The Year of Faith: A call to go deeper in and further out
A talk by Fr Stephen Wang
11 October 2012, Cardiff Cathedral
It's very good to be with you today. Forgive me if I don't speak directly to the Welsh context here, or to your particular experience in the Archdiocese of Cardiff. Your guest speaker is half Chinese, a quarter English, and a quarter Scottish; and the reality is that I know London better than Cardiff. But let's hope that some of my own thoughts and experiences connect with yours.
There is so much to celebrate today. Fifty years since Pope John XXIII gave his opening address to the Second Vatican Council. Twenty years since the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published – one of the great fruits of the Council. The launch of the Year of Faith itself, that takes place today. And in these same days, the Synod on the New Evangelisation begins.
It's also, by the way, exactly fifty years since the Beatles released their first single, Love Me Do; and on the same day the first Bond movie, Dr No, hit the cinema screens. Two earth shattering events, but I simply don't have the time to connect their cultural and theological significance with the Year of Faith.
THE YEAR OF FAITH
What is this Year of Faith all about? Pope Benedict has given us some direction in his Apostolic Letter, Porta Fidei. It's beautifully written, and well worth reading. It's also fairly easy to summarise, because Pope Benedict has two very simple points. He challenges us both to go deeper in our personal faith, and to reach out to others more willingly in our Christian witness. To change his language slightly, he calls us to go inside and to go outside – inside, into the depths of the faith, and outside, to the world - instead of just hovering on the threshold.
So first, there is a call to deepen our faith as Catholics. Very often we do believe, but there is a sense that we are missing something – a beauty, a power. It's as if the face of Christ has been obscured; as if we are not quite convinced that we really do know, with St Paul, ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Phil 3:8).
It makes me think of the parable of the treasure in Matthew 13. Like the man in the parable, we have found the treasure buried in the field (Christ himself, and the Catholic faith); we are full of joy; we sell everything we have in order to buy the field. But then, over time, we have forgotten what this treasure looks like; we are not sure where we left it; and we are even beginning to question whether it is there at all.
Listen to the language of Pope Benedict, and especially to the verbs he uses, again and again, to encourage us: we are called to rediscover, renew, deepen, strengthen, and intensify our faith.
The second point of the Apostolic Letter is a call to share our faith more willingly. Listen again to the verbs he uses: there is a recurring invitation to profess, proclaim, communicate, witness, and share our faith; to testify to this great treasure. All of this would come under the heading of ‘evangelisation’.
One of my favourite lines from the Letter encapsulates both these themes: we need to ‘rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith’.
IS ANYONE REALLY LISTENING?
There are many different reasons why we are not very good at sharing our faith as Catholics. Let me list a few of them: Ordinary human frailty (we can be tired, lazy, afraid, distracted, etc). Hesitancy (about what to do and how to do it). Our own faith can be weak or even clouded by doubts (so we become unsure about the real value of sharing it). We fall prey to the dangers that affect any group (we can become cliquey, complacent and self-satisfied – happy to be part of an in-crowd). And subconsciously we can absorb the relativism of our culture (we think ‘everyone has their own way’; ‘this is true for me, but you may have found your own truth’; ‘yes, I believe in the love of Jesus for me, but I'm not quite sure – strangely – that this love is equally important for you’).
These reasons are all very significant. But I think the overriding barrier that stops us reaching out to others is this: a lack of confidence about whether anyone really wants to listen or not. This is what I want to look at, under the heading that Archbishop Stack has given us today: faith and reason. Is it reasonable to believe? Is there a fundamental contradiction between faith and reason? Or to put it more simply: can we present our faith in a way that will make sense to others? Is it possible for Christian faith to speak to people?
You can guess my answer: yes it is. And I want to encourage you in this talk not just to believe that you ought to reach out and share your faith (we all know that), but also to believe that it really matters, and that it really is possible.
