Older Catholics will well remember when Catholics were distinguished by a series of good works.
Mass every Sunday, fish every Friday, fasting from midnight before Communion, throats for St. Blaise, ashes for Lent, palms before Easter, six holy days observed, early Mass on first Fridays, an aunt a nun in Canada, an uncle a priest in the missions, a wedding gift of the head of the boy Christ, a penny under the Infant of Prague, a rosary in the vest pocket — this litany of devout observances defined Catholic life for much of the last century and before.
This Catholic adherence to Church law and pious practice was not too far removed from the strict observance of Jewish ritual law by Jesus’ contemporaries. The Scribes and Pharisees, the rabbis and the average Jew were meticulous, perhaps scrupulous, in observing what they ate, when they worked, what they were, when they washed, to whom they spoke and how they prayed.
Jesus himself grew impatient with their washing of cups and trimming their tassels and limiting their steps. And of course, it was St. Paul who roundly denounced the Jewish observance of the old law as a shallow substitute for a personal commitment to God in Christ.
The ancient Jews in the midst of the prevailing Greco-Roman culture were not much different from 19th and 20th century Catholics in the midst of a Protestant or secularized world. The ancient Jews clung to their law as a source of identity. The keeping of the law differentiated them from the pagan world around them. The law made them unique; it drew them together; it gave them a sense of purpose.
Roman Catholics, perhaps especially in the English-speaking Protestant world, drew a similar sense of identity from their detailed attention to Catholic law and practice. Amid a hostile Protestant world in northern Europe and America or amid a hostile secular world in the Latin countries, Catholic law and Catholic traditions afforded identity, unity and purpose to the self-protective Catholic community.
Jesus, St. Peter and especially St. Paul, understood the striking down of the Jewish law to be a significant act of liberation for the early Christian community. The practice of the Jewish law limited the grace of God to a single ethnic population. The law was a barrier between the Jews and the ancient world. It was indeed a protective barrier that preserved the Jewish people from their mighty neighbors. But it was also a barrier that denied salvation to the larger world. In striking down the Jewish law, St. Paul was markedly announcing that the Christian Gospel was intended for all men and women. The dismissal of the Jewish law was a notable step toward the Catholicity of the Church. The law had to go so that all humanity might feel welcomed.
The prophet Isaiah announced that the coming servant of the Lord would not limit his salvific work to the Jews. The servant was to bring forth justice to the nations; he was to extend his ministry even to the coastlands. He was to be a light for the nations — for the Gentiles, the pagans, the entire imperial world.
St. Peter, in baptizing the household of Cornelius, came to the same conclusion that God shows no partiality: “Rather in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” St. John the Baptist for his part understood that the salvation to be wrought by Christ would not be earned by observance of the law but conferred by a miracle of grace: “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This baptism with the Spirit is a profound immersion in Christ himself. It is neither the observance of the Jewish law nor the practice of Catholic piety that saves the believer. These honorable traditions are the evidence of salvation; Jesus alone is the Savior. Authentic Catholic practice in any generation is rooted in a personal embrace of the saving Christ — Christ the teacher, Christ the healer, Christ the beloved Son, Christ alive in his Church. The brief phrase often noticed in front of simple Protestant churches – “Jesus saves” – is the Gospel’s most profound truth.
Individual pieties must emanate from this truth, otherwise they are at best shallow, often hollow, and sometimes even hypocritical distractions.