A catechesis for participants in World Youth Day 2002, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
When we think about salt, we usually think of the dinner table. That makes sense, because salt is a key ingredient in seasoning our food. It gives flavor to what we eat. We can probably live without cinnamon or nutmeg or a dozen other spices, but very few of us can go a day without using salt. We depend on it for the taste in our lives.
And yet, if flavor were salt’s only important quality, then salt would be a very poor image of what Christians are called to be. That’s because we can abstain from salt if we need to. For health reasons, some people use very little, if any, salt.
But we know that Jesus, being the Son of God, would never pick a poor image to describe the essence of being a Christian. And that’s what Jesus was doing in this passage from Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew; He’s using a strong image. When Jesus says, you are the salt of the earth, He’s describing the nature of what a disciple is.
Salt is much more than just a key element for seasoning food. In the ancient world, salt was the only way to keep food from turning bad. Since nobody had refrigerators, people used salt to preserve perishable products like meat, so they could be stored for later use, or for transportation to distant places. Without salt, navigation would have been impossible. Long trips across the sea were possible only because of salt — thanks to salt, food could be carried along for extended journeys.
Now this is a very powerful image: salt as the preserver of things from turning bad or decomposing. How many things in today’s world have the taste or the smell of food that has turned slightly sour, or even rancid? How many things in our daily surroundings — our movies, our music, our advertising, and all our other cultural icons – can we fairly describe as good food that has turned bad? And here we have an image of what we’re called to be: God’s instrument to keep so many good things in our culture from turning sour.
Jesus is telling us that our mission as Christians is not just to avoid turning bad, not just to stay away from the things in our culture that taste and smell slightly sour, but to be the active element in our world that prevents that decomposing — by bringing renewal instead of decay, life instead of death.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and we, as His salt, are the ones God calls to preserve and transmit that life, to be witnesses of that truth in the midst of an environment deeply marked by signs of unhappiness and illness, an environment that the Holy Father has rightly called “the Culture of Death.”
Speaking to young people on the Italian island of Ischia earlier this year, Pope John Paul reminded them that “when there was no other way of preserving food, salt not only served to give food savor, but was often indispensable to guaranteeing the possibility of access to it. In saying, ‘You are the salt of the earth’, the Redeemer entrusted a twofold mission to His disciples: to give life a savor by showing its meaning as revealed through Him and to make accessible to all [people] the food that comes from on high.”
The Holy Father said: “Be the salt that enables the food of Heaven to be distributed to all, so that even the least reflective and those who have wandered far off, may — through your enthusiasm, passion, humble and persevering dedication — feel called to believe in God and to love Him in their neighbor.”
Salt doesn’t exist for itself. It exists to enhance something else. Likewise, we who are Christians don’t exist for ourselves. We exist for others, and the Church should be providing that kind of selfless love to the world. Therefore, your mission, young brothers and sisters, is to be the disciples who make it possible for the Gospel to reach all the corners of the world.
This is the mission entrusted to all of us at the moment of our Baptism. And God especially entrusts this mission to those whom He has called to follow Jesus Christ through vocations to the priesthood or a consecrated life. God is calling some of you to those vocations right here, right now, today. I hope that all of you called to those particular vocations may find the clarity and the strength during these days of celebration to give the Lord a generous “yes” in response to His call.
There’s another powerful message in this simple but profound image of the salt. As a Franciscan, this is probably the message I like most. Salt is inexpensive and its presence is so much taken for granted, that it seems to be almost unimportant, or even irrelevant. Yet, few things are so powerful in their effectiveness. A tiny amount of salt can bring flavor to a large amount of any other food. In almost every family meal, other ingredients are measured in pounds, while salt is measured in a pinch or a teaspoon.
Similarly, a single disciple of Jesus Christ can turn the lives of dozens of other people toward God. And that leads to the third key message from this beautiful image of salt. It’s a message of hope. Just as a little bit of salt is needed to give taste to a large amount of any other thing, a few deeply committed Christians are enough to change the world. Christ Himself started only with 12 apostles — and look at what they unleashed. World Youth Day in all its hundreds of thousands of believers is the living fruit of those first 12 apostles.
Sometimes, we look around and see how pervasive sin is, and we can easily feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Sometimes we may even think that building a world of justice, peace and reconciliation, a world according to God’s plan, is impossible. But the image of salt helps us understand that just a few of us, if we’re really convinced of our faith and united to the Lord, can do wonderful things. Astonishing things.
In 1987, Pope John Paul visited Chile during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. When he was celebrating Mass before the largest crowd ever gathered in Chile, a group of political protesters started shooting and throwing tear gas bombs. The military, provoked by the protesters, responded violently and suddenly, the faithful attending the Mass started to panic.