But there are different ways that Christian faith can speak to others, and I want to put them under two headings: Dialogue and Witness.
Dialogue is about talking, listening, understanding, and trying to be understood ourselves. It is a core Catholic teaching that, despite the Fall and the ongoing effects of sin, human reason can lead us to truth, to a knowledge of God, and even to the edge of faith. When serious moral or cultural issues are at stake in society, we don't just retreat into a Catholic bubble or appeal to proof texts from the Bible and the teaching of the Church. We try to make sense of the issues, for ourselves and for others.
For example, if an outspoken ‘new atheist’ attacks our belief in God, we enter into debate. We question, perhaps, the materialist worldview that colours the atheist approach; and we point to the need to explain the origins not just of our particular universe, but of the very existence of everything that exists. Why, to use the old question, is there something rather than nothing? These are profound questions that need answering.
Take another example. If a scientist promotes the harvesting of stem cells from embryos, and therefore promotes the destruction of the embryos themselves; and if it is suggested that those who disagree with this position are holding up scientific progress or disregarding the suffering of millions of sick and elderly people – how do we react? We enter into dialogue, using our intelligence to the best of our abilities. We talk about the ethical dangers of this kind of utilitarian thinking, and we point out the concrete scientific alternatives to these unethical procedures.
It's interesting that the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine was announced this week, and it was awarded to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka. These two men have been at the forefront of research showing how adult stem cells can be reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells, with all the benefits of embryonic stem cells, but without the unethical processes. It's a beautiful example of how good thinking and good science has triumphed over bad ethics.
I don't mean that the Christian argument is always watertight or well expressed. My point is simply to show the value of dialogue. It really can make a difference - to the argument, and to the relationships of those who enter into it. As Catholics, we have a foundational conviction that reason and respectful dialogue are of fundamental importance. We keep trying to talk. We never give up on anyone, or retreat into a ghetto, or abandon others to their own ghetto.
CATHOLIC VOICES: AN EXAMPLE OF DIALOGUE
Let me give one illustration of how dialogue has brought great fruits for the Church and her relationship with culture.
Many of you will have heard of Catholic Voices. This is a group that was formed before the Papal visit to the UK in 2010. There was a feeling that the Catholic voice was not being heard clearly in the media or the public square. Or if it was heard, it was often shrill, defensive, or ill-informed. There was a desire by the founders to train laypeople so that they could engage with the media and be positive about the opportunities presented to them to speak and present the faith; a desire to have a pool of articulate, enthusiastic, media-savvy, and well briefed laypeople.
This was simply a new form of apologetics. As St Peter wrote in his First Letter, ‘Always have your answer ready for people to ask you the reason for the hope that you all have’ (I Pet 3:15).
Catholic Voices was a huge success. In the week of the papal visit the participants were involved in about 150 interviews and articles. There was a definite contribution to the national debate. And also to the mood: it was wonderful to see happy, thoughtful Catholics popping up all over the place.
We are not all called to be interviewed on the TV or radio; but we are all involved in conversations and friendships with those who do not share the faith.
There are two things to be learnt from the Catholic Voices programme, for all of us. First, we won't get anywhere unless we have a sincere desire to talk to others about our faith and about the issues in the air, a real willingness to dialogue.
Think of your own situation at home, in the parish, at the school gate, in the supermarket or workplace. Think of how many opportunities there are to speak to others, big and small, in the average week. We often shy away from conversation when it turns to a religious or moral topic. We often avoid talking about the things that really matter, even if they come up in a very natural way. We miss many opportunities.
KNOWING OUR FAITH
Second, Catholic Voices teaches us the importance of knowing our faith well. Yes, part of the Catholic Voices training did involve media skills – how to put a microphone on, how to look into the camera, how to avoid losing your temper when someone asks you a provocative question, etc. But the other central part of the training was studying the faith, the scriptures, the teaching of the Church, the Catechism. How can you share and defend your faith if you do not know it?
