Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles focusing on the eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 

By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator  

Keeping the “dos” and “don’ts” of the Ten Commandments is a good way to stay clear of the sins that can keep one from entering heaven. But to better understand God’s divine purpose behind these biblical laws and achieve the communion with him that they ultimately desire, Catholics should also reflect on the Beatitudes, according to Father Miles Walsh, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Baton Rouge.  

A good way to understand the Beatitudes is to read St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, “Veritatis Splendor” or “The Splendor of Truth,” according to Father Walsh. 

“There he examines the dialogue (in the Gospel of Mark) of Jesus and the rich young man who asked, ‘What must I do to be good?’ The answer, ultimately, is to come to know Jesus himself and then to make the decision to follow him. Only in this way can we be reborn in the Spirit and become holy,” said Father Walsh.  

“Once we encounter Christ, the journey to discipleship begins with a very simple choice, namely, to avoid evil and to do good.  

“Therefore the negative prescriptions of the Law – the Commandments of God – are absolutely necessary for us to keep, i.e., the ‘thou shalt nots.’ You shall not kill, commit adultery, lie, steal, covet, etc. We must learn to avoid the sins that offend God in order to follow his son, just as a small child must learn to keep the rules set down by a loving parent in order to avoid hurting himself or others. Only then can the child begin to internalize the values of the parent.”   

And so while these negative commands set us on the road to holiness, Christian perfection demands the imitation of Christ, that we be conformed to him.”  

ather Walsh said that in the encyclical, St. John Paul points to the Beatitudes as a “self-portrait” of Christ, and illustrates this by referring to Jesus’ dialogue with the rich man. 

The Scripture passage notes that when the rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him keep the Ten Commandments. It then goes on to state, “He (the rich man) replied, ‘Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to (the) poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”  

In the encyclical, St. John Paul writes, “Like the earlier part of Jesus’ answer, this part too must be read and interpreted in the context of the whole moral message of the Gospel, and in particular in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3-12), the first of which is precisely the Beatitude of the poor, the ‘poor in spirit’ as Saint Matthew makes clear (Mt 5:3), the humble. In this sense it can be said that the Beatitudes are also relevant to the answer given by Jesus to the young man’s question: ‘What good must I do to have eternal life?’ Indeed, each of the Beatitudes promises, from a particular viewpoint, that very ‘good’ which opens man up to eternal life, and indeed is eternal life.”  

The encyclical points to the importance of both the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes in understanding truth and what it means to live a good and holy life, according to Father Walsh.  

When reading “Veritatis Splendor” Catholics may breathe a sigh of relief when coming upon the words, “The Beatitudes are not specifically concerned with certain particular rules of behavior. Rather, they speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore they do not coincide exactly with the commandments.”  

Yet it is followed with a challenge when it says, “Yet there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of the Beatitudes, but also refers to the commandments (cf. Mt 5:20-48). At the same time, the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the openness of the commandments and their orientation towards the horizon of the perfection proper to the Beatitudes. These latter are above all promises, from which there also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life. In their originality and profundity they are a sort of self- portrait of Christ, and for this very reason are invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ.”  

In essence, the Beatitudes helps Catholics see the Beatitudes as pointing to the ultimate good found by keeping the commandments, according to Father Walsh.  

“In a sense, they give us the second step in advancing on the way to holiness, internalizing what might be called the ‘positive prescriptions of the Law.’ They show us, in a positive sense, what we must do to ‘be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect’ They show us how to follow Christ,” said Father Walsh.