There I sat on the stage. I was dressed in my green uniform jumper and white blouse, clip bow tie on my blouse collar, and green knee socks. I was chosen from my fifth-grade class to be in a religion bee. I had committed to memory the answers from my Baltimore Catechism so that I could fare well in competition with students from other nearby Catholic schools. I was ready.
Upon reading about St. Jerome Emiliani (1481-1537), whose memorial is celebrated in the liturgy today, I learned that he is credited with developing the “question-and-answer catechism technique” to teach children religion. A great protector of orphans, St. Jerome apparently never fell short in taking care of the needs of the poor and needy.
Thanks to St. Jerome, I did pretty well in the spelling bee, but I honestly don’t recall who won—probably not me. What I do remember is that I grew up knowing there were many laws and commandments I had to obey. I did go through a period of scrupulosity as a young teen. I got lost in the mountain of laws and prescriptions and, being a very conscientious and detail-oriented person, I found it difficult to be grateful for the underlying truth and love taught by the laws.
It was easy for me to get caught up in the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law. I think it takes a little more maturity to better understand the abstract concepts of the essence as opposed to the literal meanings. But the words of Jeremiah 31:33-34 bring hope:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.
How beautiful is that? I could spout off my mathematics times tables in fifth grade as well as the catechism answers; but the true meaning and worth of the gospel message has to be more than memorized words. We all know what Jesus said in Matthew 22:36-40 about the greatest commandment, and it all comes down—or should I say: comes up—to, above all, loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:6, says that his competence is from God:
...who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Don’t you just love the beatitudes? In Matthew 5:1-11, we read about how blessed or happy we can be by acting in loving ways. The beatitudes are uplifting and promising. While the commandments of God and the Church laws we have known, memorized, and followed from childhood, the spirit of the laws through the redemption by our Savior, Jesus, helps us to understand and pursue Holy Spirit-filled lives.
I hope that my life will be guided not only by rules, but that, with God’s help, love will be central to my answers to all questions and challenges ahead.
Image: Sculpture of St. Jerome Emiliani, Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice. Giovanni Maria Morlaiter (1699-1781).
Sharon Krause is a RENEW volunteer whose writing has appeared in several resources for small-group faith sharing. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother residing in Manchester, Connecticut. Over the years, she has served in many parish ministries.