To Be Transformed by God and Others

The mission statement of the St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center in Tucson, Arizona, which is affiliated with the University of Arizona, is “To be transformed through an encounter with the Spirit of Truth and the Love of God.” Having been assigned here for about a year, I thought extensively about what it means to be transformed as a person, particularly as a Christian. By reflecting on the scriptures in the light of ecclesiology, I hope to explain thoroughly this mission statement.

A Tourist or a Missionary?

There is a difference between a tourist and a missionary. To begin, a tourist is a person who decides to travel to a foreign land, country, or continent to explore the surface features of that place. Pleasure, hype, rest, or fun may describe, in short, his or her motives. While vacationing at, perhaps, the well-known Hilton hotel, he or she may grab a bite to eat or drink to slurp at a nearby McDonald’s or Starbucks. There is certainly nothing wrong in seeking comfort, yet the question comes to the surface if we fall into the notion: I have always done it this way.

Quite the contrary, a missionary assimilates openly. He or she learns the local customs such as language, food, positive laws and norms, fashion, etc. Unlike a tourist, he or she possesses a sense of awareness that I must reach beyond the norm to the new. There comes a point in a life of a missionary to make sense of the friction between what is objective and subjective; that there is a world beyond me that I must say yes to. Yes, it is much more difficult to be a missionary than a tourist. To simplify, another way to describe this difference is to compare a so-called friend who dominates conversations as distinct from that friend who truly listens.

Peter, the Missionary

In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 7, the Pharisees criticize the disciples of Jesus for eating with unclean hands. They are furious that the human tradition of the elders that called for ritual purity is dismissed. Perhaps the Pharisees imagined the worst possible outcome. After all, they may have feared that the Gentiles would dominate their Jewish culture. How dare these disciples break the customs and laws that have been handed on for generations? And why is this Jesus not criticizing them as we are? Is he a Gentile himself? The Pharisees, in this passage, seem to fit the model of a tourist, as I have explained, who do not desire for any type of assimilation.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the followers of Jesus debate whether the Gentiles should be baptized. Like the event in which the disciples ate with their unclean hands, the baptism of the Gentiles is shocking for those who obey the Mosaic law. While a Big Mac is familiar and safe, the Trident burger down the street is hidden and risky. To encourage others to see beyond such human tradition, Peter exclaims that “in every nation whoever fears (God) and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35). After the statement, he baptizes Cornelius, a good-hearted Gentile, along with others of similar heritage. In this sense, Peter has a missionary mind set, welcoming the Gentiles to the table of the Lord.

As we continue to read in the Acts, some complain to Paul and Barnabas about how unlawful it is for the Gentiles to be baptized. In hindsight, they are criticizing Peter for loosening the Mosaic law of circumcision. The naysayers are furious, stating, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

We can certainly make the connection between the criticism that the naysayers have for Peter, and that the Pharisees have for Jesus, to that which exists in the life of the Church today. How often do we hear nowadays about media commentators criticizing about our bishops and popes? It is certainly true that our churches are imperfect due to the shortcomings of our people, which includes the clergy. It is, furthermore, true that some people, in the name of their office, have committed some serious errors in the past, and in different forms, continue to do so. Yet, if we cannot ultimately make the distinction between a fallible and infallible Church, we may be falling into an unhealthy idealism. All in all, it is right to note that many criticisms are just, yet they are also a reminder for us to be transformed into the ways of Christ and of the goods that flow from Christ’s infallible teachings.