This is one part of the Year of Faith: appreciating the astonishing gift that we have received in the Catechism, appreciating the richness within it. As a Church, we have had the Catechism for twenty years now; but I feel as if we hardly know it. Many of us are scared of big books, and this is certainly an extremely large book. And even if we want to understand and use it, we tend to pick and choose and filter – death by a thousand cuts. But Pope Benedict calls us to embrace the whole vision of faith presented here, instead of reducing it to our own limited vision.
In my experience of working with different groups over the last few years, there is a tremendous hunger for Catholic teaching, whether we are talking about teenagers, young adults, engaged couples, parents, enquirers – indeed everywhere. I don't mean that this teaching is always understood or accepted straightaway; I don't mean that people are unquestioning or without struggles and doubts. But they want to know what is what; they find the Catholic faith interesting, challenging, fascinating – whenever it is opened up honestly and with some enthusiasm and conviction.
They want to know about the doctrines, the liturgy, the sacraments, the moral life, prayer, spirituality, etc; they want to wrestle with something solid and serious; they want to believe that it matters; and they feel bored, impatient and slightly let down if the faith is presented in a watered-down version, or with a particular spin. And let's face it, anyone can search on Google to find what the Church really teaches; so there is something slightly disappointing for them if the preaching, teaching or catechesis they receive is giving them less than they can find on the smart phone in their pockets.
All of this is about dialogue, thinking, talking, reasoning, understanding. Thinking matters. Talking makes a difference. We should do more of it!
But there is a second way that our faith can touch others. If dialogue is about helping people to think, then witness is about helping people to see. The human understanding works on many different levels, not just at the level of the head, of logic. There are limits to dialogue, to the intellectual connection between faith and reason. Again, this is part of our Catholic teaching - that faith speaks about mysteries far beyond the grasp of human knowledge.
At one level then, the mystery of Christian faith is beyond reason; or put it another way, it calls forth a deeper kind of reasoning. With the eyes of faith we are drawn into ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9). We speak of ‘the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge’ (Eph 3:19). We proclaim, with St Paul, ‘Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:23). And we hear St Peter saying to us, ‘You have not seen him, yet you love him; and still without seeing him you are filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described’ (1 Pet 1:8).
You can't explain this dark and dazzling vision; you can't argue someone into believing. It requires a step of faith, a commitment of the heart, and above all a particular gift of grace that comes in God's mysterious time, for his mysterious purposes.
You can, however, witness to this faith.
Witness often involves words, but it works at the level of the heart. It is not about arguing or persuading people, it is about awakening something within them, something that they perhaps only half realised before: a thought, and need, a longing, a wound, a yearning. Something unacknowledged before. And when they see you witnessing to this deeper reality of faith, it touches something.
This is why witness is different from dialogue. It's deeper, more mysterious, less predictable. Yet it does not contradict the human reality it sheds light on. It makes me think of that beautiful phrase from the Council, ‘Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of the human person truly come to light’ (GS 22).
Human existence is like a perpetual waiting, only without knowing what we are waiting for. This is the ‘restlessness’ of St Augustine. Your Christian witness, pointing to another way of life, opens up the possibility for the other person of making sense of this waiting.
40 DAYS FOR LIFE: AN EXAMPLE OF WITNESS
Let me give another illustration, the “40 Days for Life” movement. This is a peaceful prayer vigil that takes place outside a number of abortion clinics in the UK and throughout the world. As we speak, people are keeping vigil right now. It's not a protest or a political campaigning group but a form of witness.
There are three aspects to the project: prayer, education, and offering practical support and alternatives to women and men who are seeking abortion with an unplanned pregnancy.
40 Days for Life is not about trying to win an argument. There has been a feeling amongst many within the pro-life movement that the arguing, the dialogue, the political campaigning, have only taken us so far. It shows the limits of dialogue; not the futility – just the limits.
So there was a need for another strategy: witness.
