Theological Reflection - Harry Dudley

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Enter by the Narrow Gate

by Harry Dudley, DMi
Assistant Director for Certification of Ecclesial Ministry, Secretariat of Catholic Education
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Mt 7:13-14)

Enter through the narrow gate (see also Mt 7:13-14 and Lk 13:22-30; 16:16). This opening phrase makes clear that we do have choices in our journey of faith, and our choices have consequences. In the parallel passage from Luke, we are cautioned that the gate is narrow and that those who think they are first shall be last. Those listening to Jesus were aware of the tradition among Jewish scholars at that time to lock the door and bar students from class for a week so that late arrivers would learn to be on time. Choices can take us in many directions: good or bad, life or death, heaven or hell (see Mt 24:31-46). In a nation where freedom of choice is the most important thing to many, the idea that some choices might be good and others bad is often lost. Many assume that no matter how one lives a life, we are all bound to be saved. Many have lost a sense of sin and the need for a Savior in our lives.

Let us look at the image of the narrow gate in light of this past Year of Faith, the New Evangelization, Vatican II, and our ongoing journey of faith as God's pilgrim people on earth, the Body of Christ.

Two Kinds of Life

This passage about the narrow way is part of the final section of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7:13-28). Jesus presents us with a series of contrasts, comparing two kinds of life within the community of his disciples: those who obey the words of Jesus and thus please God the Father and those who do not.  

Disciples who obey the words of Jesus allow his life to shape the whole of their existence according to their faith in Jesus Christ. As the United States National Directory for Catechesis says, "Christian moral formation . . . involves confession of faith in him, adherence to his person and his teaching, following in his footsteps, taking on his attitudes, and surrendering the old self in order to take up the new self in Christ." Why we may ask? Because "Christ is the norm of morality. 'Christian morality consists . . . in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church" (National Directory for Catechesis [NDC] [Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005], no.42). 

Disciples who do not follow the words of Jesus, by not relating them to their everyday life and decisions, are like the poor sheep who are led astray by other voices besides Jesus'.

Pope Benedict XVI surprised many when he spoke positively about agnostics, whom he called "people who are seeking the truth; they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practiced. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So, all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible" (Benedict XVI, Address, Meeting for Peace in Assisi, 

Vatican II

One of the gifts of Vatican II was that it renewed the call to universal holiness, a call that we do not share alone (Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium (LG)], no. 39, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 1996]). We can look to the saints who model for us how to enter the narrow gate with grace. When we do attempt to model our lives on the life of Jesus and the saints, our very lives become like their luminous testimony to his saving power. The point here is to be committed as a member of the community of disciples, the Church, to daily prayer, regular fasting, and full and active participation in the sacramental life and in service to others. That pattern of Christian living opens the door to salvation—not just to us, but also to others.

Ralph Martin, a theologian who teaches at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, recently served as an official expert at the October 2012 World Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.  In a video interview shortly following the synod, he argued that amidst the positive contributions of the Second Vatican Council and its emphasis on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue "a lot of Catholics got confused, saying, well, maybe it doesn't matter anymore whether people are Christians or not" ("The strait [sic] and narrow path of the new evangelization: An interview with Ralph Martin," Catholic News Service (CNS), October 26, 2012,

Paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium may appear to teach something contrary to Jesus' words about the "narrow way" by affirming the possibility that people can be saved without hearing the Gospel of Christ or coming to explicit knowledge of God. This surface reading has led Catholics to doubt that it is necessary to be Christian in order to be saved, and hence, according to Martin, they have become dismissive regarding the need for evangelization. (Ralph Martin, Will Many Be Saved? [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 2012] 5.)  In the video interview with CNS, Martin said that those who misinterpret the document this way "make this huge leap from possibility to probability to (presuming) almost everybody [will be saved]." (Francis Rocca, "Misreading of Vatican II," CNS, Oct. 26, 2012, )

Martin clarified that the Council offers three specific conditions under which the salvation of non-Christians is possible: "inculpable ignorance, that it's not their own fault that they haven't heard the Gospel"; that "they are seriously seeking God, they want to know who he is and what his will is"; and that "they are living according to the light of their consciences assisted by grace" (As summarized by Francis Rocca in same article).

Martin noted that evangelization is "not just about enriching people's lives, it's not just about making people happier on this earth. . . . It's really about the difference between heaven and hell." He states in the critique of one theologian, "How tragic if the promulgation of a theoretical or practical presumption that almost everyone will be saved actually became the cause of many people being lost" (189).

Jesus Himself Is the Gate, and Disciples Hold the Key

So Jesus said again, "Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came [before me] are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (Jn 10:7-10; see also Eph 2:11-18; Heb 10:19-25).

