“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’” (Mt 16:24-25).
This summer, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work as an intern for the Catholic Apostolate Center and collaborate on several catechetical projects with other staff members there. One of these projects was the creation of a new version of From Practicing Catholics to Apostles on Mission, a faith formation course for those who want to delve more deeply into their faith and become more actively involved in the Church. Since many of the program’s participants are young adults, drafting lessons for this course allowed me to reflect on the unique opportunities and challenges that come with speaking to young adults about the Faith. This task always involves a special focus on presenting Church teaching in a way that is clear, approachable, and attractive. But with this task comes a special challenge: how can we avoid the temptation to “water down” the faith or to omit or sugarcoat its more difficult truths? How can we imitate the most perfect preacher, who stated plainly: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24)?
One of the Apostles on Mission sessions on which I worked focuses on the universal call to holiness. It seems to me that this teaching is one that we must take care to proclaim in its fullness, especially when speaking to young people:
“The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples of every condition…Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium 40).
This message shatters the common assumption that holiness is attainable by only a few individuals who perform extraordinary works. It reveals that holiness consists instead in the “perfection of charity” and thus is truly possible for everyone, because although we cannot all accomplish great or miraculous deeds, we can all act with great love.
Proclaiming this universal call to holiness is particularly important because—while we hear the commandments over and over—"Love the Lord your God with all your heart…Love your neighbor as yourself”—a very subtle but serious temptation can creep in. Namely, we can be tempted to love only when it is easy, when we find the other person agreeable, when we think they deserve it. But in fact, the perfect love that Christ commands is often difficult. It is difficult to love God daily by resisting temptation, practicing self-denial, and committing ourselves to regular prayer. It is difficult to love our neighbor on a daily basis by treating them with patience, forgiving their faults, and making a generous gift of ourselves to them. Pope St. John Paul II summarized it well in his address to the young people of Boston:
“Real love is demanding. I would fail in my mission if I did not clearly tell you so. For it was Jesus—our Jesus himself—who said: ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you’ (Jn 15:14). Love demands effort and a personal commitment to the will of God. It means discipline and sacrifice, but it also means joy and human fulfillment” (Holy Mass on Boston Common, 1979).
St. John Paul II not only acknowledges the difficulty of Christ-like love, he also emphasizes that he has a duty to proclaim this difficulty to the Church. He recognized that if we are not warned that “real love is demanding,” we will inevitably discover this reality through our own experience. And if we are not prepared for difficulty, one of two tragic results will likely occur. Finding love demanding, we may be tempted to believe that Jesus didn’t really mean “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) and might ease up and only love when it is easy. Alternatively, we might be tempted to give up in despair, like the rich young man of the Gospel who was taken aback by Jesus’ demanding invitation and “went away sad” (Mk 10:22).
Although we must proclaim to young people the difficulty of what Jesus commands, we can also provide them with the hope that enables all Christians to rise to the challenge that lies before them. The first hopeful reminder is this: God is the one who sanctifies us, who always gives us the grace we need to fulfill his call. Cooperating with this grace does require that we are willing to say “yes” to the daily opportunities to undertake the difficult work of loving. But the further hopeful news is that God generously provides hundreds of these opportunities every day. As Pope Francis illustrates in his apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate:
“This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: ‘No, I will not speak badly of anyone.’ This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.”
A third word of hope: Every time we take one of these “steps”—loving even when it is hard—we train our heart, like runners training for a marathon. With each step, our heart grows stronger, and it becomes easier to love the next time.
One more message of hope can be found at the end of St. John Paul II’s words that I quoted before: “[Love] means discipline and sacrifice, but it also means joy and human fulfillment” (my emphasis). This message was closely echoed by another great saint of modern times: St. Teresa of Calcutta. She wrote: “We should ask ourselves, ‘Have I really experienced the joy of loving?’ True love is love that causes us pain, that hurts, and yet brings us joy. That is why we must pray and ask for the courage to love.” When we consider the words of both saints, there initially seems to be a contradiction—how can love cause both pain and joy? But this is ultimately the same paradox that lies at the heart of the Gospel: Christ promises that only he who “loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25)—that is, only if we “lose” our life in self-giving can we find lasting fulfillment in this life and eternal happiness in the next.
It takes courage and great faith to believe in this promise of Christ, but there are two places we can find evidence to support it. The first is in the witness of St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta themselves, along with the countless other saints whose lives witnessed to the truth of their words. These men and women loved with total generosity even when it was difficult; they faced many additional sufferings, and yet they were filled with joy—a joy so radiant and constant that it could not have been a mere appearance. We can also find evidence in our own experience that proves the opposite side of this truth: when we have tried to fill our hearts and lives with things that aren’t God, we have all experienced how quickly happiness flees and gives way to emptiness and sorrow. By witnessing the joy of the saints and recalling our own sorrow when we deviate from the path they trod, we can trust that over time, as we continue the demanding work of striving to love as Christ loved, He will gradually reshape our hearts and help us experience the joy that sacrificial loving brings.
In summary, when we share the Gospel with young people, we must take care to speak the fullness of the truth and tell them of both the joy and suffering that accompanies the lives of those who follow Christ. By doing so, we help them avoid the fate of those who excuse themselves or fall into despair when they feel the weight of the cross. But even more, doing so helps them find the narrow path that leads to the life they most desire, “life in its fullness,” as St. John Paul II describes:
“Jesus does not ask us to give up living, but to accept a newness and fullness of life that only He can give. The human being has a deep-rooted tendency to ‘think only of self,’ to regard one’s own person as the center of interest and to see oneself as the standard against which to gauge everything. One who chooses to follow Christ, on the other hand…looks on life in terms of gift and gratuitousness, not in terms of conquest and possession. Life in its fullness is only lived in self-giving, and that is the fruit of the grace of Christ: an existence that is free and in communion with God and neighbor” (Message for World Youth Day XVI, 2001).
It has been a great gift to collaborate with the Catholic Apostolate Center in their efforts to help others recognize and respond to God’s call to holiness, to the fullness of life. May all of us—of every age—heed this call. May we have the courage to proclaim the fullness of the truth, the strength to love when it is difficult, and the confident hope that doing these things will bring the profound peace and joy that we seek.