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Laws don't change people

Laws don't change people

From A Love that Dares to Question A Bishop challenges his church
by Bishop John Heaps
Published by Canterbury Press, 2001. pp. 63-68,
Published on our website with the authors permission

Jesus is the good news to human beings. There is nothing in the Gospels to indicate that he came to redeem only part of us, God's human creation is the whole person: body, feelings, mind and soul. This is what he created, and loves created in the likeness of their absolute goodness, love and happiness. What have been considering in the proclamation of Jesus regarding his coming among us, has given attention to the human needs that rely on relationships with each other. Our happiness will depend on the freedom which God gave us being exercised and being allowed to be exercised. For this we have basic human requirements which will limit life in some way.

Jesus goes on to tell us that, having liberated us from the injustice that can deny our God-given rights to life and freedom, he is the year of God's and therefore his followers, are God's instruments for forgiveness, amnesty and reconciliation with God and with each other. He comes to proclaim communion with God in the most sublime way that is possible. He is the gift of the holy year which abolishes all barriers to God. This is more than any other holy year. He is the eternal year of God's favour. He is the holy gate through which we go into the holy city, into the very presence of the Holy One.

In preparation for the coming of the Lord's year of favor, John the Baptist told us of the need for making room for him in our hearts. "Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire" (Mt. 3:10). Is this the good news of the Lord? If we wonder, we may reflect that it is very good news to know that change is possible and that there is one who can give us the strength and the power to change, and can endow us with a gift whose power for change we could never imagine. John goes on: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Mt. 3:11). The call will be impossible to answer without the fire of courage and love that the Holy Spirit will give to those who allow him to give it to them.

It is a miserable state to try to live the life of a follower of Jesus without this holy fire of inner conviction and love. Many personalities have been stunted and twisted from trying to Jive in conformity with laws without love. The end result has often been a stoic life of self-protection, superficial relationships and con formity through fear. We have also experienced a legalistic and stilted response to the later calls for f conversion and reform made by the Second Vatican Council, and by subsequent reforms flowing from its spirit. It is not possible to graft the Spirit onto a living person or a living community. What Jesus had to give had to be received into fresh and open minds and spirits. His gift is not an Outside addition, but a union of spirits. The incarnation is the model.of the Church. We are the body of Christ in which human nature and divine nature live with the same life spirit.

Many personalities have been stunted and twisted from trying to live in conformity with laws without love.

In responding to the decrees of the Vatican Council and to subsequent documents, what many seem to have attempted is to keep a spirit of law and preach a spirit of greater freedom. People whose practices were determined by law from outside had no ref erence point when they were offered general guide lines of freedom of conscience in making decisions about matters for which previously they were given detailed directions. For others, if the law was not there or was indefinite, the obligation did not exist. Jesus meant his followers to be wiser, deeper and more loving than this. He said, "For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 5:20). The kingdom is within and its nature will shine out in the actions which come from its life-source. He told his followers that the fruit produced by the tree will depend on the nature of the tree.

A saying of Jesus most appropriate for any attempt at reform or change that will produce real and lasting good, refers to this very choice between inner reform and the mere patching up of what we have, preserving it in case we lose something. It is precisely through this mentality of fear that the greatest loss is sustained. In the words of Jesus: "No one puts a piece of unshrunken cloth onto an old cloak, because the patch pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; if they do, the skins burst, the wine runs out and the skins are lost. No; they put new wine into fresh skins and both are preserved" (Mt. 9:16-17). Reading this, I cannot help thinking of the people of the Church being torn between conflicting authorities, communities splitting apart and parents wondering what their children were being taught in Catholic schools, children not responding to what was previously held to be most important, and parents and pastors lamenting their departure from the worshipping community.

It seems that we were passing on a teaching learned through catechetics and practiced as part of our culture, or even through fear. There are—and always were—outstanding exceptions who have internalized the message and live out of a true faith and union laws don't change people with God. For these, change meant a call to greater holiness and a response to God and to the good of others which needed no law and very few guidelines to direct its outcome.

There seemed to be a presumption mat priests and religious needed constant nourishment for the interior life and that the laity needed no more than the commandments and the laws of the Church to be preached and interpreted for them. We have divided God's people into the privileged class and the less privileged.

Whether priests and religious took advantage of their privileged position in this regard is another matter. The important matter is the presumption that the large majority of God's holy people were, and are, incapable of very much depth of spiritual life. It disturbs me when I hear of people, young and not so joung, discovering meditation and going off to some other religion to learn how to profit from its practice. They are completely ignorant of the Catholic tradition and the many schools of spiritual life coming through that tradition.

I remember, years ago, at a time when the senior priest was absent from the parish and I had the responsibility of spiritual director of the women's sodality. I spoke to them about meditation and gave them some idea of a method of undertaking this way of prayer. When my colleague returned, he rebuked me for presuming to speak to "his ladies" about meditation He was a good and admirable man; Did his attitude, however, reflect a widely held belief that we could not risk trusting the laity with too much freedom, even in prayer?

I believe that one of our great needs is to internalize the beautiful message of the Gospel. Gospel reflection, meditation and contemplation should be part of the normal life of a Christian. The message, and living the message, are both too beautiful and too difficult to leave to chance or the vague hope that something may rub off.

One of the difficulties of living the Gospel is accepting with real conviction the fact that God dwells within me. Since this indwelling is true, the eternal year of favor, which Jesus came to proclaim and to bring about, has already begun. As we live and deepen this reality, the relationship grows between God and us. The eternal reality—heaven—will be the continuation and the outcome of this relationship. This is an essential part of the message proclaimed by Jesus and passed on to his followers to possess and to proclaim.

When the people observed that Jesus spoke with authority, they were not referring to the authority which came from anywhere or anyone outside himself. The authority was his total integrity. He was what he said, and he lived what he was. The Father and he were one, and when people saw him, they saw the Father. In our prayer of meditation or contemplation, we seek this unity with God. The Church is the community of people impelled by this Spirit of love, truth and unity.

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