First, the witness of prayer. Not just private prayer, which is hugely important, but also praying in public. With this public prayer, part of the purpose is to show that prayer matters, that there is another way of changing hearts, that we're not alone in our struggles and sufferings – but that God is with us. This may sound a bit ‘pharisaical’. Didn't Jesus ask us to shut the door and pray in private? Yes, but he also prayed with and for people, drawing them into his own prayer, and witnessing to the central importance of that prayer for all people.
Second, there is the witness of truth: offering information, leaflets, education, conversations, insights, etc. Sharing the simple scientific facts about human development; the physical, psychological and moral dangers of abortion; the practical alternatives. Being prepared to speak about this in public, to help those who are asking questions. And always to speak with patience, kindness and peacefulness; sometimes in the face of aggression or anger.
And third, but most importantly, there is the witness of charity in the 40 Days for Life vigil: offering real, practical support to women who are considering an abortion, very often because they have no support from anywhere else, and feel pressured into this choice by others or by circumstances. So this is not just the offer of leaflets or kind words, but very concrete assistance: helping them to find a supportive advice centre, giving them financial help if they need it, even offering them a place to stay during the pregnancy and birth if they have been pushed out of their own home.
THE POWER OF WITNESS
40 Days for Life really changes lives. I don't just mean the number of women who decide to keep their babies because of the vigil (although, by the grace of God, there are many of these). I also mean the powerful and often unexpected effects of this witness on so many others: men and women who walk by and feel drawn to talk about their own abortion experience, that took place perhaps many years ago, because at last they have found someone who understands the sadness and the seriousness of it; people drawn to pray, simply through the witness and faith of those who are praying on the street corner there; people who stop to talk and enquire and even disagree – some of them having their minds changed, softened, or challenged in a non-aggressive way.
The biggest miracle is the effect that the vigil has had on so many of those who work in the abortion clinics. Over the years, internationally, quite a few abortion workers have had powerful conversion experiences, or small changes of heart, that have led them to leave the clinics and find work elsewhere. This isn't because they have been pressured into this, but because through the witness of those on the vigil they have had the opportunity of seeing others who see things differently. The witness to life gives another way of looking at the world, another possibility, that awakens something deep in their hearts, and actually fits with what they secretly believed all along.
I am not putting this forward as an ideal model of what Christian witness looks like, and my purpose is not actually to open up the life issues themselves. I simply use this as one example of what witness can involve: prayer, words, and the work of practical charity and love. And I hope it gives an encouragement to all of us to see how powerful our witness can be.
THE NEED TO ACT
Think of your own parish, your workplace, your school, your neighbourhood – wherever you are. There are so many situations, perhaps, where dialogue does not seem to be bearing fruit, or where all the dialogue that is possible has already been done, and something more is needed. Very often the Holy Spirit is nudging and inspiring us, or the voice of conscience is speaking to us. We notice someone who needs our help, we see a situation that needs attention, we uncover an injustice that needs putting right. Or we feel an unexpected passion to do something, to say something, to witness to something; we feel moved, concerned, excited, frustrated, amazed, angered, bewildered – by the circumstances around us, even by the culture that we live with him. Some of this may be just our human frustrations and impatience, but sometimes it really is the Holy Spirit calling us to do something, to act, to witness.
Sometimes we just need to act, trusting that the witness of our action is part of what the Lord wants to use to bring about good. Acting, even if we are very aware of our weakness and inadequacy, shows that something really matters. Others will see reflected in our actions the truth that we have seen – the love that motivates us, the need crying out to be met.
There is a beautiful passage from the Council explaining how all Christians are called to share in Christ’s prophetic office, by giving ‘a living witness to him, especially by a life of faith and love and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips confessing his name’ (LG12).
