The Way of Beauty Forming disciples


The Church needs disciples. In early Christianity, being a disciple meant putting one’s life in danger. Living as a christo-pher, as a Christ-bearer, was punishable by death because he or she personified Christ, the “enemy” of pagan idols. Offering the Eucharist also condemned to death those who offered it. But by the middle of the fourth century, Christianity had not only overcome the empire which persecuted it; Christianity now became the established religion. Tertullian, the second-century apologist, had it right: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

The first apostles and later St. Paul were called and commissioned by Christ. They in turn called other disciples. The making of disciples has continued down through the centuries, and in our time, the Church calls and commissions men and women to build a world for Christ.

Discipleship and the defense of the Catholic Church have taken many forms. At a time when society lives as though God does not exist, most people bristle at gratuitous expressions of faith. In the public square, religion is a discomfiting topic for conversation, except perhaps for ridicule—not a new past time. For example, the film version of the play, “Man for All Seasons,” opens at the home of Sir Thomas More where family and friends pass the time in gossiping about lax clergy.

Discipleship is a way of life for every Catholic, without exception, always and everywhere. Each person is to live out discipleship “in the tangle of one’s own mind.” Like Bernini’s “maternal arms of Mother Church” at St. Peter’s in the Vatican, the embrace of a disciple opens out to the whole world. The ambassador for Christ is an ecclesial Catholic, a person of the Church, and an apologist who defends the Church, if it becomes necessary. How does a disciple do this today?

Before all else, the Catholic Church is a church at prayer. The Church’s service to others emerges from the Eucharist, which sends out the disciple to love and serve the world. One’s personal prayer in solitude unites the Body of Christ offering the Eucharist. St. Thérèse of Lisieux discovered the apostolic character of prayer within the confines of her Carmelite cloister and yet, in 1927, she was declared with St. Francis Xavier, co-patron of the missions.

Second, at Emmaus, Jesus did not correct the two disciples, though they were confused and distraught. (Lk 24) He did not bombard them with information but established a rapport with them by asking why they were so downcast as they were walking along the road. They were actually going in the wrong direction. Instead of abandoning them, Jesus kept them company. Though it may have seemed easier to correct their inaccuracies and false assumptions, Jesus approaches them with respect, an essential quality of love. Through his beauty and through the “breaking of the bread,” Jesus wins their trust and companionship.

Third, the message of a late first-century document has much in common with today’s secularized culture. Part of the letter to Diognetus, written by a disciple known as Mathetes, describes today’s disciple: (a) Christians are indistinguishable from other people whom they encounter. Yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. (b) They live “in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh.” Their vision is both present and beyond. (c) They obey just laws but transcend them. (d) They treat others as they would want to be treated. In biblical language, these are the anawim of the Lord.

Considered fools, the anawim of the Old Testament were the poor of every sort: the vulnerable, the marginalized, and socio-economically oppressed, those of lowly status without earthly power. They depended totally on God. In times of suffering, they remained faithful and awaited the good things of the Lord to fill their emptiness. (Lk 1:53) Jesus taught with the moral authority of the anawim, not with temporal power, and the Sermon on the Mount makes the ultimate counter-cultural statement. Mahatma Gandhi himself treasured the beatitudes as the core of his teaching, and it is said that he took a copy of them wherever he went. Today’s disciple, like the anawim, remains unbudgeable in the face of ridicule without appearing naïve or weak.

Fourth, an informed and faithful Catholic best proclaims the faith through the power of good example rather than debate or pietistic display. Personal testimony boasts five criteria in its favor: (a) convergence: though there may be many approaches, there is one vision of Christ and the Christian life; (b) firmness: disciples wear a breastplate of unwavering assurance and firm conviction; (c) novelty: disciples proclaim a message that they could not have accepted had it not been for the prompting of God’s grace, however manifested and received; (d) transformative: disciples have been transformed by the message they proclaim; (e) illuminative: they communicate clues to living a meaningful life, and, with no ulterior motive, offer Christian hope. (“Church and Society” 438-49) The joyful and good-humored disciple who gives personal testimony has been formed in the Church’s teachings on revelation, sacred scripture, Tradition, sacramental life and prayer, the energy of one’s activities. Whether complicated or simple, subtle or direct, the disciple of the Lord is a rich cake without the icing.

Our Children, Our Treasure, Our Future Disciples

Our children and young adults have a right to education in beauty, truth, and goodness – crowned with love. John Paul the Great has written that “our children have a right to receive from the Church instruction and education enabling him or her to enter on a truly Christian life; and from the viewpoint of human rights, every human being has the right to seek religious truth and adhere to it freely and “without coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and any human power.” (Catechesi Tradendae 14)

It is easier to make disciples of children than it is with formed adults. Children are untouched by bias, which has to be taught. With an innate sense of wonder, they are natural contemplatives. Children are more receptive, more malleable than adults who, having become entrenched in their ways, can find change quite difficult. “Our children have the right to hear clearly the Church’s teaching,” exhorts Benedict XVI, “and more importantly, to be inspired by the coherence and beauty of the Christian message, so that they in turn can instill in their peers a deep love of Christ and his Church.” (Address to Bishops of NY, Nov. 26, 2011) This is why the Church is so extravagant in her concern for her children – from conception through infancy, young adulthood, and beyond.

Next week’s column will further develop our last point in regard to our children.

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