Vocations find their true meaning in Christ
Three young men share their stories as they are just days away from receiving an irreversible grace of being ordained priests. They speak about how they were influenced by others and how they could not avoid the call from God to be men who serve others.
Click here to see their video.
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Salvation in Christ Alone
4th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP
The Bible is a great book, not only because it gives us God's revelation, but also because it is a marvelous piece of literature. The Bible is filled with colorful characters. For example, take Peter, whose speech we hear today in the first reading from the Book of Acts. Peter is zealous, impetuous and stubborn. He has a tendency to put both feet into his mouth and embarrass himself. Peter tends to act and speak before he thinks. Maybe that's why some of us can identify with him.
Today, Peter speaks to the Sanhedrin, meaning, the official religious leaders of Israel. Again, Peter seems to go a bit overboard. The high priest and others have been interrogating Peter and John about their public preaching. Basically, the Jewish leaders want the apostles to keep quiet about Jesus. Peter's answer is very direct. Miraculous healings are taking place by the power of Christ, the one that they, the Jewish leaders, rejected. Nothing will stop Peter from preaching Christ. Besides, he says, you Jewish leaders have no life with God unless you accept Jesus as Lord.
For many of us, a natural reaction to this rather aggressive speech is that Peter is being his imprudent self again. His zeal may be admirable, but he sounds quite intolerant, doesn't he? Why can't Peter just go off, live his life, and accept the fact that the Jewish leaders are who they are instead of condemning them? Peter sounds terribly closed-minded. His preaching was a direct confrontation with the Jewish leaders' assumption that the Torah, the law of God revealed in the Old Testament, is the way to salvation, to life with God. Peter's teaching also sounds confrontational in our time. He clearly claims that salvation is found only in Jesus. We too may find that idea hard to swallow.
We live in a multi-cultural, multi-religious world. Most of us know good Jews, Buddhists, Muslims or Hindus whose lives are often very admirable. We also know agnostics and atheists who do much good in the world. So we naturally wonder: Shouldn't these good Hindus or agnostics also go to heaven? Doesn't God love them too and want to save them? It doesn't make sense to conclude that all Buddhists are excluded from heaven simply because they don't believe in Jesus. But then how can Jesus be the only savior? Isn't Peter's speech simply wrong? Isn't the Buddhist or Jew saved because he's a good Buddhist or a good Jew and tries his best?
These are terribly important questions, and they deserve an answer. But before we look for a solution, let's back up and briefly consider what one non-Christian religion believes about salvation or everlasting life. We need a glimpse of the big picture so we can better understand exactly what our Catholic faith teaches us about salvation. So let's compare Peter's speech to the teachings of Buddhism on the path to everlasting life. We can learn a great deal about our own faith when we compare it to a different religion like Buddhism.
Buddhism is well-known for its teaching about nirvana. Some people think that nirvana is the Buddhist version of heaven, though that is only half-true. Nirvana is supposed to be a state of absolute liberation, complete detachment and peace. There is no God in nirvana. Buddhism does not believe in an eternal God, just temporary celestial beings that it calls gods. Nor are there human souls in nirvana. The core teaching of Buddhism is that the self does not really exist. What you and I consider the self or perhaps the soul is really a temporary being. You don't really exist as a permanent, immortal individual. So you don't really go to nirvana. Nirvana means that you have overcome the illusion that you exist as an individual self. Buddhist meditation is designed to help you recognize and accept that hard fact. That is why Buddhist meditation is so different from Christian meditation.
Perhaps the most famous living Buddhist teacher is the Dalai Lama. We often hear the Dalai Lama encourage Christians to practice their own religion. This is because he recognizes that certain elements of Christianity can help us Christians attain a better rebirth in the future. As you know, Buddhism firmly believes in rebirth, meaning, all of us have multiple even thousands or millions of lives. In other words, the Dalai Lama does not think that good Christians go to Christian heaven after this life. He's quite convinced that we Christians will be reborn. The Dalai Lama does not think that God or Jesus exists, and so, for him, there is no Christian heaven either. He believes that there is only nirvana. So how do we Christians get to Buddhist heaven, to nirvana? In his writings, the Dalai Lama says that only Buddhists can get there. In other words, if we are good Christians, we can diminish the number of our future lives and perhaps even have the golden opportunity of soon being reborn as Buddhists. And then, in a future life, if we are good Buddhists, we will have the chance to reach nirvana. This is why the Dalai Lama is in no hurry to convert us Christians to Buddhism. He thinks that we can convert in one of our many lives to come. For the Dalai Lama, there is one effective path to salvation, namely, Buddhist teaching and practice, period. Christianity can help in the short-run, but it will never get us to the goal.
It turns out that when the apostle Peter says that there is one path to salvation, he has much in common with the Dalai Lama. Now, I think that neither the apostle Peter nor the Dalai Lama are being narrow-minded. Peter says that there is one path to salvation. In fact, if you look at the major world religions, you will find that they essentially share a similar conviction. Islam holds that submission to Allah is the one way to everlasting life. Most of Judaism says that faithfulness to the Torah is the one path. So claiming that Jesus is the one way to salvation is not intolerant, unless we want to dismiss Buddhism, Islam and much of Judaism as intolerant. But this still leaves us with a real problem, namely: how can the good Buddhist or Jew be saved if Jesus is the only way?
The Bible already gives us a clue that every human being is given a real opportunity to share eternal life with God. In his First Letter to Timothy (2:5-6), St. Paul tells us that Jesus is the one mediator between God and humanity, and that God desires the salvation of every human being. Jesus didn't just come for the lucky few who have heard the Christian Gospel. This is the wonder of God's infinite mercy, the God who employs mysterious means to offer salvation to every person.
In our own time, Vatican II states very clearly that the Holy Spirit gives to everyone an opportunity to be united to Jesus in his Death and Resurrection, but in a mysterious way that is only known to God. For only God sees the human heart. God encounters every human being in the depth of their soul at some point in their life. Vatican II also speaks about Christ guiding persons of good will who have not yet arrived at a definite belief in God. In their striving for objective goodness and justice and in their quest for God, Jesus can begin to work in the hearts of those who do not yet clearly recognize the truth about the Christian Gospel. So perhaps after his life on earth, the Dalai Lama will be quite surprised to find himself in purgatory and then in heaven, adoring the Trinity.
I have a cousin who recently passed away. He was only 42 years old. He had a hard life. He wasn't raised to practice the Christian faith. He rarely encountered religious persons, and I don't think he died as a confessing Christian. I pray for him often, and I pray filled with hope. For I know that Christ met him at some point along the path. Jesus stretched out his hand, maybe once, maybe many times. Did my cousin accept it, perhaps without fully realizing what was happening? I don't know, but I am full of hope.
Jesus died for everyone. The one sure, safe path to life with God is explicitly believing in Christ and following his teaching, practicing the Christian faith. That is why Jesus tells his disciples just before his Ascension: "Those who believe and are baptized will be saved" (Mark 16). But Jesus came to bring every person into eternal communion with him. And so we hope for everyone, without exception. Jesus wasn't just a prophet or a nice guy. He is the Son of God, the one and only savior. Jesus gives eternal life to everyone who accepts the gift.
Gavin D'Costa, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000), pp. 78-87.
Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, #22
Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, #16
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Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology
At DSPT we are a community engaged in study that is rooted in tradition and provides answers to today's challenges.
"Undoubtedly one of the strengths of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology is the ability it fosters in its students to dialogue, on the intellectual level, with contemporary society ....The faculty is both academically prepared and doctrinally sound."
- 2008 report of the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education.