you can believe what you want, but keep it to yourself. It’s just your personal opinion. Speak openly and zealously about Christ and his one and only true Church and uphold Christian moral principles, and you’ll soon find yourself ostracized, unemployed, or forced into bankruptcy-induced litigation. If you want to lend support to religious indifferentism or pluralism, speak highly of Islam, or wave a rainbow banner, nobody will fault you for those things. In fact, you’ll win high praises.
Unfortunately, many have succumbed to these pressures, even willingly. Consequently, many Catholics have made dangerous compromises. Zeal has given way to indifference. Those Catholics whose hearts burn with love of Christ and the truth of the divine faith are astonished by the many compromises that have been made—even in the highest echelons of the Church.
“I have competed well, I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”
Paul is employing an athletic metaphor to express his dedication to Christ and his proclamation of the truth of the gospel to the very end. He kept the faith of the Church. He delivered it to the nations. He proclaimed the gospel even to those who hated him for doing so. He preached Christ under threat of death. He refused—absolutely—to give his allegiance to two masters.
Paul could have simply gone about his business as a tent maker, carefully avoiding any cause for confrontation, and lived what we might call a quiet life. He could have broken bread on Sundays in the eucharistic celebration, then gone back to his home and prayed quietly and unobtrusively. He could have carefully drawn a line between his faith and his life, keeping them in neatly separate compartments. If he had done so, he would not have been persecuted and jailed. He wouldn’t have had the need to write to Timothy about his impending death.
But, as a man of Catholic and Christian principles, in whom Christ lived, Paul didn’t do that. He couldn’t do that. It wasn’t how the race was run. It wouldn’t allow him to cross the finish line as the victor. Instead of privatizing and compartmentalizing his faith, he most certainly did interfere with pagan Roman religious practices and customs. That was his intention each and every day. He lived as a good citizen, as we are all called to do, but he refused to worship false gods and ascribe to hedonism. He refused to engage in the pursuit of economic success, pleasure and power as means to ends in themselves. He would never, down to his last breath, suggest that pagan religions were on par with the Church Christ founded.
And he refused to be silenced.
The saving gospel message, the belief of the Church, was more important to Paul than keeping things comfortable. He welcomed persecution, when it came. Why? Because his Lord said, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven …” (Mt 5:11-12).
When Paul was put on trial, everyone had deserted him. It seems he was alone as Christ was alone on the cross. He was given the option of hiding his faith away and pursing his lips to the gospel or boldly announcing it to those Romans present in positions of power, men who held his life in their hands.
I’m sure Paul was thinking about what he had said earlier to Timothy:
If we have died with [Christ], we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; (2 Tim 2:11-12).
Paul was not alone, however, for he tells us that the “Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it.” In and through and with Christ, Paul announces the gospel, not to anger his enemies but out of love for them. Out of a holy fear for the state of their souls, Paul proclaims the gospel since Jesus Christ abolished death and “brought life and immortality to light” through it (2 Tim 1:10).
“I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.”
In maintaining his fidelity to Christ and announcing the truth, Paul tells us, “I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” Let us here recall the words of St. Peter:
Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. (1 Pet 5:8-9)
Just prior to the reading we heard today, Paul bids Timothy to fulfill his ministry. He urges Timothy to finish the race, keep the faith to the end, and thus win a crown of unfading glory. Paul, the old Christian apostle beheaded for his fidelity to Christ under Nero, speaks the same words to us today:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry. (2 Tim 4:1-5)
“Fulfill your ministry.” Those, of course, are ultimately Christ’s words. I hope and pray that each one of us can, on our death bed, look back on our life and say, “I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.