yearoffaithPope Benedict XVI has declared the period from October, 2012 through November, 2013, as the Church’s “Year of Faith” – a period that would act “a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord.”

At first, I thought that this Year of Faith may be the springboard to new initiatives that would help those whose faith has faded.  Now, I’m not so certain.

In his pastoral letter describing the need for a “year of faith”, Cardinal William Levada wrote, “Pastors, consecrated persons and the lay faithful are invited to renew their efforts in effective and heartfelt adherence to the teaching of the Successor of Peter”. The introduction is heavy on emphasis of the Catechism as a tool to communicate the elements of faith (it is mentioned 30 times in the letter), urges pilgrimages to Rome and increased devotion to Mary.

Other members of the Church hierarchy also chime in, with Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelisation, stating that the year offers relief for those “who feel a nostalgia for God”.

Nostalgia for God? What is that supposed to mean?

These may be wonderful suggestions to deepen the faith of the already faithful – but to those whose hearts have been hardened by an often cruel world, such declarations are little more than fancy words. Our Church cannot take great comfort in a Year of Faith without seriously examining how our message fails to reach those whose faith has been tested – and succumbed.

I frequently mention recent studies that paint a particularly bleak picture for the Church as far as young adults are concerned – one fifth of the US population, and one out of every three Americans under the age of 30 profess no religious affiliation.

Our Church can ill-afford to dismiss those who drift away as some group not good enough to be part of our club – responding to the currents that carry people away from belief by emphasizing a reading of the Catechism is an inadequate, insufficient, and ill-chosen tactic.

Considering the recent horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut, reflecting on the divisive sentiment that permeates our communities (and often our own Church), and recalling the very real trend among more young people to declare no formal religious affiliation, this member of flock wonders aloud how the upcoming year, as described by the Vatican, will make a difference for those whose faith has been shaken, if not discarded.

Those outside the home of the Church may, with some justification, ask ‘Faith in whom? Faith in what?.’

The message and initiatives to strengthen faith are not the same actions needed to restore and rebuild. To gain the attention of the hundreds of thousands of Catholics who choose to walk away – the message of faith must powerfully, in modern language, drive home the message that at least keeps them looking for answers that hopefully our Church provides.

Before the recovering faithful are ready for the Catechism (if anyone ever is), the Church must be able to proclaim some key points to those are just barely within earshot of the message.

Why Faith?
The site CatholicsComeHome argues that one of the reasons one should return to the Church is because it is the one true church, that it alone “is the one Church established by Christ 2,000 years ago”. Many other arguments take a salvational tone through the promise of eternal life and the ultimate triumph over death.

Let’s assume for a moment that the heathen among us don’t accept that only Rome owns the truth and struggle with concept of eternal life. I suggest a more down-to-earth reason for faith.

There will come a time in all our lives when the only thing we will have to fall back on for guidance, for moral direction, for hope, will be our faith.

There is no escaping the reality that all of us will eventually face a decision or crisis that no possession, no property, position, friend or family will be able to solve on our behalf. This junction may involve the loss of a loved one, loss of a career, illness, loneliness, or just the knowledge of our own mortality.

That moment in time, when all our earthly tools and resources are stripped away, we will find ourselves boiled down to the essence of what we believe in, our sense of right and wrong, and our source of hope in the fact that despite the challenges of the moment, our life still has meaning.

If one faces such moments without a sense of, as Thomas Aquinas wrote, “hope [in] things that are not at hand”, the results may be tragic. We can only wince at the thought of the consequences that may occur if we turn inward for guidance, only to find nothing.

Is Faith ‘just made up stuff?’
Faith is the belief that our lives mean more than what we can see, touch, taste, and smell.

People often argue against the case of religious faith based on the observation that scriptural readings and Church teachings fly in the face of what we know of the physical world.

The traditional Gospel readings of Jesus walking on water, raising the dead, and tales of the miracles of the saints hold little sway – especially given our understanding of the modern world.

But there is something wrong with this need to look at scripture as a flawed history book or the need to build our view of existence around what can be sensed and measured. Both views are centered on gathering facts and data; neither view gives them meaning.

Faith is first, and foremost an attitude – an attitude that drives us to ask what our lives mean.