Jesus refers to the kind of sheep pen that shepherds would use during summer months. The shepherds would stay out in the fields with their sheep for weeks at a time. They would do their best to find good pasture land, and then they would gather some stones to build a makeshift corral that would have a single opening. At night the shepherd would herd his sheep through that opening into the pen. He would then lie down across the opening. The shepherd himself became the gate to the sheep pen. He was literally the sheep's protection and their security from thieves and robbers who wanted to kill, steal, or destroy the flock.  Who are those thieves and robbers being referred to here? The use of the present tense "are" provides us a key. The thieves and robbers are contemporaries of Jesus—those whose leaders in particular failed to be good shepherds and good witnesses. As his disciples, our lives should contrast with those poor witnesses by how we proclaim that he is the good shepherd whose life, Death, and Resurrection give meaning and hope to our lives. 

  • Has this Year of Faith helped us embrace our discipleship with Jesus the Good Shepherd and the abundant life he offers through his Church in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance? During the Synod on the New Evangelization, Cardinal Timothy Dolan called Penance and the Eucharist the "Sacraments of the New Evangelization."
  • Have we ever shared with others how much his forgiveness and healing mean for us?
  • Do we remember that in the mystery of Jesus' Death and Resurrection, God has revealed in its fullness the Love that saves and calls us to conversion of life through the forgiveness of sins (see Acts 5:31)?

As Disciples, We Are Co-Responsible

Pope Benedict XVI said, "Lay people . . . should not be regarded as 'collaborators' of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are really 'co-responsible' for the Church's being and acting" (Message at the Sixth Ordinary Assembly of the International Forum of Catholic Action, August 10, 2012, A healthy self-examination may prove to be helpful:

  • Do our decisions reflect our relationship to Christ? Is that connection clear to us? If not, it is difficult for it to be clear to others.
  • Do we realize, as Pope Benedict XVI has said, that real love of neighbor also desires to give them the deepest thing they need, namely, knowledge and truth? This is why we are called to seek opportunities to share our faith.
  • Have we prayed to the Holy Spirit to renew our faith and give us understanding and courage to share our faith?

The Wide or the Narrow Path 

St. Augustine reminds us in his Confessions that we have restless hearts that only God can fill. Rather than God or the spiritual life, our culture often presents us with many other things that are supposed to fill our restless hearts. If we embrace Christ's way, we realize that we are meant to counter this wide path of secular culture. G. K. Chesterton wrote, "Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most." The New Evangelization responds to Western society's ongoing move away from religion by urging Catholics to enthusiastically share Christ in word and witness. This is why Pope Benedict XVI encouraged us to study the lives of the saints and learn from their example ("Evangelization and Catechesis Head Shares 'Seven Things Catholics Should Know About the New Evangelization,'"

  • Has our Year of Faith helped us to remember that only God can fill our infinite longing? 
  • Has this Year of Faith helped us to see that Jesus only appears as a narrow gate to those who want to fill their lives with anything less than the infinite love God offers?

Beyond the Year of Faith

In his first catechesis on the Year of Faith, the Holy Father said that it was intended "to renew the enthusiasm of believing in Jesus Christ . . . [to] revive the joy of walking on the path he pointed out to us and bear a tangible witness to the transforming power of the faith" (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, October 17, 2012, As this Year of Faith comes to a close, we need to think about how we will continue what has hopefully begun to take root in us.

Evangelization is not an isolated moment, but an ongoing practice ("Seven Things Catholics Should Know"). Personal conversion and the encounter with Christ is an ongoing experience that lasts a lifetime. We are blessed to encounter our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the sacraments. These provide us with the grace to live out our call to reflect the love of Christ. We then share that love with our neighbors through caring for the poor and welcoming those who feel distant from God.

We all, in a sense, hold the key to the gate. We can hide Christ and make it hard for those who seek him to find him, or we can be living witnesses who reveal him by our lives.

In a speech to religious educators, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn, challenged them to become "living vestibules of the household of Jesus." He noted that we are in fact vestibules of the household of Jesus when we allow ourselves to be transformed by him and create lifelong encounters with Jesus. We do this by testifying and proposing, not imposing—an important distinction between evangelizing and proselytizing. The bishop asked this question: Why does the gate leading to abundant life, Jesus himself, seem so narrow to so many? Is it because we who are his disciples have not shared the joy that our lives as his disciples brings us?

In the coming years, we are called to echo the words of Pope Paul VI: "I feel the need to proclaim [Christ], I cannot keep silent. 'Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!' (1 Cor 9:16). I am sent by him, by Christ himself, to do this. I am an apostle, I am a witness. The more distant the goal, the more difficult my mission, the more pressing is the love that urges me to it (cf. 2 Cor 5:13). I must bear witness to his name: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16). He reveals the invisible God, he is the firstborn of all creation, the foundation of everything created. He is the Teacher of mankind, and its Redeemer. He was born, he died and he rose again for us" (Pope Paul VI, Homily, November 29, 1970,

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpts from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents edited by Austin Flannery, OP, copyright © 1975, Costello Publishing Company, Inc., Northport, NY, are used with permission of the publisher, all rights reserved. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without express written permission of Costello Publishing Company.

Excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI, Address, copyright © 2011, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV), Vatican City; General Audience, copyright © 2012, LEV; Message to the International Forum of Catholic Action, copyright © 2012, LEV; Pope Paul VI, Homily, copyright © 1970, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed. © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.