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"Authentic Lay Spirituality" Part 2: "Sustained and Made Possible by Faith"

Byline: Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
Posted: November 4, 2010

Today, we gather for the second in a series of talks entitled “Authentic Lay Spirituality.” In my October talk, I made reference to Jesuit Father James Martin’s new book, “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (A Spirituality for Real Life),” where he describes spirituality in the following helpful and beautiful way: “In brief, a spirituality is a way of living in relationship with God. Within the Christian tradition, all spiritualities, no matter what their origins, have the same focus -- the desire for union with God, an emphasis on love and charity, and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God.” (p. 2) 

In that first meditation, entitled “Authentic Lay Spirituality: Where Charity and Love Prevail,” I spoke about the essential dimension of charity and love for a spirituality to be authentic and real. Today, I will focus on another essential attribute described in Father Martin’s definition. For a spirituality to be authentic and real, it must be based on belief in Jesus as the Son of God. In other words, it is the question and challenge of faith. I have thus entitled this meditation: “Authentic Lay Spirituality: Sustained and Made Possible by Faith.”

Msgr. Gaenswein, current secretary to the Holy Father, speaking of faith, recently said so beautifully: "The message of the Successor of Peter is as simple as it is profound: Faith is not a problem to resolve, it is a gift to discover, day after day. Faith gives joy and fullness."

Yes, it is the faith of our mothers and fathers. It is what has been handed down to so many of us. But what then is faith? How do we understand the meaning of Christian faith?

At its heart, faith is a response word. It is our response to God Who continues to reveal and communicate His love to us. It is a response to the Word of God, another name for Revelation. It is our free response to a loving God who continually seeks us out like the Hound of Heaven.  He communicates Himself to us, and reveals Himself to us, each day and every moment of each day. He does so continually through the  Scripture, which is alive, and through the on-going life of the Church that we call Tradition--the prayer life, the sacramental life, the teaching life of the Church as given us by our Pope and the bishops.  It is at once a response to a person, to Jesus, AND it is a response to the message that Jesus teaches in and through the Church.  Not unlike two sides of the same coin, it is at once "what" I believe, fides quae, the content of what I believe and at the same time  it is the "event of personal surrender" to the God encountered now in and through Jesus Christ, fides qua, the Person to Whom I submit my whole life.  Such surrender engages the entire person.  In that great encyclical letter of our late Holy Father, Fides et Ratio, John Paul II writes: “Men and women accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth.” (13) 

In my book on “The Faith We Profess, A Catholic Guide to the Apostles’ Creed,” I cite the homily of Pope Benedict XVI given during his pilgrimage to Krakow in  May 2006 where he said: " ‘To believe means first to accept as true what our mind cannot fully comprehend. We have to accept what God reveals to us about himself, about ourselves, about everything around us, including the things that are invisible, inexpressible and beyond our imagination.’ The Pope spoke of the second aspect of the faith in these words: ‘it is a trust in a person, no ordinary person, but Jesus Christ himself. What we believe is important, but even more important is the One in whom we believe ...Believing means surrendering ourselves to God and entrusting our destiny to him...and making this relationship the basis of our whole life.’ Two days prior in Warsaw he had said, ‘Faith does not just mean accepting a certain number of abstract truths about the mysteries of God, of man, of life and death, of future realities. Faith consists in an intimate relationship with Christ, a relationship based on love of him who loved us first, even to the total offering of himself (pp 17-18).’” 

It should thus become clear why we say that our faith in Jesus and His message is essential to our spiritual lives and growth. And it is a journey of faith. It is dynamic. It is our response to all that Jesus revealed and continues to reveal. 

Fides et Ratio teaches us furthermore that “it should, nonetheless, be kept in mind that revelation [that what Jesus reveals and continues to reveal through Scripture and Tradition] remains charged with mystery.  It is true that Jesus, with his entire life, revealed the countenance of the Father, for he came to teach the secret things of God.  But our vision of the face of God is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding.  Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently.” (13) 

It is also important to remember that “the truth made known to us by revelation is neither the product nor the consummation of an argument devised by human reason.  It appears instead as something gratuitous, which itself stirs thought and seeks acceptance as an expression of love.” (FR 15) 

This acceptance calls us to bear witness by word and deed.  The response of faith is not merely lifeless or an academic exercise. Nor does faith mean anything without love. It often demands sacrifice and invites ridicule and marginalization.  You and I know that first hand from our experience of trying to live our daily lives of faith at home and in the workplace. 

