Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila Remarks
Denver Chapter of Legatus Meeting
June 6, 2019
Thank you, Tom, and all of you here this evening. I’m grateful to Legatus for its presence and active support in the archdiocese. You are called to be the leaven in society that helps it grow into the kingdom of God, and you are a big part of why our archdiocese is vibrant.
When I was asked what I wanted to speak about this evening, I told Tom and Rob that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ideas about “cheap grace” and the “cost of discipleship” came to mind. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Bonhoeffer, he was a German Protestant theologian whose deep faith moved him to return to Germany to oppose Hitler and to be close to the suffering church there. Bonhoeffer was so convicted about the need to oppose Hitler that he eventually joined a group that tried to assassinate him, leading to Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and execution.
As Hitler accumulated power, he sought to divide the various Christian Churches of Germany, leading to a three-way split between the “Confessing Church” – of which Bonhoeffer was a leading theologian – the “German Christians,” who supported the Third Reich, and those church leaders who sought to remain “neutral.”
What is especially striking about Bonhoeffer’s book “Discipleship” is that he wrote it while teaching at a Confessing Church seminary as a reflection for his seminarians about living Christianity under a tyrant. He believed that the Church of his day was buying into “cheap grace.”
What is “cheap grace?” It’s “preaching forgiveness without repentance … grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.” In other words, it’s living as if one’s actions don’t matter; since one has already been forgiven – no conversion of life is required.
As Bonhoeffer wrote in the opening line of “Discipleship,” “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”
I was recently reading a blog post titled, “The Numbers Don’t Look Good – What Should the Church Do?” by Msgr. Charles Pope. He pointed out that when you compare the Church’s statistics from 1970 to 2018, you see a picture of a Church that’s numerically in decline. For example, marriages dropped from 426,000 to 143,000 and Mass attendance has gone from 55 percent to 21 percent.
What struck me about Msgr. Pope’s reflection was how similar his analysis is of our times to Bonhoeffer’s in his time. Msgr. Pope rightly noted that there is a temptation to water-down the faith to attract more people, but that is the opposite of what Christ did.
When Jesus preached about his True Presence in the Eucharist in John 6, many objected and stopped following him, but Jesus did not change his teaching. The same thing can be said for Christ’s teachings on divorce or his exhortation to the disciples to leave everything and follow him.
For those of us who have grown up as Catholics or Christians, the impact of these sayings might be dulled by their familiarity. But as we have seen in Sri Lanka, Burkina Faso and just recently with Kendrick Castillo giving his life for others, the cost of following Jesus Christ is not cheap.
We have a lot to learn from the suffering Church when it comes to costly grace and its value. There is no avoiding the cross in life, whether you are Catholic or not. Every human being suffers as a result of the Fall.
What our faith does is give meaning to our suffering. Through faith, suffering can become something that we embrace as an act of love. A willing offering of love for God, for a friend or even an enemy. As the Gospel of St. John reminds us, “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Compared to many parts of the world, we live a fairly comfortable life in the United States. Yes, there is persecution in the legal and political realm, but Christianity is not outlawed or forcibly suppressed. We might be humiliated for our faith at work or among friends. We might be targeted with lawsuits or see the faith pushed out of the public debate as “bigoted,” but we haven’t yet reached the point of being thrown in jail for it.
So, with our current reality in mind, what can the we learn from the suffering Church? A good starting point is the Greek meaning of the word “martyr,” which means “witness.”
I recently read a reflection in the book “Martyrs in Asia.” This reflection was written by Archbishop Emeritus Thomas Menamparampil (Menam-param-pil), who led the Archdiocese of Guwahati, in remote northeastern India for 20 years. While Christianity was first introduced to this region in 1626 by two Portuguese missionaries, it remains a minority religion.
Archbishop Menam-param-pil notes that while some parts of the Church are being called to physical martyrdom, some parts of the Church are called to a “spiritual martyrdom,” which I would assert is the case of Catholics in the United States.
“In a rapidly changing society,” he writes, “it is a great missionary task to identify the cultural and ethical traditions of one’s community that are under threat and defend them against erosion in a globalized world of moral indifference. Gregory of Tours taught that committed Christian life is like spiritual martyrdom, manifesting depth of faith and intensity of love.”
Throughout history, Christians have been persecuted because our beliefs are perceived as foreign or in conflict with the national identity or morality. With the rise of identity politics – especially in the realm of sexuality — it should not surprise us that we are being persecuted more directly and this will likely increase in the coming years.
