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Our Super Bowl goal is heaven

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Was there an important game or something last Sunday? It didn’t seem like it to me! The poor Broncos were unequal to the challenge, doomed too many mistakes. The Seahawks, by contrast, made very few mistakes, and therefore won the game and the trophy. I would congratulate the Broncos on a very successful season, and I’ll be looking forward to next year and another opportunity for them to win the championship. I am very disappointed, to say the least! I keep reminding myself, “it’s only a game,” but that doesn’t seem to help.

It’s all too true that our culture exalts winners. The world often tells us that second-best is as bad as worst, and only the very best are worth admiring. This sort of thinking too often discourages people. Yet, obviously, excellence or virtue doesn’t look like this. Very few of us will be the very best at anything we ever do. Our success does not come in brief, glorious moments of triumph, but in the long haul of practice and routine, of doing all the little things right over and over again. This is how we keep a job, pay off a mortgage, make a marriage last, raise good children, and so on. Whatever goals we set out to accomplish, we succeed only by a long journey of hard work and practical virtue.

It should be no surprise, then, that our spiritual life works just the same. Our goal, our “Super Bowl victory,” is to get to Heaven. (St. Paul uses this same sporting metaphor in 1 Cor 9:23-7 and Phil 3:8-17.) The journey lasts the whole of our life, from baptism until death. The hard work is that of continuing interior conversion and growth in faith, day by day. The practice is that of always doing the right thing, regardless of circumstances. Our individual vocation to the priesthood, married life, or consecrated life gives each of us a “position” to play on Christ’s team. And the Church is our coach, perfecting us as great spiritual athletes, giving us opportunities to practice virtue in daily life, and always bringing us “back to the fundamentals” in the holy Sacraments.

Obviously, in this spiritual contest, there’s plenty of room for all of us “second-bests.” We’re not perfect. We can be holy people, but even so we still need repentance, Confession, and plenty of apologizing to others – indeed, none of us will get to Heaven without that grace! But what there isn’t room for is pretending that we constitute a team to ourselves, and rejecting the Church’s plan for our salvation – which is, of course, Christ’s own plan for us. We cannot be “cafeteria Catholics,” picking and choosing what parts of Christ’s teaching we like, and what parts we don’t. We must accept all of it, if we mean to accept Him.

This idea is quite contrary to our culture, which tells us that we are each the final judge of truth. But if that’s correct, then the Church simply cannot be “one Body.” The unity of the Church is unity in Christ. It is the harmony of all those who believe and act the same as Christ, who “take up their cross and follow Him” (Mt 16:24). We cannot be a group of people with vaguely consistent ideas about Christ, or who agree to disagree about important things. So either we are playing for Christ’s team, engaged fully in the struggle to live consistently the whole Faith taught by Christ to the Apostles, and by them to all of us; or we are playing for the world’s team, rejecting Christ at some level (even if we think we are not). “He that is not with me is against me, and he that gathers not with me, scatters.” (Mt 12:30).

Christ tells us in this verse that the salvation of souls depends on the quality of our discipleship. If we are faithful to Christ and to the Church, and steeped in daily prayer and the sacraments, then our lives will radiate faith, hope, love, and joy. We will be attractive witnesses for Christ. People will ask us about our faith, and they’ll think we must know something about it, since we try to follow it even when it costs us, and even when we fail. We will be evangelists, and we will be the providential means of salvation to others. But we cannot attract if we are unfaithful. If what we model to the world is judging the Church, then others will learn that they too can judge the Church, and pick and choose what they want to believe. “But if you judge the law, you are not a follower of the law, but its judge.” (Jas 4:11).

Therefore, “run so as to win the prize” of Heaven. I encourage all of us to examine our faith carefully. If there are teachings of the Church that we reject, disagree with, or do not understand, talk about them with someone whose faith you admire, or who does live according to that teaching. Study and pray with the Catechism to learn what the teaching really is, and avoid misunderstandings. Go to Confession, often, to help you come to accept that teaching. Read and pray with Scripture more frequently. Pray the Rosary daily, meditating on the mysteries of Christ’s life. These concrete actions will help you grow in faith and in union with the Church, and let God use you more freely for others.

Please pray for me, your pastors, and for all the members of the Church to grow in faith, just as I pray every day for all of you. May Christ always increase in you the saving gift of faith, and keep you in union with the Church, the one Body of which He is the head.

And you know what they say, “there is always next year!”

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City

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