Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Diocese of Burlington, Vermont
September 28, 2013
In his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed the “Year of Faith.” The beginning of the Year of Faith was to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, a defining moment in the history of the Church in the Twentieth Century. Pope Benedict in Porta Fidei mentioned another lesser known anniversary. On October 11, 1992 Blessed John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Therefore, Porta Fidei reflected back on a period initiating renewal in the Church and thrust us forward into a re-engagement of the faith.
Pope Benedict also reminded us that the Servant of God Paul VI had proclaimed an earlier Year of Faith in 1967, observing the 19th centenary of the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul. In doing so, he envisioned a “solemn moment” for the Church to profess “an authentic and sincere profession of the same faith” (Paul VI, Petrum et Paulum Apostolos, 22 February 1967). This Year of Faith concluded with the confirmation of belief expressed in the Credo of the People of God.
As we read Porta Fidei and reflect on the Year of Faith, we are struck with two motives for its observance. We want to engage the faith, renewing its expression and knowing the content of that faith. The two go hand in hand. Pope Benedict and others have reminded us of an important distinction. There is the fides qua creditur, “the faith by which it is believed” and the fides quae creditur, “the faith which is believed.” To put it simply, one is the “act” and the other is the “content.” They should be inseparable realities in the life of the believer, one feeding and inspiring the other. And for you as catechists, both must be in the heart and mind, seeking to impart and to enliven the faith in the lives of the faithful.
Again, if we look at Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict makes clear that the Year of Faith is an invitation. Shall we call it an invitation to open the door? The Year of Faith is to be a “summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world” (Porta Fidei, #6). The Year of Faith then “summons” to “conversion.” There is nothing static about it, where we sit back with self-satisfaction and say how wonderful everything is. In words taken from Porta Fidei, “[w]e cannot accept that salt should become tasteless or the light be kept hidden (cf. Mt. 5:13-16)” (#3). I would like to cite two recent examples of where I found tasteless salt and hidden lights.
A priest recounted to me how a group of inquiring ladies had approached him following a morning Mass. They wanted to know about Purgatory. They said they had gone to a local Catholic bookstore and requested a particular book on the topic, only to be told that it would not be available in that bookstore because it was not in keeping with Vatican II. What did this mean? They were confused. Did this mean that the Church no longer taught Purgatory as a doctrine? Seeking clarity, they approached two or three priests on Purgatory and received a similar evasive response. They were left with the impression that Purgatory was no longer a teaching of the Church. If not denied, it had become ignored or a topic not to be discussed, perhaps we might say “hidden” from view. The priest, telling me the story, explained to them that they needed to consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This text would give a lucid, concise, and comprehensible treatment of not only this doctrine but also anything else about which they might want to inquire. The priest then said, “The people are so hungry, and we are giving them nothing.” Of course, that is an exaggeration, but I can see where he is coming from. Why do we hide our light?
Porta Fidei reminds us of the priceless gift of our catechism. “In order to arrive at a systematic knowledge of the content of the faith, all can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a precious and indispensable tool. It is one of the most important fruits of the Second Vatican Council” (#11). As “a precious and indispensable tool,” we ignore the Catechism at our own risk. It is a superb exposition of the fides quae creditur.
I offer now my second example of tasteless salt and hidden light. Another good priest came to me discouraged because he had been teaching an elementary school catechism class and was saddened at what he found. He said that the children found it difficult to grasp the spiritual and had little appreciation for anything transcendent. Consequently he found it very difficult, if not impossible, to talk to them about God. They could not relate to the vocabulary of faith. He found them conspicuously secularized and materialistic. Because we are all catechists and teachers, this experience is nothing new, and the situation seems only to grow more acute. More and more people seem only to emote and challenge us to keep our thoughts of content and substance to ourselves. Don’t let knowledge get in the way of my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, they seem to say. The polls and surveys only confirm this further when they report that more and more people call themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” There is a prominent billboard in our city back home that pictures a minister of a local non-denominational church, seated on a park bench, pointing to his watch. The caption reads: “Religion—ain’t got no time for that. Our church is about relationship.” All are searching. We cannot give them the tasteless salt of modern secularism or the hidden light of relativism. The truth is what they want to hear, and we must witness to that truth with love and charity.
Porta Fidei addresses our cultural dilemma as well. “[W]e must not forget that in our cultural context, very many people, while not claiming to have the gift of faith, are nevertheless sincerely searching for the ultimate meaning and definitive truth of their lives and of the world. This search is an authentic ‘preamble’ to the faith, because it guides people onto the path that leads to the mystery of God” (#10). As clergy, teachers, and parents, we see this so often. Personally I encounter it in the passenger seated next to me on the airplane or in the waiting room of a doctor’s office or even in a line at a polling place waiting to vote. “Father,” they say, “may I ask you a question?” And, then, the search begins “for the ultimate meaning and definitive truth of their lives and of the world.” These are moments of opportunity. They are moments of God’s grace.
The Second Vatican Council alerted us to the “signs of the times.” I find we have come to understand a little better what was meant. Secularism and materialism, what my good priest encountered in the catechism class, are signs of the times. We must not be discouraged by them. They challenge us to find an entrée into the lives of the people to bring a message of faith, hope and love. I would suggest that the entrée is found in the first example I offered, of the people hungering for answers, seeking a better understanding, and wanting to know the truth.
Our faith is beautiful. What do I mean? I mean by this that faith in Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church that He founded have a symmetry, balance, and complementariness which attracts. It is a beauty that is sorely lacking in the world today, and the people know it. They know the emptiness of the endless pursuit of sexual pleasure and making money. They know something is lacking in a relentless thirst for power and recognition. They know something is missing but often do not know what it is, and touched by God’s grace, they come to us and want to encounter it. The object of this quest is, of course, Jesus Christ, but not the Jesus Christ of my own invention, my comfortable “Lord” that I have fashioned in my own image. No, we preach Jesus who invites us to open the door. He is always a challenge, taking us out of our complacency.