At that point, when a disaster seemed inevitable, the Holy Father took the microphone firmly and said in Spanish with a powerful voice: “Brothers and sisters, let’s remain calm. Love is stronger. Love is stronger!”
“Love is stronger!” What a simple but powerful truth. The crowd immediately settled down, and the crises of panic turned into prayers and songs that didn’t stop until the confrontation ended and the Mass could continue. The people in that crowd proved that the Holy Father was right, that love is indeed stronger than hate, anger or indifference.
This should be a source of hope for all of us. We don’t need to be as numerous or as powerful as those who promote the Culture of Death. If that were the case, I would have grown weary of being a bishop and even a Christian long ago.
In my daily life as a bishop, I see how hard is to find the human and material resources to carry out the work of the Lord. While we have to struggle to cover the needs of our Catholic apostolates, our parishes and our seminaries, we see others who pour millions of dollars into promoting abortion, consumerism and all the other expressions of a culture at war with life.
And when we remember that some of the most powerful and rich men on earth are involved in promoting abortion and contraception worldwide, it’s easy to feel tempted to believe that nothing we do can “compete” with them.
But we’re not competing my friends, because our victory is already won. Christ has risen; He has already defeated evil with His victory through the Cross. By being Christians, we already share Jesus’ victory. Nothing and no one can take that away from us.
And by being like salt — or like leaven, another image Our Lord uses to explain how powerful love is — we acknowledge that our strength is not measured by numbers or power, but by how united we are to the victory of Jesus Christ.
Persons like Pope John Paul or Mother Teresa show us how much one single person, if deeply united with Christ, can achieve. That’s what holiness is about. It’s not about doing extraordinary things. It’s about doing the ordinary things we are called to, extraordinarily well — even in the midst of pressure and opposition.
The history of the Church is filled with these examples of holiness. Today my mind turns to the life of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks”, a woman of Native ancestry like my own. Smallpox had marked her face and impaired her eyesight from childhood. She practiced her faith despite almost unbearable opposition, impressing not only her own people but also the French settlers and even the Jesuit missionaries. She died when she was barely past her teen-age years, yet upon her death, devotion to her began to spread immediately among her people.
The powerful people in that century probably paid little, if any, attention to this small, shy Native American. Today we have to dig very deep in history books to find the names of those powerful men, while the name and memory of Blessed Kateri grow steadily with time.
Kateri was the little grain of salt that gave flavor to her age and carried the message of life, preserving many people — even after her death — from becoming sick with the sins of this world.
But the powerful image of salt comes with a caution: “If salt becomes tasteless, what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled underfoot by men” (Mt 5:13). This is an important warning. If food becomes tasteless, a pinch of salt will make it tasty again. But if salt becomes tasteless, nothing we do can restore it. More salt can’t help, since by mixing good salt with bad, we only spoil the good salt. And therefore salt, without flavor, is little more than dirt.
And like dirt, it’s only good for being thrown out, to be trampled underfoot by men, as the Gospel says. At the moment of our Baptism, we became the salt of the earth. You and I are already salt. But what kind of salt are we? How are we preserving our flavor? These are questions that suggest still another image: the image of the true vine. Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me, and I in him, bears fruit in plenty”. (Jn 15:5)
In other words, Christ is the source of our flavor and intensity as salt. And prayer and a sacramental life are the concrete ways in which we remain attached to that source of our identity.
The purpose of salt is to give flavor and preserve the food that nourishes life. A salt that remains in its package without ever being used is almost as worthless as salt that has lost its taste. And that bring us to our final point. How are we engaging our world and bringing Christ’s flavor to it?
Our answer to this question is simple — very demanding, but simple: It’s the mission statement of the Catholic faith, which hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. It’s Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
Simple, direct, and no-nonsense. It’s a command, not a suggestion, and Christ is talking to you and me, not somebody else. If we say we believe in Jesus Christ, we must preach the Gospel with our words, our actions and the witness of our lives.
Yes, there are difficulties. Yes, there are obstacles. But let’s not waste precious time being afraid. The Lord is with us, with each one of you, until the end of time. When we leave here today, let’s ask the Lord to help us become more and more like our Mother, the Virgin Mary. As soon as she was filled with the Holy Spirit, she didn’t hesitate one second to bring the good news to her cousin Elisabeth.
Like Mary, we have no time to waste. What matters is how we live our lives from this moment on. Let’s bring flavor and life to the world, let’s be the salt God means us to be, the disciples Christ asks us to be. And let’s begin here. Right now. Today.