On being a competent Christian

Msgr. Thomas J. McDonnell, who died in June 2009, was for many years a regular columnist for the Reporter newspapers. Following is an essay wherein he defines what he believed to be a competent Christian lifestyle.

During the past two years, I have been invited to participate in various capacities in motivational seminars. Most of them have centered on what we might term as secular topics. Certain constants are part of these presentations. Enthusiasm, a sensitivity toward co-workers, a feeling for economic trends, knowledge of new techniques, and so forth are part of the agenda. But above all, competency is emphasized; it is seen as essential for growth.

In my mind, I began to think of the role of what we might term as “Christian competency” has in our own lives. Very little is written about it. And since acquiring it is a lifelong process, I do not believe we can propose an adequate and comprehensive definition. On the other hand, we can highlight certain characteristics that would be integral to developing a competent Christian life-style.

We might begin by focusing upon the words of St. Paul: “Have in you the mind of Jesus Christ?” For this intimacy and familiarity with Christ is demanded. And this demands prayer – indeed long extended periods of prayer. But at the outset, we should note that sometimes our pursuit of a deeper prayer-life can prove to be an obstacle. No one seems to be listening:

I turned to speak to God about the world’s despair,
And much to my surprise, I found that God wasn’t there.
Such were the feelings of Robert Frost. In an analogous way, the seeming silence of God, and things like disappointment in not being granted our wishes, can lead us to doubt the effectiveness of prayer. Thus there is the temptation to abandon the practice of prayer altogether, or at least not to pursue it with deep conviction and passion.

It has been my experience that the very practice of prayer in such circumstances is in itself a prayer that is pleasing to God. And there are other circumstances that may hinder our pursuit of a deeper prayer-life, e.g. illness. In these cases, one might consider making one’s bodily being a prayer.
There are in every life so many needs and intentions that we bring to God. But we must never forget that to have the mind of Christ one thing, above all, needs to be emphasized: namely, God’s love for us as individuals. This was central to Christ’s spirituality. His was an unwavering conviction of the Father’s love for Him. As we grow in the consciousness of this love so many things fall into place in our spiritual life.

I mention this because there is a tendency to emphasize one’s love for Christ, and one’s good works. Such is good, but I would maintain that the only way to move beyond self is to focus on the love that God has for us and the gifts He has given us.

True intimacy with Christ has a Eucharistic dimension. As we come into contact with the living Person of Jesus and listen to His Word, we must pray for the grace to allow our hearts to be absorbed into the heart of Christ – so full of love and compassion.

In Christ’s Last Testament (at the Last Supper), He promised to send the Spirit into our being. Having in ourselves the mind of Christ would, I believe, demand that we prayerfully cultivate the gifts and fruits of the Spirit in our lives. We must pray over them; see how they are applicable to the concrete circumstances of our lives; and pray that we may put them into practice.

St. Paul once prayed that the “eyes of our hearts may be enlightened.” Whatever else this may mean, it would seem that he is urging us to move beyond a mere horizontal approach to life. It would mean that we become attuned to a supernatural view of life, assenting in faith to the difficult truth that “all things work together for the good for those who love God.” Such would lead, for example, to an acceptance of the various crosses that make our lives difficult.

There are other dimensions of Christian competency that one must pursue in life, e.g. sensitivity to others, hospitality to all who are in Christ, and a true willingness to reach out to the hurting and suffering in our world. But above all, competency is emphasized. It is seen as essential for growth.