Amy Barrett Has the Right Idea

Judge Amy Coney Barrett testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, September 6, 2017. (via C-SPAN)
Living Christianity in the world today

In a piece titled “There’s A Special Place in Hell for Women Who Gut Abortion Rights,” a writer for the Huffington Post references Amy Barrett once telling students, “Your legal career is but a means to an end, and . . . that end is building the kingdom of God.” The past few days, Barrett, on the president’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees to replace Anthony Kennedy, has been under fire again, the first time being her Senate confirmation hearings, at which she said she took her faith seriously.

Today in the Liturgy of the Hours — “the prayer of the Church,” which priests, religious, and many others pray daily — is a reading from Saint Cyril, who offers catechetical instruction to early Christians. It begins:

If there is any slave of sin here present, he should at once prepare himself through faith for the rebirth into freedom that makes us God’s adopted children. He should lay aside the wretchedness of slavery to sin, and put on the joyful slavery of the Lord, so as to be counted worthy to inherit the kingdom of heaven. By acknowledging your sins strip away your former self, seduced as it is by destructive desires, and put on the new self, renewed in the likeness of its Creator. Through faith receive the pledge of the Holy Spirit, so that you may be welcomed into the everlasting dwelling places. Draw near to be marked with the supernatural seal, so that you may be easily recognized by your master. Become a member of Christ’s holy and spiritual flock, so that one day you may be set apart on his right hand, and so gain the life prepared as your inheritance.

What does Baptism mean, in practical terms? What is this whole idea of being born again all about? He explains:

Those whose sins still cling to them like a goatskin will stand on his left hand because they did not approach Christ’s fountain of rebirth to receive God’s grace. By rebirth I mean, not rebirth of the body, but the spiritual rebirth of the soul. Our bodies are brought into being by parents who can be seen, but our souls are reborn through faith: the Spirit breathes where he wills. At the end, if you are made worthy, you may hear the words: Well done, good and faithful servant, when, that is, you are found with no stain of hypocrisy on your conscience.

And he warns:

If anyone here present is thinking of putting God’s grace to the test, he is deceiving himself, and he does not understand the nature of things. You are but a man; there is one who searches out men’s thoughts and hearts. You must keep your soul innocent and free from deceit.

Pope Francis often talks about accompaniment — walking with people, beginning at where they are and accompanying them to a deeper encounter with Christ. Early Christians needed that, too. Saint Cyril, the bishop, told them:

The present is a time for the acknowledgment of sins. Acknowledge what you have done, in word or deed, by night or day. Acknowledge your sins at a time of God’s favor, and on the day of salvation you will receive the treasures of heaven.

Christians need instruction and community and accountability. Then and now. Cyril continues:

Wash yourself clean, so that you may hold a richer store of grace. Sins are forgiven equally for all, but communion in the Holy Spirit is given in the measure of each one’s faith. If you have done little work, you will receive little; if you have achieved a great deal, great will be your reward. The race you are running is for your own advantage; look after your own interests.

Cyril gives a to-do list:

If you have a grudge against anyone, forgive him. You are drawing near to receive forgiveness for your own sins; you must yourself forgive those who have sinned against you.

Amy Barrett has gotten grief for being a member of People of Praise. In just about every news story, a member who is an auxiliary bishop from Portland is mentioned. He was elevated by Pope Francis to be a successor of the Apostles. Bishop Peter Smith is among one of the more joyful and humble and confident and accessible bishops I’ve encountered. “I want what he has,” I’m sure I said at the end of the day, when I first met him, some years ago. It’s Jesus Christ I was talking about. It sure seemed he had a level of trust in his faith. I wanted that, too. People of Praise isn’t for everyone, but there are many movements and opportunities, including many a parish church, that enrich faith and provide community and fellowship. They may be an untapped resource in a Christian’s life.

Opus Dei is the most well known — or infamous, thanks to Hollywood — but there’s Focolare and Communion and Liberation. There are books from Ignatius and Ave Maria and St. Benedict’s Press and Cluny and Sophia, to name just a few, and resources and monthly devotionals such as Magnificat, and my inbox is full of practical spiritual prompts from, Word on Fire, Dynamic Catholic, the readings of the day from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and even a daily pep talk from Rick Warren. There are apps, too, DivineOffice and ibreviary among my most relied upon. Some of these are simple reminders, others are deep dives into community and encounter, with attempts to live more fully and deeply the life of the Gospel. The point to all of it is: There’s no reason to try doing Christianity alone. Amy Barrett has the right idea.

In The Real Presence of the Future Kingdom, the late Father John Wickham, S.J., writes:

Jesus proclaims the reign of God to be near at hand — in fact, to be actually present, offered to us now. This ought to disturb us: it challenges our real connivance with worldly attitudes. It calls for a radical conversion of heart, and then for a longer process of spiritual growth in which we gradually learn how to change our old habits and replace them with new ones more expressive of the converted central core of our being-in-Christ.

His book is all about virtues, the practical habits that make all the difference. Christianity truly lived requires “our acceptance of God’s compassion and love as our primary mode of being human.” It requires living the “mystery of the reign of God in our communities, one that is so powerful that is overthrows our former way of life.”

Father Wickham writes:

This offer is shocking because the world we inhabit socially is based on very different premises: success-oriented, competitive, money-focused, addictive, aggressive, trampling over the weak, filled with accusations and resentment, both repressive and hedonistic at the same time — we are very familiar with its false drives in their contemporary guises. Jesus showed how well aware he was of the destructive habits in his own society when he said: “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)

The wolves are certainly out. But sometimes Christians make no difference in the mix. We blend in. Amy Barrett, by all the counts that have merited criticism, knows what she is about. She knows what Christianity is about. It’s not only priority but identity, it’s the point. It’s not a Sunday sideshow. It’s about living differently. That was the point of Barrett’s advice about building the kingdom with the way you live your life.

That “special place in hell” headline calls to mind a line  from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright about a similar consignment for women who don’t help other women become successfully elected. At the time, she meant Hillary Clinton as she was running for president. I suspect there’s more likely a place in Heaven for women who achieve worldly success while never casting aside what is most important: Getting themselves and those in their care to Heaven. That’s some real leadership today. Of the kind that all Christians are called to, whatever their title, the most important of which lies in the title not Judge or Justice, but Mother.

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