Father Eric Mah is a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto. Here is one of his recent thought-provoking homilies.
This past Christmas, the Knights of Columbus from our parish generously handed out free copies of a book by Matthew Kelly called Rediscover Catholicism.(1) I encourage you to take the time to read this book and share it with your own families, because it’s a great way to introduce people to how to live the Catholic faith in a very real and practical way.
When I read this book on my own, something which immediately caught my attention was near the beginning where the author speaks about the various attitudes and philosophies which shape and define the particular mindset of the modern secular world. In particular, he identifies three key things: individualism, hedonism and minimalism.(2)
Let’s run through all three of these things. First, what’s individualism? Individualism is an attitude whereby I come to see myself as the center of the universe. The individualist will typically go through the course of his or her day asking himself or herself one question: “What’s in it for me?”(3)
Secondly, what’s hedonism? Essentially, it is an attitude whereby I come to see the pursuit of my own personal pleasure as my primary concern in life.(4) The hedonist will typically ask himself or herself this question: “How can I maximize the amount of pleasure in my life while minimizing the amount of pain and inconvenience which I must endure?”
Thirdly, what is minimalism? This is a particular attitude whereby I look to put in the minimum amount of effort that I possibly can into life, while reaping the maximum amount of reward.(5) The minimalist will typically ask himself or herself questions such as these: “What’s the least amount I can possibly do at the workplace and still keep my job?”(6) Or perhaps: “What’s the least amount I can possibly do at school and still get a good grade?”(7)
There are many people in the world today who might “self-identify” as being “Christian”, if not “Catholic”, who are still, in reality, giving their hearts very much to the so-called “spirit of the world”; whether we’re talking about the spirit of individualism, hedonism or minimalism.
For instance, we can say that there are many Catholics in the world who go to Mass, say their prayers, and perhaps even occasionally eat fish on Fridays – who still govern the vast majority of their conduct by asking themselves this one simple question: “What’s in it for me?”
Many of these people might still be very “kind” and “generous” to certain persons that they happen to know. Who isn’t from time to time? But perhaps, this sense of “kindness” and “generosity” is still governed by a pervasive sense of selfishness and self-interest. In other words: “I’ll be kind to you, but only insofar as you’re being kind back onto me!” or “I’ll be nice to you only insofar as you’re being nice back onto me!” And what is that but the spirit of individualism.
Let’s take a different example. Again, we can say that there are many Catholics in the world today who go to Mass, say their prayers, and perhaps belong to certain religious clubs or organizations who still govern the bulk of their conduct by asking: “How can I get through the course of my day while incurring the least amount of pain or inconvenience to myself?”
Many of these people might still be saying their prayers, perhaps even every day, but what’s often the real substance behind these prayers? “O Lord, give me the things that I want, the things that I desire, the things that I believe to be essential to my own sense of happiness and well-being. But Lord, whatever You do: do not make me suffer, do not give me inconvenience, and do not give me pain! In other words, do not give me the Cross!” And that is the spirit of hedonism: the relentless and almost single-minded pursuit of one’s own personal pleasure as one’s ultimate concern.
This takes us to our third example. Again, there are many Catholics in the world who go to church, go to confession, and even follow the Commandments who still perhaps ask themselves this question over and over again: “How can I get myself into the kingdom of heaven, while putting the least amount of effort into my relationship with God?”
These people might try their very best to avoid all sorts of serious sin. But, as we know from personal experience, there is a huge difference in reality between simply trying to avoid “serious sin”, and actually trying our very best to please the Lord in all things, especially in those little details which perhaps no one else would ever notice, except Christ Himself! But that’s really the difference between being a “lukewarm Catholic” (or a “minimalist”) and being a true disciple of the Lord.
Perhaps one of the best ways for us to pull this together is to reflect on the story in the Gospel of the rich young man (Mt 10:17-31; Mk 19:16-30; Lk 18:18-30). You’ll recall how the story actually begins: the rich young man goes up to Jesus and he says to Him: “[Good] Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life” (Mt 19:16)? If we look at the very wording of the rich young man’s question, we find the spirit of individualism. Because he’s basically saying: “[Good] Teacher, what good deed must I do on my own to ‘buy’ my way into the kingdom of heaven, without any kind of real regard for my relationship with You or my relationship with other people?” This is the spirit of individualism.
But that’s just the first thing. The second is this: we can also perceive in the wording of the rich young man’s question a strong sense of minimalism. He’s also saying: “What’s the least amount I can possibly do in the context of the spiritual life, whether we’re talking about saying a certain number of prayers or doing a certain number of good works, to ‘guarantee’ my spot in the kingdom of heaven, such that I can just ‘do those things’ and then get on with the rest of my life?”
You’ll recall what Jesus says to him in response. The Gospel says that Jesus looks at him with love (cf. Mk 10:17). But then, Jesus says to him: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow Me” (Mt 19:21) [emphasis added]. Because the rich young man is not just an individualist and a minimalist, but he’s also a hedonist, he is “shocked” (Mk 10:22) by our Lord’s response. And so, the Gospel says (very famously) that he “[goes] away grieving, [because] he had many possessions” (Mk 10:22) [emphasis added].
Whenever we hear this story, we too are often inclined to come away “grieving, [because we too] have many possessions”. But we have to think about what Jesus is really saying. In a certain sense, what He’s actually saying to us is this: being a Christian is not about doing “randomly good stuff,” and it’s not about trying to simply “buy our way into heaven.” No, being a Christian is ultimately about following the person of Christ: it’s about being His disciple. In particular, it’s about making that very explicit choice throughout the course of our day, in all those really tiny, discreet little decisions that make up the very fabric of our day, to orientate the entirety of our lives to the person of Christ: everything that we are, everything that we do, and everything that we have. That is what it ultimately means to be a true disciple of the Lord.
That is why it doesn’t make sense for us to “claim” to be a Christian, to “claim” to be a Catholic, where we seem to be doing all the right things from a purely external point of view, whether we’re talking about going to Mass, saying our prayers, going to confession, or even belonging to certain religious clubs or organizations. But at the same time, what we are actually doing is giving our hearts very much to the so-called “spirit of the world,” whether we’re talking about the spirit of individualism, hedonism or minimalism.
If we’re only being nice to other people because they’re being nice back onto us; or if we’re only saying our prayers or doing good works because we believe that these things will help us to “buy” our way into heaven; or if we’re only interested in doing what is right when it doesn’t cost us very much, or when it seems to be convenient for us to do, then, what we are actually doing is living not for the person of Christ, but rather, we are still living simply for ourselves.
The point is that when we try to live the Catholic faith in this very narrow, compromised, and ultimately selfish way, is it really any wonder that we’re left feeling empty and sad? Not because the Catholic faith “doesn’t work,” but rather, because we have not yet learned, or more accurately, we have not yet acquired the courage to actually live the Catholic faith in the way that we should. Perhaps not even for a single day!
I think the Lord is inviting each one of us to really take a chance here; to really have courage; to really try and live the Catholic faith in the way that we should: not as a “moral code” or as merely “philosophy” but rather, as a life of true discipleship vis-à-vis the person of Christ.(8) And then, to see if the peace of Christ, which is beyond all understanding (cf. Phil 4:7) does not then and only then become ours for the taking.
1. Matthew Kelly, Rediscover Catholicism (Cincinnati, Ohio: Beacon Publishing, 2010).
2. Ibid., 26-30.
3. Ibid., 26.
4. Ibid., 28.
8. Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1.