One of the greatest anxieties of aging folk is the thought that maybe something I was doing or something I thought was right was really all wrong. One of the lines in a ballad from the musical “Les Misérables” — based on the eponymous novel of Victor Hugo — is the sobering question: “Is your life … just one more lie?”

Our world today is in no short supply of people who seem absolutely certain that everything they hold as true IS true and that everyone who does not conform to their belief of what is correct should cease and desist. The totalitarian culture of “wokeness” has zero doubts about its own virtue, certain as it seems to be that even God takes all its orders.

I had a discovery at one point in my life … that maybe not all I thought was true is true. It happened at a kitchen table on a Saturday morning when, frustrated by the pile-on of work during my first year in law school, I started to question why I was even doing this. That, of course, was not something I could blame anyone for but myself. I had decided it was a good idea to study civil law around 1986. My bishop had not asked me to do it but gave me permission, albeit cautiously. I already had a degree in Canon Law. Both my brother and father were civil lawyers, but I don’t think it was some competitive spirit that motivated me.

Perhaps it was that “personal best” thing that Catholic school boys often have, the desire to always be doing something better. Nothing wrong with trying to further your education, I guess. Brooklyn was an immigrant diocese, a lot of people could be helped by a priest who could advocate for the rights of the poor, knowing something about how the legal system worked for (or against) them. I tried to find rationality in the drive to pursue this next goal in my life. Perhaps I was looking to justify the drive I had and to convince myself it had a purpose.

I knew it was not about money or career. But it was bugging me that this was a tough choice, very stressful, expensive and time-consuming, so I figured it was time to complain: why am I even doing this crazy thing? A priest-friend in residence with me was unfortunate enough to be at the kitchen table that morning when I let loose, suggesting that, somehow, God was the culprit for putting me through this. Imagine my surprise when he said, of course he is, because he loves you! What?

Well, that made no sense. You see, I did not understand yet at that point in my — I guess I was about 38 — that God really loved me personally. Yes, I had heard all that before. It’s in the Catechism somewhere. But all my life I had somehow believed that I had to earn God’s love. I used to think — this is where I was that Saturday morning — that if I was good, or at least tried real hard to be good, God would be nice to me. If I did not work hard or, as they say, if I “fell off the wagon,” God would be ticked.

You see, I had completely misunderstood the message of the Gospel! Here I was, a cradle Catholic, an ordained priest no less, and I had been getting it all wrong for 38 years! Sure, I could preach to people and console them in confession, that Jesus loved them. Yet, somehow, I had not accepted that what I taught and preached applied to me!

Something triggered in my mind the image of a Saint Teresa of Avila on the road to Seville, I think it was, when she was toppled from her horse — she blamed God, of course, because she was on a worthy mission — and landed in a ditch full of mud. Shaking her mental fist at heaven, she questioned God that if he treated his friends this way, no wonder he had so few of them. So, I reasoned self-righteously, how could the harsh discipline of law school be a sign of God’s love for me?

Well time has proven the investment well worth the while, but what I took from this discovery that Saturday morning was not so much the reason I was studying civil law, but that what I used to think my faith was all about was not so correct after all. I had missed the main message of the Gospel! That Jesus loves us while we are still in our sins and his mercy for us is not based on what we have merited by our actions. Rather, our merits are responses to his grace given to us and accepted as opportunities to give thanks and praise.

In other words, as St. Paul says, our life is like a libation, poured out to God, for his love for us. My friend was right. I could accept that God gave me the ability to undertake this task, if I was willing to accept that it would assist me in my future ministry for purposes perhaps that I may not yet have fathomed. I continued with a new sense of purpose that the sacrifice was worth it, only now I was not seeing it so much as a task I had to perform to please God or anyone else, but a commission totally appropriate for the path the Lord was opening before me. I did not know where it would lead, but I trusted the Lord was with me.

I often hear people struggling with various issues about Church teaching and practice. They might have found a certain clergyman or church group too judgmental or rigid. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, too lax or wishy-washy. God knows, there are plenty of our brothers and sisters in the faith whose behavior can frustrate or even scandalize us and others. But to write off the entire Body of Christ, which is what the Church is, because of the sins and weaknesses of some of its members does not seem to be a sign of trust in a God who loves us all, even in our sinful, broken state.

Scripture has good advice on how to deal with a person who has offended us, not excluding fraternal correction from the general counsel of forgiveness. But my experience at the kitchen table that Saturday morning keeps coming back to me whenever I feel personally misunderstood or misjudged. God loves me and each and every one of us. And Jesus would have died for you and me if we were the only person in the world!

I used to think this was only a message to preach to others. Now I know it is also for me. And that has made all the difference. Will you accept that this message is for you and share it with everyone you meet? That, after all, is what the Gospel is all about — despite what I (or you?) used to think.

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