August 2005

“Soldiers of Christ”—a call to arms, a call to holiness

When I was confirmed the good sisters taught us that Confirmation made us “Soldiers of Jesus Christ”. Recent catechesis has only rarely employed this metaphor of the Christian life. However, as I have gone around confirming our young people, I have consciously tried to revive it. It resonates with Scripture; and certainly its usage dates to the early Fathers.

And in today’s America, we all know someone—either a family member or a friend—who serves in our nation’s armed forces. The war on terror with its extension into far away places like Iraq and Afghanistan has given us all a new appreciation of the courage and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.

Soldiers are sent into harm’s way to carry out a mission; and to do so they must be both well trained and well equipped. While every war has its tragic casualties, to send soldiers into battle ill trained or ill equipped is a formula for disaster.

As Christians we too have received a mission—and that mission necessarily engages us in battle. It is a spiritual warfare, but warfare nonetheless. Like soldiers, we too need to be well armed and well trained, lest we too easily fall in battle, or break ranks and cowardly run away. No one should be surprised that the Church that Jesus founded to save inners is full of sinners. Indeed, no one of us is immune from human frailty—we all have sinned. And yet, as baptized and confirmed Catholics, we are thrust into battle. Soldiers of Christ, we are fighting for our sanctification and the salvation of our souls.

The scandals which have plagued us in recent years along with the defections of those who left the Church stand as a stark warning to each of us. These casualties of spiritual warfare anger and sadden us all. They also warn us of what can happen if we, as soldiers of Christ, do not keep up on the training necessary for spiritual combat; or if we no avail ourselves of the defensive equipment, what St. Paul calls the “armor of God”, needed to ward off enemy blows (cf. Eph 6:11).

The principle legacy of the Second Vatican Council was its emphasis on the universal call to holiness. The Council reminded us that we are called to be saints. Holiness is a gift; but it is also a task—a task that requires we train and equip ourselves well. We can find that training in the teachings of our Church which are excellently set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The experience of the veterans of mankind’s spiritual warfare (i.e. the Saints in heaven) also has much to teach us. We need a regimen of prayer that integrates the spiritual helps of the sacraments, especially frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Penance and the worthy reception of Holy Communion, as indispensable weapons in our spiritual arsenal. We need training in virtue and practice in asceticism (fasting and other acts of self denial) so that we can execute the battle plan by saying no to sin and yes to God. Even as zealous a soul as St. Paul, worked out his salvation “in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) lest having preached to others he himself be lost (1 Cor. 9:27).

From the time of Pope Leo XIII, generations of Catholics have prayed to St. Michael the Archangel to “defend us in battle”. Formerly prayed at the end of low Mass, this prayer asked the “Prince of the heavenly hosts” for protection from Satan and his minions “who prowl the world for the ruin of souls”. While such prayers can “seem” archaic today, as baptized and confirmed Catholics, we can ill afford to be complacent, unaware of the battle that rages around us. “Soldier of Christ” is still a pretty good metaphor of the Christian life. “Onward, Christian Soldiers!”