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The purifying fire of dividing, divine Love

On the Readings for Sunday, August 14, 2022.

Detail of 'The Sacred Heart of Jesus' by Salvador Dali (1962).
"The Sacred Heart of Jesus" (1962) by Salvador Dali []

• Jer 38:4-6, 8-10
• Ps 40:2, 3, 4, 18
• Heb 12:1-4
• Lk 12:49-53

In the summer of 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document containing “responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the Church.” It carefully re-articulated some important Catholic teachings about the nature of the Church, meant to help Catholics avoid various “erroneous interpretations which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt.”

Predictably, many media outlets sensationalized the contents of the document and ran headlines such as “Vatican hits ‘wounded’ Christian churches,” as though the teaching “that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church” is somehow new to the Vatican, the pope, or Catholicism. Of course, it isn’t. Yet that didn’t keep some Catholics from expressing their outrage at the supposed “intolerance” coming from the backwards and “polarizing” Pope Benedict XVI.

One Catholic, in a letter to the editor of the Detroit Free Press, lamented what he described as the “believe-what-we-say-or-leave’” mentality of the Catholic Church. “I hope all of us will start acting more like Jesus…”, he wrote, “simply passing along love, peace and goodness to others.”

That letter writer would do well to read both the document he wrongly criticized and today’s Gospel reading, which describes Jesus explaining that He has “come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” This is a reference back to the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel and John the Baptist’s explanation that the Messiah “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” and that He will burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:16-17). Like the prophet Elijah, who called down fire from heaven to consume his enemies (2 Kgs 1:10-14), the presence of Jesus often caused violence and disturbance—not because He opposed love and peace, but because the destruction of evil and sin demanded a violent, active love. Only through bloodshed and sacrifice will peace be fully established, and then only at the end of time.

Many theologians and authors have tried in recent decades to warp the Gospels and remake Jesus into a sort of mild-mannered self-help guru who never uttered a disturbing word or made a shocking comment. Yet Jesus stated that He would bring division, even among families, by setting parents against children. This is painful to consider, but it has often been the case: sometimes the one who enters the family of God must turn his back on father, mother, and siblings.

To take up modern terminology, Jesus came to apply shock therapy to the ailing hearts and souls of those lost in sin. The fire that He gave—and continues to give through His Church and the sacraments—is the burning life and the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit, which consumes what is weak and wanting while purifying and enlightening the minds of those who follow Him. “As fire transforms into itself everything it touches,” remarks the Catechism, “so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (CCC 1127; cf. 696).

That transformation is ultimately an all-or-nothing reality; there is, in fact, a “believe-what-we-say-or-leave” aspect to Catholicism, although it is far better expressed as “believe-what-He-says-or-leave”. Jesus causes division and brings unity for one and the same reason: He is both the scandal that divides and the Savior who unites. The bloody Cross is the scarlet line that separates and a steady tie that binds.

As the Letter to the Hebrews states today, the Cross is shameful to many. But for those who have their eyes fixed on Jesus, the Cross is the ladder to joy and life. The theologian Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in reflecting on martyrdom and the cost of discipleship, once wrote that the “only valid response” to the death of Christ on the Cross “is to be prepared to die for him, and even more, to be dead in him.”

Through that death comes real peace; in that death we experience true and abiding love. Yes, indeed, let us start acting more like Jesus!

(This “Opening the Word” originally appeared in a slightly different form in the August 19, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. The destruction of evil and sin demanded a violent, active love [Olson], whereas The violent are assaulting heaven, and they’re taking it by storm (Mt 11:12). John the Baptist was more violent than pacifist, Jesus certainly not the “mild-mannered self-help guru who never uttered a disturbing word or made a shocking comment”.
    Fasting and prayer, acceptance of the cross is a form of violence suffered upon oneself, although its true violent character is the assault on Satan’s realm and the seizure of the sinner from his grasp. The San Francisco flower people [Recall, that is, the elders like me Scott McKenzie’s beautiful, Are you going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair] found free love, euphoria, then drugs and defilement. The survivors went back home and became staid businesspersons. Jesus of the day had long curly blondish locks, a dreamy smile, butterflies fluttering around him. As a young man, then contemplating priesthood, I knew some lovely young girls who left for San Francisco and never returned.
    I firmly believe if we really care, love others that we’ll make, I as an ordained priest, the Laity sharing the universal priesthood of the faithful, that violent effort to save the young, as well as the foolish [perhaps most of us were once fools] older.

    • Hi, Peter (Fr Peter Morello) what do you think of Mahatma Gandhi’s ethic of practicing nonviolent resistance against the ruling order of the day?

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

      • I’m an admirer of Gandhi, who told a British diplomat, that if Christians followed the teachings of Christ the world would likely be a far better place words to that effect.
        Although Indians who purposely lay on railroad tracks to prevent passage, some who were killed is a form of active passivity, the kind of violence spoken of.
        Passive aggression on the other hand is a form of spite to injure someone, whereas Gandhi and Christ’s demeanor purposely withstood beatings, Christ his passion as a courageous positive action passive in enactment that brought for Gandhi independence for India, and for Christ salvation for the many.

        • Thank you, Peter (Fr Peter Morello) for your comment which for me clarifies your post.

          Quote” Apparently, Mahatma Gandhi once said that if he believed as Catholics do in the Eucharist, he would fall prostrate before the tabernacle and have a hard time ever getting up!

          kevin your brother
          In Christ

  2. Quote: “But what is needed more than anything is for the fire of Christ’s love to spread everywhere, to everyone. “He will then make such disciples to be like Himself, so that they might share Him and the fire of His love with a world grown cold”

    The Truth is a burning fire it looks not at man’s desire..
    Popes cower before it denuding power
    Bishops it mocks Priests defrock
    Leaders stand in disarray it’s all relative they say
    But honest it is not integrity is the loss
    The denial of goodness to make it dark is to lose ones heart.
    To look into the living flame is to know one’s shame
    To bend one’s knee is to be set free
    The spark to become a flame in every mortal frame.
    We are to become as lamps
    We look within and acknowledge our own sin
    We bow our heads as by the Master we are led
    With cleansing grace we start to see His face
    The air becomes clear as we relinquish fear
    Love and clarity of thought
    Is what our suffering will have bought
    As we stand by His side His Peace (Will), will reside
    We no longer struggle alone as The Master leads us
    Before the break of the new day
    Our lamps will light the way.
    ‘Father’! With tongue and flame, give us unity again

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

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