This persecution is what Bonhoeffer had in mind when he spoke of costly grace born from following Jesus in difficulty.
The key for us is to respond as Jesus did. He allowed the love of the Holy Trinity that filled his Sacred Heart to drive his decisions. Archbishop Menam-param-pil speaks about this movingly.
Martyrdom is mysticism, it is ecstasy. Usually we concentrate on the painful side of martyrdom, but its most significant dimension is the martyr’s intimate experience of Christ at the moment of his self-giving. It is an ecstatic surrender to the Lord whom he loves. It is the peak moment of his life-choice. It is saying “Yes” to the Master that sums up his life. It is not a dreaded moment, but a coveted one. So we see people in the early Church handing themselves over to the executioners on their own choice, fearlessly welcoming the ecstatic experience, which necessarily involves a supreme sacrifice. So we see the early Christian community celebrating the “birth” of the victim who enters into a new life in the company of Christ.
It was this understanding of martyrdom that strengthened fidelity in the believing community. And the Christian community grew.
As businessmen and women, you are always focused on quality growth. God the Father, the ultimate Creator, has this same desire – only it is measured in souls, not dollars.
When the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, the largest Catholic communities in Japan was devastated by the blast. Very few survived, but among those who did, there was a group of believers that saw the destruction with eyes of faith.
They considered their brothers and sisters who lost their lives in the bomb-blast as the sacrificial lambs that brought a lengthy war to a sudden halt. Thus, we see martyrdom taking on new meanings and undeserved suffering acquiring new mystical significance. Today there is so much of innocent blood shed in our times. Not a drop, we are certain, goes waste, no matter to whom it belongs.
Not a drop of sacrifice goes to waste in God’s divine Providence. However, it’s important to highlight that Jesus himself did not embrace every opportunity to suffer. Recall for example the passage from Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus read the prophecy of the Messiah in the synagogue and declared that it was fulfilled in their hearing and that they were not willing to receive this truth. The Jews reacted with fury, drove him out of town and tried to kill him by throwing him off the hill on which their town was built. But Jesus passed through their midst and went away.
Jesus had several opportunities to offer up his life, but he didn’t embrace that calling until it was the Father’s plan. In other words, we should be constantly discerning God’s will for us, not seeking out suffering but not avoiding it either if it’s a part of God’s plan for us.
How is God the Father calling each of you to not settle for cheap grace? How is he calling you to embrace the more difficult but eternally rewarding path of costly grace that accompanies the life of a true disciple?
I believe that today we must cultivate the virtues of courage, wisdom and perseverance. These virtues mark the lives of every martyr – whether spiritual or physical – and they lie at the heart of witnessing to the faith in a hostile culture.
In his day, Bonhoeffer criticized the German Christians for supporting and promoting the propaganda of the Third Reich, emptying the faith of the demands of the Gospel. We are called instead to embrace the cross so that the very image of God, the form of Christ, takes shape within us. “Our goal is to be shaped into the entire form of the incarnate, the crucified, and the transfigured one.”
We are called to preach the truth in love, seeking out the lost and forsaken as Christ did. Becoming confirmed to the image of Christ means loving those who don’t understand us, who hate us and who ridicule us, as Jesus was during his Passion. It means remaining at the foot of the Cross with the suffering, who may not even think they are suffering.
Just like Blessed Leonella Sgorbati, the Consolata Missionary Sister who was one of only two Westerners to remain in Somalia in 2006 when warlords overtook Mogadishu. She had answered a call to open a training school for nurses in the war-torn capital and was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists who were violently reacting to Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address.
“I know there is a bullet with my name on it,” Sister Leonella said in March 2006, just six months before her death. “I don’t know when it will arrive, but as long as it does not arrive, I will stay in Somalia.”
God the Father has willed that the world be transformed through his Son’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, which is continually made present in the Eucharist and in our lives as members of the Body of Christ, the Church. May each of you here be filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially wisdom and fortitude, to embrace the life of true discipleship, the calling of God to costly grace, so that you can remain as Blessed Leonella did with the lost and forsaken, pouring out your lives as a sacrifice of love for Christ.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship,” p. 5, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2015.
 Ibid, p. 3.
 Introduction by Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil for “Martyrs in Asia,” Urbaniana University Press, April 2019.
 Cf. Luke 4:28-30.
 Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship,” p. 269.