Petrine Ministry as Preserver of Unity

In the Acts, the role of the office of Peter is explained well and thoroughly. It describes the Council of Jerusalem,1 the first meeting place between the church’s hierarchy and a place where Paul and Barnabas had traveled to in order that they receive some guidance from the elders. While the roaring arguments arise on the matter of baptism and circumcision, Peter rises to give a persuasive speech. He states, “[God] made no distinction between us and [Gentiles], for by faith he purified their hearts” (Acts 15:9). Here Peter is speaking as magisterium2 with the authority that has been delegated to him by Christ. We must note here that Peter is certainly not a perfect man. He is a man with shortcomings and sins who must continually seek the love and mercy of God. Yet, when he speaks as magister, by the office of papacy that is delegated to him, his words point significantly to the words of Christ. In such manner, by his office, he “serves [the Word of God], teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.”3

The concern for today’s state of society and culture is that the infallible nature is heavily dismissed due to the fallible nature that has hurt the lives of the faithful. For instance, just to name one, the clergy sex abuse scandals may have expelled the faithful from the pews, and that in turn, motivated them to reject the grace of God. This complex reality is worth looking into for all of us who want the best for our people.

Having explained thoroughly the negative features of the fallible church and my wish for reform in this area, my ultimate question is this. Where is hope for the Church in the world of confusion that seems hopeless? How are we to live as the people of God in a culture that only seems to possess a tourist mindset?

The People of God and Hope

I am not sure if I can provide answers or resolutions. All I can say is that Christ and the infallible aspect of the Church can still give us hope in these times. We are a people of God, a church imbued with shortcomings and sins, yet by our seeking of justice and mercy, Christ continues to pour out his love for us. In such a way, God continues to reform the aspects of the Church that are not of his goodness, truth, and beauty. The people of God are always in need of a deeper transformation as the People of God. In other words, the fallible tendency of the Church needs to always be renewed by Christ the Redeemer.

We are all called to a deeper transformation by loving God and loving our neighbors. What does that mean for the People of God as a whole? Perhaps it is in having a genuine dialogue with each other: the laity and clergy listening and speaking to one another. As we noted, the magisterium preserves unity in the Church just as Peter brought together the Jews and the Gentiles. If the Church cannot break away from the selfish motifs of individualism that is evident in today’s postmodern culture, we will never achieve the freedom that Christ calls us to.

Conclusion

To conclude, what does it mean, “To be transformed through an encounter with the Spirit of Truth and the Love of God?” It is to have a missionary spirit. Like Peter, we are called to go beyond ourselves to bring about unity. As imperfect as the disciple is, he allowed himself to be transformed, and by that and by his Petrine office, he brought about a greater communion to a divided church. We are called to go beyond ourselves and reach God who continues to shower us with his love and mercy. The authentic transformation begins by listening.

  1. For the sake of the length of this article, I will not mention Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Like the Acts of the Apostles, the Galatians also mention the Council of Jerusalem. Following this section, in chapter 2:11–14, the biblical scholars have disputed about the section where Peter refuses to eat with the Gentiles, because he wants to please the Jews or is afraid of criticisms of the Jews. In a way, Paul criticizes Peter for his lack of pastoral openness. While there are many ways to interpret this section, I will leave it for another article where we can cover the topics on the fallible aspect of the papacy, the real intention behind Peter’s actions in Galatians, and the necessity of fraternal correction for the college of bishops.
  2. Francis A. Sullivan notes that for Thomas Aquinas and thinkers of the medieval times, the magisterium was defined in two ways. He writes, “St. Thomas spoke of two kinds of magisterium: ‘magisterium cathedrae pastoralis’ of the bishop, and ‘magisterium cathedrae magistralis’ of the theologian” (Francis A. Sullivan, Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983, 24). For the sake of staying on topic for this article, I describe the nature of magisterium in the way we typically understand it to be today. I hope to broaden this topic in a different article.
  3. Dei Verbum, 10.
Fr. Pius Youn, OP About Fr. Pius Youn, OP

Fr. Pius Youn, O.P. is a Dominican friar of the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. Currently, he serves as the associate pastor of the St. Thomas More Catholic Newman Center, which is affiliated with the University of Arizona in Tucson. Wanting to create an electronics-based company and produce music as a side gig, he pursued his undergraduate studies at the New York University. Meeting the Dominican friars during this period encouraged him to discern religious life and ministerial priesthood. He studied philosophy and theology at the DSPT and JST in Berkeley, CA.

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