There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.—Jn 3:1–8
He came to Jesus at night and said to him,
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God,
for no one can do these signs that you are doing
unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him,
“How can a man once grown old be born again?
Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?”
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless one is born of water and Spirit
he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
What is born of flesh is flesh
and what is born of spirit is spirit.
Do not be amazed that I told you,
‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it wills,
and you can hear the sound it makes,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Today I’m given one of those passages that is often misquoted or used in a way unfamiliar to us—this is often called the “born again” dialogue. If you’re like me, you probably have family members that are non-Catholic Christians. I have several family members that are Jehovah’s Witnesses and take the born-again dialogue much differently than we do. In fact, they read the born-again dialogue quite literally, and in a way unfamiliar to us. A lot of people are surprised when I tell this story, but I was once raised as a Jehovah’s Witness for several years in my youth under the recommendation of my aunt. She is still a Jehovah’s Witness. I, of course, am not. For many years, this resulted in many, many arguments—ironically stemming from a dialogue in the gospels about seeing and accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
Oftentimes, in my younger years, the conversation would go like this: “Are you born again, Ryan?” “Yes, Tía Pilar, I was born again when I was baptized.” “No, no, you have to be born again in water, and as a Jehovah’s Witness.” (Tía means aunt in Spanish. All of my family members are of Ecuadorian descent. The majority of them have since splintered to Europe or the States.) This, of course, in my much more combative years, resulted in me being combative about how the truth needed to be discussed, rather than my being more charitable with a family member even though we stringently disagreed on matters of faith. The one thing we absolutely agreed upon was that baptism was the way the unsaved were brought to Christ. Ironically enough, this “born again” dialogue led to divisiveness between me and several family members. We weren’t talking about Jesus anymore, we were arguing over the phone. (Even though I pray for her that she returns to the Catholic Church, we no longer argue over the phone.) Evangelization, as you’re quite aware, can often lead to quite heated moments.
Amusingly enough, we were talking about evangelization in my Lay Dominican formation class. It was a separate discussion that diverged from a larger discussion about Aquinas and the works of mercy. But one point we all agreed upon is that taking a largely combative stance during evangelization efforts “makes you lose the floor.” That’s sort of how it also is during arguments, right? Even amongst significant others and friends, if you raise your voice, both of you lose the floor. Even politics is tinged in this way for a reason—seeing a politician upset or livid about anything garners sound bites whether they’re in the right or wrong.
Jesus Himself says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God,” and, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” For Nicodemus, he was obviously baffled, because he at first takes Jesus’ words literally—how can anyone return to their mother’s wombs? Jesus, of course, speaks of being born of water and Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this further, “One becomes a member of this people [the Church] not by a physical birth, but by being ‘born anew,’ a birth ‘of water and the Spirit,’ (John 3:3–5) that is, by faith in Christ, and Baptism” [CCC 782].
For my aunt, this is where the biggest point of contention was—what being born again consisted of. For my aunt, it sort of amounted to the fact that I must have had a major, epiphanic, “come to Jesus moment” in my adulthood. However, what I would tell the non-Catholic Christians I have disagreements about this with is to remember that we do have “come to Jesus” moments. At every Mass, I confess my sins and accept Christ, and every time I go to confession I accept Christ and accept His forgiveness and try to keep on the path towards holiness. The early Christians and Church Fathers knew of “being born again” via a trinitarian baptism, for example.
St. Pope John Paul II takes this a bit further, and this is really what I want to end on. He wrote in Catechesi Tradendae of “the problem of children baptized in infancy [who] come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ” (CT 19). To make the point more explicit, St. Pope John Paul II says, “It is true that being a Christian means saying ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ, but let us remember that this ‘yes’ has two levels: It consists in surrendering to the word of God and relying on it, but it also means, at a later stage, endeavoring to know better—and better the profound meaning of this word” (CT 20). In other words, being born again as following Christ requires a *commitment* to follow Him as His disciple.
What I want to focus on is this “yes.” Do we say yes? Or do we adopt an attitude of combative behavior while we evangelize? Do we focus on commonalities while evangelizing and then take it from there? When we make critical remarks about other Christians, are we still making that commitment to that “come to Jesus moment” we have at Mass? Are we helping others come back to faith when they struggle or when they feel they have strayed too far? When we see others who are perhaps misinformed or have sincere questions about the faith, do we scoff at them? Or do we help them understand what the faith and catechism teaches? The old adage of “it takes a village to raise a child” does have some merits when we remember that we—all of us—are the Body of Christ. Even while we believe trinitarian baptism is valid, the work is simply not finished once we are baptized. Baptism is almost like a constant and enduring “yes” to Christ and that is something that we should all remember.
Yesterday was Divine Mercy Sunday, and this fact has not escaped me while writing this. I have met many Catholics in my travels and conversations this past year. COVID or job loss had contributed to a loss—or struggle—of faith in some of them. And if you have struggled with belief before, you sometimes know this struggle with faith can often lead to sin that we later regret. I reminded someone yesterday of Jesus’ words to St. Faustina, “The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to my mercy.” Jesus always, always commits to embracing us when we return to Him. But are we always committed to Him?
St. Faustina, pray for us.
St. Pope John Paul II, pray for us.