Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Protestants are spending their Sunday mornings in football size stadiums. Not for sports, but to listen to their ministers preach the “Gospel of Success.” This new twist on the holy gospels renders the revelation of Our Lord as a guarantee of prosperity, good fortune, and freedom from pain and suffering. Quite attractive, no doubt, but quite wrong. Without doubting the sincerity or good will of these likely fervent believers, this so-called “Gospel of Success” is as far from the truth of the gospels as astrology is from astronomy. Our Lord did not walk among us and then die on Calvary to save us from suffering, but to save us from sin. No doubt Christ wills the relief of suffering, his miracles attest to that. But those are effusions of his pity, quite accidental to the utterly consuming point of his Divine Mission to redeem us from our sins. Why else would he scold, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign” (Matt. 16:4)? Christ’s gospel is exquisitely expressed when he cries out, alluding to his being mounted on the hill of Calvary, “And I, if I be lifted from the earth, will draw all things to myself” (John 12:32). Hardly a gospel of the Fortune 500.
A gripping lesson is to be learned from the Domine Quo Vadis Church on the Via Appia just outside of Rome. According to tradition this church is built on or near the place where St. Peter had a brief encounter with Our Lord. St. Peter was fleeing the great persecution of Christians that had been ordered by Nero. As he hurried from the perils of the slaughter, he saw Our Lord walking toward Rome. St. Peter queried the Savior, “Domine, quo vadis?” (“O Lord, where are you going?”), to which Our Savior replied, “I am returning to Rome to be crucified again.” With bitter recollections of his first betrayal, he suddenly appreciated what he was about to do a second time. He turned on his heel and returned to Rome. Soon he suffered his own crucifixion, but only after begging executioners that his cross be planted upside down. He understood his unworthiness to die in the position of his Redeemer.
Escape from the cross runs deeply within the spiritual bones of each of us. Even the best of us. Our life is such that at every turn we find the sacrifice of the Cross, confronting us with the choice of embracing it or not. Struggle against our sins, there we face the wood of the Cross. Honestly addressing our weaknesses and defects without excuse, again, the sacrifice of the Cross. Fulfilling the duties to our state in life with fidelity and love is always a matter of the Cross. Exercising Holy Charity, especially to those who show us none, sorely try our patience or treat us disgracefully, most certainly entails the heroic sacrifices of the Cross. Weariness and complacency invades the souls of all of us, and each time, in each instance, the Cross summons us. Man is capable of devising the most ingenuous strategies to escape the Cross. A simple examination of conscience makes that crystal clear. But escaping the Cross is always escaping Christ.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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We take all consolation from the mercy of Christ. To this Divine Mercy we all rush. Nothing less than doom awaits us without our Savior’s mercy. But his mercy is the Cross. Some speak of mercy of Christ as though it is a detour around the Cross. Some kind of supernatural exemption from the agony of having to change our lives and conform to the Holy Will of God. This is a caricature of the Savior’s mercy, robbing it of its infinite richness and depth. Our Lord’s mercy is offered to us as the firm assurance that we need not fear approaching him. Yes, covered in our sins, sometimes even with a lingering affection for them. Still, Our Lord’s arms are outstretched, as if begging. All that is necessary is “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee” on our lips, knees bent in contrition before the priest, and a heart filled with purpose of amendment. Instantly, Christ’s mercy covers us like a summer shower, drenching us with the confidence that we can become saints for “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:38). After all, if a thief could steal Heaven, why can’t we?
For the Romans, so expert in the art of grotesque executions, the Cross was the end. For Christ, and for us, it is a beginning. We do not bear its suffering for their own sake, but for the sake of winning a happiness “that eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for them that love him” (I Cor. 2:9). God does not will suffering for us, but eternal bliss. But for us “poor children of Eve,” burdened by the effects of Original Sin, bliss can only come through the wood of the Cross. Ave Crux, unica spes (“Hail the Cross, our only hope!”) as the ancient prayer of the Church declares.
Yes, we must always be wary of the ugliest temptation: wanting heaven on earth. Happiness without a price. Christ without the Cross. Just recently a prominent Catholic congratulated a celebrity athlete on his public admission of a profound moral disorder. However noble his intention, it left the impression that it is possible to be good without being good. Oh my, Christ without a Cross. How often political systems have tried state programs that would guarantee heaven on earth: happiness without paying the price. Shades of Christ without the Cross. St. Thomas More once wrote a political treatise on a country where everyone was always happy. He titled it Utopia, which is the Greek work for “nowhere.” Few have grasped the irony. Commenting upon the political temptation to creating a state where everyone earns the same, enjoys equal amounts of happiness, and no one ever has to work “too hard,” the political philosopher Donoso Cortes remarked, “Imagined utopias always become real hells.”
Catholics must ever by wary of the ugliest temptation. Christ cannot be loved without the Cross. We must never try to find heaven in this world of ours, the “vale of tears.” The only place we will ever find Heaven is in Heaven.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “Domine Quo Vadis?” painted by Giovanni Odazzi, c. 1690-5.