Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
As Catholics, we should be ashamed and aware of this poll.
As a recent convert from the Southern Baptist tradition (Easter Vigil, 2009), I’m hard pressed to square this with my Protestant family and friends. How are we to lead the world to Christ and be His light in said world if He is not our first priority?
You are right of course, that God must be first. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God…” However, there’s a reason that from our very earliest days, it has been necessary for Catholics to be taught “bear with one another” (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13). Christians didn’t start being a disappointment just recently. We have always been a disappointment. The Church is not the perfect Church, merely Christ’s Church. Baptism is grace, not magic, and God deigns to mediate grace to us in our ordinariness. The average Catholic is average (much like the average Baptist). This offends (and should offend) our zeal for holiness. But our zeal for holiness, while good, is not the measure of all things: love is. So God confronts us with a Church whose members will, on average, never live up to whatever expectations for excellence we privately placed upon them when we became Catholic. Sure, you will find some heroes and saints (and thanks be to God for them). But you will also find a lot of people who are plain schlubs who adhere to all statistical norms. You might even discover that you are one of them. When you do, extend them (and yourself) the mercy that God extends you. Bear with them as God bears with you. It’s how the Church has functioned from the start. The method of the saints generally tends to be to cut everybody else a lot of slack and themselves far less slack. Strive for excellence yourself. Encourage it in others. Rejoice when you find it—and cultivate lots of charity for the many times you will not find it, whether in others or yourself. The Church is to be a home of charity, not a Darwinian struggle for superior excellence, though of course God calls us to excellence. It is this conception of the Church that, among others, marks it off from sectarian conceptions (as I once whimsically tried to point out here)
We are to seek God above all and seek excellence in our lives. We are to encourage it in the Church. But it must be an excellence in humble virtue, not in prideful virtue. One of the best ways to kill the temptation to the latter is to ruthlessly murder every impulse to compare one’s own supposed zeal for God with somebody’s else’s. That can be tough when family members (or somebody else whose opinions you value) are sitting in judgment of you. But it can be done.