Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12 / Psalm 118 / 1 John 3:1-2 / John 10:11-18
“There is no salvation through anyone else,” Peter says of Jesus in today’s first reading. That conviction, perhaps more than anything else, has driven the efforts of Christian missionaries for two thousand years. The history of that missionary effort, its beneficial as well as its harmful effects, has been the subject of much debate in the past fifty years.
I remember, in seventh grade, reading Maryknoll Magazine for the first time and deciding there and then I wanted to be a missionary, travel to far and exotic places and bring Christ to the “heathen nations.” Within the religious ghetto where most Brooklyn Catholics of my generation grew up, there was little doubt that the Roman Catholic Church not only subsisted in the one true Church of Christ (as Vatican II put it) but was identical to that true church and, thus, the only way to salvation – the one door to heaven, so to speak. Some would argue that Vatican II changed all that, opening up a way to acknowledge Christ as the unique Savior of the world while respecting other religious traditions as valid: if those non-Catholics were not on the designated highway to heaven, at least they were seen as traveling in the right direction.
I’m not so sure Vatican II invented that idea as much as verbalize what had already been brewing in our collective unconscious for some time, especially since the time when Europeans embarked on that so-called “Age of Discovery”; when they encountered peoples, cultures and societies which challenged their basic notion of what Cardinal Ratzinger called the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and his Church in his now famous declaration from the year 2000 – Dominus Iesus.
That encounter with difference, way back when, posed the challenge of first seeing peoples outside Western culture as human, as capable of salvation (African slaves and Indians being the prime examples); and then, once their humanity was acknowledged, to make every effort to convert and baptize them, igniting a great missionary effort not seen since Christianity ceased being simply a Jewish sect. Even in China, where Europeans encountered a culture more advanced and sophisticated than their own, the emphasis was on making the other conform to western ways of expressing faith at the expense of their own cultural practices. There were notable exceptions: the remarkable Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, being perhaps the greatest example. In sixteenth century China Ricci translated himself into Chinese Confucian society. Rather than simply imparting truth, he sought to discover it – practicing that Thomistic (and very Catholic) principle he had learned so well: God can indeed be known through the light of one’s own reason and that, therefore, in a mysterious way, salvation can be experienced by those who never heard of Christ. Ricci’s non-Jesuit successors, however, didn’t see things the same way. One could argue that their arrogance in these matters lost China to the Church, altering the course of world history in a significant way.
Some see the theology expressed in Dominus Iesus as a revisionist document in much the same vane; a return to that type of arrogance where the explicit necessity of confessing Christ and the Catholic Church as the only way to salvation is reiterated. And even for those of us completely convinced of the truth of that document, the fact remains that we no longer live, or can live, in that Catholic ghetto of yesteryear (even though we might want to). There remains that nagging question in the back of our minds, brought forward every time we meet someone – be they Protestant, Jew, Muslim, or even atheist – who leads a good and perhaps even exemplary life: How can it be that someone who is outside the Church, or who denies Christ’s unique role as savior, lead a better, happier or more meaningful life than people like you and me who claim more complete access to truth and grace?
Apart from a ghetto mentality that basks in black and white, either/or formulas, the answer resides in mystery. Even those graced with the gift of infallibility in matters of faith cannot (at least, till now, have not) pronounced on how that divine mystery of love and redemption enters the hearts of those outside the faith. Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie so much in explaining what that faith entails, but rather, depends on the definition of what you mean by “outside.”
The Catholic Baptismal Rite might be a case in point. While blessing the water to be used for baptism, the priest says: “Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism.” One might wonder if those Israelites of a pre-Christian age knew they were being baptized into Christ as they trod through the muck and mire of those parted waters. I wouldn’t think they did. But the blessing does reveal the Church’s willingness to accept that salvation can come in different guises, through many different translations of that one eternal Word. Revelation may have ended with the death of the last apostle, but history has not. It’s not the fact of the redemption that one questions in this regard, but how that redemption is revealed in time, in history. The task of the missionary, our task as Catholic Christians in this age of the so-called “new evangelization,” is perhaps not so much to simply reiterate an ancient truth but to discover its manifestations – the translation of that eternal Word - in ever new and surprising ways.