Trying to find meaning in our lives by observing and measuring is much like trying to understand love by looking at a photograph of a wedding. It’s just not going to happen.

One can read scripture and come to the conclusion that walking on water, healing the sick and rising from the dead are scientific impossibilities. But to the followers of 2,000 ago,  the experiences meant something to them, meant enough to move many of them to give their lives so that the message of the experience of Christ would endure. Such commitment, such meaning cannot be dismissed.

To the critic of faith, the passage that describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” can be interpreted as an invitation to believe in fantasy. To the a person of faith, the same passage calls one to believe that despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite all the observed facts of the day, there is a reason to struggle against the odds of poverty, ignorance and greed, and that the struggle will lead us to a better place.

Why have faith in a God that allows so much suffering?
This is one of the most difficult questions I have struggled with – a question that tries to answer what role God plays in the day to day occurrences of our lives. Where does God stop and the freedom that morality requires begins?

We know what the faithful often say – the phrases are rote:

God is sovereign. God has a plan. God is good. God never gives you something you can’t handle.

But tsunamis and earthquakes often kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people. School-aged children are murdered. And many of us know persons who succumb to the darker powers of drugs and suicide. Thinking, feeling people can reasonably give pause before committing to a master who lets lots of bad stuff happen.

Fortunately, there are a number of authors who have written very compelling explanations about the role of God and the world – a couple of my favorites are Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” and “Why Faith Matters” by David Wolpe.

For me to say I have faith in God, and to really mean it, I have to have some type of personal understanding of God’s real role in the day to day happenings of being mortal. I may not be right in my understanding – this type of question, as they say, is beyond my pay grade. Theologians and cosmologists have been, and will continue to argue these points until the end of days. But their explanations are, well, theological and cosmological – too many ‘ogicals’ for a Polish kid from Buffalo. My answer has to work for me.

My personal belief is that God doesn’t spend eternity deciding who gets to sit on a beach and who gets struck by lightening. Say it is the deist in me, but the physical world is ours to play in, and it is not always safe.

As Kushner writes:

“…it may be that God finished His work of creating eons ago, and left the rest to us. Residual chaos, chance and mischance, things happening for no reason, will continue to be with us…. In that case, we will simply have to learn to live with it, sustained and comforted by the knowledge that the earthquake and the accident, like the murder and the robbery, are not the will of God, but represent that aspect of reality that stands independent of His will, and which angers and saddens God even as it angers and saddens us.”

But I also believe that God does show up in this world – when college students give their lives for the civil rights movement, when firefighters rush into towers of hell facing almost certain death, and when a teacher takes bullets for her students – that kind of unqualified commitment to truth and love – that is God. It can’t be anything else.

Where does all this leave me when I too, wonder where my faith is directed?

The scriptural critic in me says that God doesn’t send earthquakes or floods to ‘make a point’ about a world cursed with sin. The rational me argues that Man isn’t in control. The Catholic in me believes that truth, love and life endure forever. The three of us live together (though not always at ease with each other).

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This posting was written not so much to criticize the “Year of Faith” proclamation, but more to urge our Church to get down and dirty when it comes to arguing the basic case for faith to those who need the message most.

I, for one, am optimistic when the surveys I referred to mentioned that many young people do admit to being spiritual, if not religious. I interpret that to mean that despite differences and disagreements with stated dogma or conflicts with traditional religious institutions, there still is that interest in the ‘spiritual’, still a need to find the bigger meaning.

The audience remains in place. Our message of faith must not disappoint.

And to those on the edge of faith who may be reading this, I hope you will understand that despite your doubts and uncertainty, the search for faith, for the meaning of a life that goes beyond the things we own, touch, or taste is important enough that we must persevere to find answers to our questions, elusive as the answers may seem.

We are all being “called by name” by the Source of all things to continue the search.

Why else would you be reading this?

 


References:

http://www.annusfidei.va/content/novaevangelizatio/en.html (Year of Faith home page)
Hebrews: 11:1
Isaiah 43:7
“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, Harold Kushner, Avon Books
“Why Faith Matters”, David Wolpe, Harper Collins
http://www.CatholicsComeHome.org

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