One of the great challenges of those of us who seek to live and witness our faith daily is a challenge as old as the early days of the Church itself. I am thinking of St. Paul and his famous “Men of Athens” speech forever memorialized in Acts 17:22-31. He was speaking to the lawyers, judges and philosophers of his day—referring to them as a “religious people” because of the innate capacity for God in each of us-- although none knew the person Jesus.  He failed to make many converts that day. Most walked away. Each of us has had similar experiences in our lives. As I write in my book “The Faith We Profess: A Catholic Guide to the Apostles’ Creed:” “The God who means so much to us can leave others unmoved and untouched” (p. 8)” But we keep at it and the Lord walks with us and helps us for sure in all our humble efforts to teach and model the faith, even in the face of ridicule and lack of acceptance.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, a second century saint who died around l00 A.D. , was one of many in the history of the Church who let himself be torn to pieces by the jaws of  lions in the Roman arena rather than reject his faith. Cardinal Newman once wrote: "No one is  a martyr for a conclusion, no one is a martyr for an opinion; it is faith that makes us martyrs." It is faith in a living person, in Jesus Christ.  After all, for sure we do not give our lives to a question mark.

The most important example of faith in the history of faith is Our Blessed Lady. She perfectly embodies the obedience of faith.  In her, we see living faith in action. It is not simply an abstract concept. That is why the  Church venerates her. In her, we see the purest realization of faith. Importantly, she heard and listened to God's word brought by an angel and surrendered totally to that Word. In fact, she had no idea where it would lead her but she trusted in God's Word.  She listened and was moved to consent. At its base, that is faith. She remained faithful. "Let it be done to me according to your word."

Now the Catechism unpacks this concept of faith even further.  It teaches that faith is both a grace of God, a grace of God's love, an impulse of the Holy Spirit AND at the same time it is a free human act. If it were not a grace, it would not be possible to reach God Himself.  If it were not a human act, it would not be a real answer of man. It involves an assent of the intellect and the will to God's self-revelation, communicated to us both in words and deeds.

Faith is necessary for our salvation and the fullness of means of salvation subsists in the Catholic Church. The Lord Himself teaches: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned." (Mk 16:16). Faith is a foretaste of the beatific vision which is the goal of our journey on earth.

Importantly, faith requires perseverance. It often grows in stages. Sometimes we fall and walk away. So often we must crawl before we can walk again. It seems that so often it must stand the test of  perils and yes even scandals so familiar to each of us in our age and in every age. We know that from our personal experiences. And we are not lone rangers. The Catechism states: "To live, grow, and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be 'working through charity,' abounding in hope , and rooted in the faith of the Church." CCC 162 The Church's faith, the faith that has perdured  and developed over the centuries, precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith.

And faith is linked to our Baptism, the gateway sacrament in the church-- that first of the sacramental encounters for each and every person called a Christian. In fact, Baptism has been called the “sacrament of faith” (CL 10). It is the gateway to the spiritual life for a follower of Jesus. There is, moreover, an essential linkage between the profession of faith and Baptism.

This could not be more clear than in the account from the Acts of the Apostles where Paul and Silas where unexpectedly delivered from prison by a severe earthquake. Falling down before Paul and Silas, the jailor was petrified and asked what he had to do to be saved.  “And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.’ So they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to everyone in his house…then he and all his family were baptized at once” (Acts 16:31-33). Faith first and then Baptism!

In a most beautiful homily in September 2006 in Regensburg, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the creed, the 12 articles of our faith. He spoke of the Apostles Creed as a “summa” of everything we believe. Describing the Apostles Creed as divided into 12 articles referring to the 12 apostles, he stated that the Apostles Creed is actually divided into three main sections, an expansion of the Baptismal formula. It is the ancient Baptismal Creed of Rome. 

To this day, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, albeit “in question and answer form,” each time we have a Baptism. It is the Trinitarian formula beginning with a question by the priest or deacon:  “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth? The people then respond “I do.” And then the question about Jesus and subsequently the question about the Holy Spirit. The response “I do” is the same for the other two questions. 

