Frassati Reflection: What We Mean When We Say “God”

Thus I aspire to proclaim the Gospel
not where Christ has already been named,
so that I do not build on another’s foundation,
but as it is written:
Those who have never been told of him shall see,
and those who have never heard of him shall understand.

—Romans 15:20–21

File--Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles-_by_Valentin_de_BoulogneGod is the fullness of Love, of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. If we seek to grow in these virtues, we will be led toward a closer understanding of and intimacy with God; and yet our concept of Him will always fall short, for He is infinitely more loving, more good, more true, and more beautiful than we can imagine. He is Love. When we experience goodness here on earth, we are given just a glimpse of the Goodness that awaits us in Heaven. He is that goodness we experience, but amplified to infinity.


My sixth-grade catechism class is full of good questions about the faith. Last week, I was asked about how Catholics view other religions, and whether it would be possible for someone who is a lifelong atheist to reach Heaven. Catholics often stumble over this question, especially since one of the teachings of our faith—that salvation is through the Church—is easily misunderstood. This is obviously a loaded question, and I am not a theologian, but here is my answer: if we truly believe that God is Love, then it follows that anyone who is truly seeking Love—not the cheap imitation of love that the world sells us, but true, meaningful Love—is seeking God. Even if they don’t yet understand that He is what they seek, even if they don’t use the word God, they are journeying toward Him. If they keep moving forward on that journey, they will eventually be led toward Jesus Himself, and to the Church He founded. Many atheist-to-Christian conversion stories attest to the fact that a sincere search for truth will inevitably lead to the source of Truth. Not all individuals will make it all the way home to the Church in their lifetime; but we also have faith in a God Who is the embodiment of Mercy, Who like the father of the prodigal son runs out to greet us on the way. He gives us the gift of purgatory so that, if we are willing at the moment of our death, we can finish our journey home under His protection. Salvation is, indeed, through the Church that Jesus founded and through the graces that have come to us through it—and we should not assume that its power of salvation does not extend beyond its own members. As we can’t read the hearts of another, we will never be able to declare definitively whether someone will go to Heaven, but we can always have hope that they will embrace God’s mercy—and if they do, it is thanks to the graces of the Church.

Prodigal_son_by_Rembrandt_(drawing,_1642)It is also possible for us as Catholics to follow the exterior trappings of faith without truly seeking God. In fact, it is all too easy for us to become complacent in our Catholic faith and not realize the great gift we have been given in the sacraments. If we approach the sacraments with the understanding that we are being given the chance to draw closer toward the Fount of Goodness and discover more about who we are as sons and daughters of God, then we will open ourselves up to receive all the graces that are available to us. But if our reasoning behind why we go to church is not because we are seeking goodness, truth, and beauty—maybe it’s because we want to appease our family, or because we want others to think well of us, or only because it’s a comforting habit or because we are terrified of being sent to Hell—then we are missing the point, and we are seeking other things besides God.

V0032625 Saint Mary Magdalen dei Pazzi. Etching by Bianchi, 1853.In today’s first reading, Paul speaks of evangelization, of bringing the Gospel to those “who have never been told of Him” and “have never heard of Him.” Evangelization can seem difficult amid a culture that is uncomfortable with outward discussion of religion—there are many who have never really heard the Gospel, and yet are hostile toward the trappings of religion. However, I think two things are crucial for us, as modern American Christians, in spreading the Gospel: first, above all else, we must seek God in our own hearts and never grow complacent in our relationship with Him. If we are not journeying toward Him ourselves, we will never be able to lead others on the way. We don’t actually have control over how anyone else responds to Jesus’s call, but we do have control over our own response. Second, when we encounter someone who is unfamiliar with God, who might not even understand what we mean when we say “God,” we can begin by encouraging questions that will lead them toward truth, goodness, and beauty. We can talk about people with virtues we admire and muse on what the nature of beauty or goodness really is. If they are attentive to noticing goodness in their own lives, then these ideas will resonate with them and pull them deeper toward the Source of all virtue. Rather than pressuring them to follow God for the wrong reasons, we can demonstrate the only reason that matters: to love Him with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul.

“O Love, you are neither known nor loved.”
—St. Magdalen de Pazzi

1. Valentin de Boulogne, Saint Paul Writing His Epistles / PD-US
2. Giovanni Costa, Strada in pianura Artgate Fondazione Cariplo / CC BY-SA 3.0
3. Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son / PD-US
4. G. Fabbri, etching of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi / Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0

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