Saint Ignatius High School

The Bread of Life and Cafeteria Catholics

Can you really just "have it your way"? Is the Catholic faith simply something to follow when it's convenient or pleasant or agreeable--or is it a call to remain on the path of Christ? For St. Paul, as it was for James Joyce, the choice was clear: Christ is the way.

Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 34:2-3, 16-21

Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:21-32

Gospel: According to St. John 6:60-69

The “Bread of Life” discourse, so central to the message of St. John, comes this Sunday to its conclusion.  It holds within it my absolute favorite line in all of scripture:

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God.”

Peter’s response is pretty insightful for an uneducated fisherman, yet it has the matter-of-factness that one would expect of a man whose daily concerns are essentially pragmatic.  It is that first line of Peter’s that I find so magnetic:
“Master, to whom shall we go?”

That question is really the question of life. If we are to walk away from Jesus, as so many did after hearing His statements about being the Bread of Life, then where are we to go?  What the very practically minded Peter is really saying is that no matter how many different paths there are in life, all of the paths that are not the path of Jesus are basically the same.  If Jesus is the one who has the words of eternal life then all of the other paths do not.

When the 20th century Irish writer James Joyce made it known that he would no longer be practicing the Catholic faith of his youth, he was asked if he had joined some other religion.  Joyce’s response, whether real or apocryphal, was that he had lost his faith, not his reason.  As sad as it was that he no longer felt connected to Christ and His Church, it seems that his Jesuit education enabled him to, at the very least, see that this connection is an all-or-nothing proposition.  When Joyce closed the door on his Catholicism he knew that there were no other doors worth opening.

There is a tremendous honesty to St. Peter and James Joyce, they both understood that the answer to the question of whether or not to follow Jesus in the fullness of His Person and teachings was to be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and not a nuanced semi-commitment to Jesus – a commitment to Jesus when He made sense to me and a commitment to me when He didn’t make sense: in short, a total commitment to me.

For most of us the notion of a total commitment to someone goes against the grain of our sense of individual autonomy.  We are so used to the fact that there is no one with whom we totally agree that we almost instinctively approach Jesus and His teachings in the same way.

The idea of a “cafeteria Catholic” appeals to us.  When I was a kid Burger King tried to compete with McDonald’s by promoting the “have it your way” approach to fast food.  McDonald’s gave you mustard, ketchup, diced onions and pickles on every burger whether you wanted all of them or not.  Burger King wedged its way into our psyches and our parents’ wallets by proposing that we only needed to take the condiments that we wanted and could leave the rest behind.

St. Peter and James Joyce would have agreed with McDonald’s – at least in their aversion to a pick-and-choose approach.  Joyce said ‘no’ to the Church, but he never joined some ersatz church in order to “have it his way.”  St. Peter ultimately gives up his autonomy, just as Jesus told him that he would, and ends up in the same place as Jesus, on a cross.

The total commitment that St. Peter made was a difficult one, one that took him a while to be able to live up to.  The great novel Quo Vadis by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz takes its title from an episode in the Acts of Peter, one of the earliest non-biblical writings of the Christian era.  In this legend St. Peter is fleeing Rome during the persecution of Christians at the hands of Nero.  As he leaves the city he is met by a vision of Jesus who is going in the opposite direction.  Peter asks Jesus, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (“Where are you going, Lord?”) and Jesus replies, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”  Peter understands the message and returns to Rome knowing full well that he would be arrested and killed.

To follow Jesus fully is to offer oneself unreservedly to the will of the Father, just as Jesus did.  This is not as appealing as “having it our way” and following Jesus when it is convenient or easy or agrees with our sentiments or the sentiments of the Zeitgeist, but it is the only way that is offered by Jesus.

There is no certainty that we will come to the same gruesome end that St. Peter did, but if we follow Jesus in the same manner as St. Peter then we can be certain of “having it our way” in the end when it really matters.