In that same homily, Pope Benedict then taught that “the Creed is not a collection of propositions; it is not a theory. It is anchored in the event of Baptism -- a genuine encounter between God and man. In the mystery of Baptism, God stoops to meet us; he comes close to us and in turn brings us closer to one another. Baptism means that Jesus Christ adopts us as his brothers and sisters, welcoming us as sons and daughters into God’s family.” 

For Pope Benedict, the creed, the summary of our faith, is thus primarily an encounter with Christ and not just the contents of our faith. We do encounter Christ in each and every sacrament and, in this case, in the waters of Baptism as we recite the Apostles’ Creed. 

In the spiritual life, the spiritual life of every baptized person, there is thus the linkage between our faith (i.e. the creed) and Baptism itself. Our spiritual life, the life of every baptized person, should thus be designed to come to a deeper “knowledge of the radical newness of he Christian life that comes from Baptism, the sacrament of faith, so that this knowledge can help that person live the responsibilities which arise from that vocation received from God” (CL 10) 

At the same time, the twelve articles in the Apostles’ Creed provide a framework for the faith we profess. It sets forth the contents of our faith.  I like to think of the twelve articles in the Apostles’ Creed as 12 individual doors that we open, and as we walk through each door, we encounter over 2000 years of the living tradition of the Church about that article of faith. Those not of our faith might have a different understanding of the exact same words. By walking through those individual doors, we come to understand how the Church understands and teaches us, and we in turn teach others, the meaning of each article. 

When, for example,  we profess the first article: “I Believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” much is packed into those words. As Catholics we come to understand how each of us is created in the image and likeness of God and how He continues to sustain us in life as we speak and how it is that our dignity as humans must be protected from conception to natural death precisely because we are made by Him and for Him and in His image and likeness.  I would suggest that the entire pro-life movement takes its lead in significant part, for example, from that first article of the Apostles’ Creed and the Church’s understanding of it. What a great joy and love to encounter the living God in each and every one of us. Each of the twelve articles, moreover, brings us in touch with the living God in wonderful and beautiful ways. 

But how does our faith sustain our spiritual lives? It is not accidental that members of the baptized laity are called members of the “lay faithful.” You are men and women of faith. It is an integral part  of your walk with Jesus. Faith is an integral part of an authentic lay spirituality. 

Perhaps you have not reflected or meditated on the faith, our faith, the "contents" of the faith in recent years. It is so easy to take the faith for granted. So often, we think of faith as an academic or theoretical exercise, truths to be learned. Each Sunday, after the homily, we recite the Nicene Creed -- often almost without thinking about it. How often do we contemplate that our profession of faith is a fundamental “life decision,” not simply the recitation of a formula, or a set of words handed down to us from generations? No, we renew each Sunday a creed that has consequences as to how we live our lives and the choices we make. To this end, our Holy Father Benedict XVI said the following at a conference in northern Italy in 2007: "… our faith is well founded; but it is necessary that this faith become part of our lives. A great effort must therefore be made in order for all Christians to transform themselves into 'witnesses,' ready and able to shoulder the commitment of testifying -- always and to everyone -- to the hope that animates them." We should never forget that “believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit.” CCC 154 

Faith is the beginning of a new life. And life means growth and development. In this case, it means growth and development in Christ, in the perfection of His love that we might manifest Him in all we do and are. It means the full revelation of the great mystery of God’s love in us that the world might come to believe in Him precisely in and  through His life in each of us. 

Whether we consciously admit to it or not, our faith—our life in Christ-- has sustained us throughout the ups and downs of our lives-- at moments of new life and at death, at times when we struggle to give meaning to otherwise meaningless situations, at times of life-long vocational discernment and all those many moments in between. It helps us deal, moreover, with the challenges of secularism that pervade our contemporary society. 

Monsignor Gaenswein, the secretary to the Holy Father recently said it this way: "Faith helps one to live; faith gives joy; faith is a great gift: Herein lies Pope Benedict's most profound conviction." And you might ask why?  At its heart, it is because faith is an encounter with the living God. It is our spiritual journey. Authentic lay spirituality is made possible because of the response of faith, and in addition, spirituality is thus sustained  by our faith.