In the words of Porta Fidei, “During this time we will need to keep our gaze fixed upon Jesus Christ, the ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Heb 12:2; in him, all the anguish and all the longing of the human heart finds fulfillment. The joy of love, the answer to the drama of suffering and pain, the power of forgiveness in the face of an offence received and the victory of life over the emptiness of death; all this finds fulfillment in the mystery of his Incarnation, in his becoming man, in his sharing our human weakness so as to transform it by the power of his resurrection” (#13). What does it mean “to keep our gaze fixed upon Jesus Christ”?
Last year, I accompanied a diocesan pilgrimage to the Shrines of France. One of our stops was the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. As you know, St. Louis IX built this exquisite chapel in the 13th Century to house the Crown of Thorns. It is a jewel box of some of the finest stained glass in the world. The real miracle is that it was not destroyed during the French Revolution. In the chapel you are surrounded by walls that soar upwards, filled with colored glass depicting Biblical stories. As anyone knows, stained glass windows always sparkle in direct sunlight. Our little group entered the chapel on a cloudy day. In the midst of our tour, however, the clouds suddenly parted, and the sun made its appearance. The entire chapel lit up. Colors exploded. An audible gasp traveled through the crowd. Nothing could take our eyes off the splendor of light cascading through the intricately designed windows. Our heads were pitched up, our necks ached, our mouths were opened, but it didn’t matter. Nothing could distract us from such beauty. Nothing at the moment seemed more important. Our gaze was fixed.
This is what happens when we encounter Jesus Christ. Nothing is more important. We want to know more, because we love better what we know. The attraction is a moment of God’s grace. The clouds part, the sun enters, and God gets our attention. We fix our gaze. It is at this point that workers are needed in the vineyard (Luke 10:2), because to them have been entrusted the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:11).
Remember the account of the Samaritan woman encountering Jesus at the well. Porta Fidei reminds us of it too and for a good reason. With every question, from one topic to the next, Jesus captures her attention and moves the woman to faith. Jesus does not tell her what she wants to hear. He tells her what she needs to her, and this is what makes the message attractive. God has already planted in her heart the seed of desire so that at this moment Jesus can harvest. It is to this harvesting that Jesus alludes when He tells His disciples in the context of this Gospel, “’One sows and another reaps’” (John 4:37). And what does the woman say? What is her testimony to the townspeople? “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (John 4:29).
Now I will tell you a little story. There was once a priest, the pastor of a parish, who gave instruction to a convert. The convert was not his only one. He had many converts. He did not seek the convert. The convert found him. Instruction was given. Ostensibly there seemed to be nothing exceptional about any of this. The priest was simply carrying out his ministry. Almost thirty years passed. The priest and the convert never saw each other again. The priest passed from one assignment to another and yet another. Then, one day unexpectedly the priest heard from his convert. He now lived in the city where the priest was assigned. He wanted to see the priest, so they had lunch. At this meeting, the priest learned that the convert had been happily married for several years, had several children and was very successful in his business. He thanked God, first and foremost, but concluded with these words, “You know I owe everything to you. You taught me about the faith. You introduced me to God. I am in love with my Catholic faith. My wife and I take our faith seriously. We are making every effort to see to it that our children are brought up as good Catholics. I wouldn’t be what I am today, if it were not for you.” The convert left the priest speechless. The priest had done nothing more than help open the door. God had done the rest. Thanks be to God.
When I heard this true story, a thought occurred to me. We hear a great deal of bad news today. The Church has not been exempt, and her enemies take advantage of what has always been the delicate relationship between the human and the divine in the Church. But the Year of Faith is an invitation to us. It offers us an opportunity. It reminds us that faith like a door opens into a room filled with light. We should not fear what lies beyond the door. We must be surefooted and confidently enter, convinced that Jesus Christ has won the victory over sin and death and that this victory is ours by reason of our faith in Him. This faith is not some ephemeral emotion, here today and gone tomorrow. Porta Fidei speaks “… of the need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ” (#2). There is nothing fleeting or transitory about this faith. It turns a clear light on the joy of meeting Christ and knowing Him better. Never underestimate the faith that we share in Jesus Christ within the Church. Always be assured that while the results appear long in coming, they will come and in ways that we do not expect. As the First Letter of St. Peter exhorted the early Christians to take courage in the face of suffering, so he instructs us today, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (I Peter 3:15).
The Church offers us the “door of faith,” and the Year of Faith is an invitation to open that door. With every invitation, an RSVP is attached. So too with the Year of Faith the Church asks us to respond to the invitation. As any of us know who have sent invitations, a large number do not respond at all. This is something like the rudeness encountered by the king in the Gospel whose invited guests refused the invitation to the wedding of his son (Matthew 22). We can only conclude that “… those who were invited were not worthy to come” (Matthew 22:8). So we move on. We go out “into the streets” (Matthew 22:10) and invite others. The invitation to the banquet of faith has an energy that comes from God’s Spirit. If someone will not listen, someone else will. We shake the dust from our feet and move on to announce the good news to the next town (Luke 9:5). This has been the story of the invitation to faith from the beginning. There have always been those who accept and those who refuse.
As servants who both receive and issue the invitation, we must love the wedding banquet of faith. The invited will want to hear more from us about the invitation. We must be their salt and light. This is the joy of proclamation.
Open the door of faith to your neighbor, to your children, and to your students. Let them know the love of God. Let them hear the invitation. Speak it with clarity and conviction. Let the invited see that the door of faith invites them to open and how satisfying it is to enter.
Bishop Glen John Provost