The main point here is about the nature of witnessing. When we witness to our faith or to the love that stirs within us, in all these different ways, we allow people's hearts to be moved. Something is stirred within them. It's not irrational, but it is deeper than the level of ordinary reasoning. It's like half-recognising a face from the past, half-remembering a fragment of a poem or tune that we heard many years ago. It opens up a new horizon, presenting the possibility of a way of life that seemed unimaginable before. Our witness to our faith can give others a sense of coming home to a home they didn't even know existed.
This is how people often talk on RCIA courses, when they try to describe what first drew them to the Catholic faith. It is nearly always some form of witness: a person, a prayer, a building, a book, a passage of the Bible. Something deep within them is moved. It seems to be a moment of conversion, but it is really about coming back to where they always were – only without knowing it.
CHRIST BREAKS INTO OUR LIVES
Let me leave you with a couple of images. I work at Allen Hall, which is the seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster in central London. Our chapel is over fifty years old, and it is in desperate need of refurbishment.
We have a huge sanctuary with a high ceiling and a beautiful sense of space, but it is sparsely furnished and what little furnishing there is looks very tired. As part of the refurbishment, we are thinking about commissioning a large crucifix to hang above the altar. Last week, as an experiment, a very roughly produced crucifix was hung in the centre of the sanctuary, just to see how it ‘sits’, how it ‘feels’. It's about 7 feet high, very simply produced, with just a charcoal sketch of the outlines of Jesus's crucified body.
It has utterly transformed the sanctuary. You have an immediate sense of the presence of Christ, standing there powerfully in the centre of the church. Everything within the sanctuary is suddenly seen in a new perspective. Of course he was always there before – above all in the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle – but now we really realise that he is there, visually, spatially, emotionally. When you are looking at the altar or the priest or the ambo or the tabernacle, you are constantly aware, at the edge of your vision, of the powerful presence of Jesus who died for us and rose from the dead for our salvation. It's as if he has crashed through the roof, and broken open our complacency and forgetfulness.
It reminds me of the gospel story about the paralysed man, only in reverse (Mk 2). You remember that his friends brought him to meet Jesus, but there were so many people gathered round that they could not get in the door. So instead of giving up, they went to the top of the house, broke through the roof, and lowered their friend down on a stretcher to where Jesus was standing.
For us, in the chapel at Allen Hall, it's the opposite. It's as if we are sitting in the chapel, lost in our own concerns, forgetting what really matters. So Jesus breaks through the roof, lowers himself down into the centre of the sanctuary - just above the altar – and stands there before us in all his glory. He says: ‘Wake up! Remember! I’m here!’
This says something to us about the Year of Faith. We need to allow Jesus to break into our lives again, so that we can rediscover his face, hear his voice more clearly, and appreciate his life-giving presence. Our faith is real. It really matters. He is here amongst us. If only we could see him more clearly, and deepen and intensify our faith. If only we could let our hearts be broken open by his love, our minds be transformed by his truth, and our vision expand to take in the vast horizon of the gospel.
STEPPING OUTSIDE WITH OUR FAITH
But there is another aspect to the refurbishment of the chapel. We already have a beautiful crucifix on the back wall of the sanctuary, only this was originally designed for the outside of the chapel, where it hung for the first few years. It was meant to sit on the external wall, facing the busy London street outside – the buses and taxis, the crush of traffic and commuters and passers-by. And now, all being well, it will soon be back there.
This is hugely symbolic for us. It illustrates how it is one thing for us to deepen our own personal faith, for our own ‘benefit’; and it is another thing to give a public witness to this faith to those who do not know Christ. It feels as if the seminary needs to take its place in London, as if we need to step out and live our faith more boldly for others and not just for ourselves. It's not an argument or a campaign. It's just a simple witness, like the old calvary statues that line the byeways of traditional Catholic countries.
We do want, as Christians, to dialogue, to listen, to talk, and to explain. But sometimes we need to give a clear, confident, humble witness to what we believe. It calls to mind that phrase often used by teachers, ‘Show don't tell’. The showing is often more powerful and effective than the telling.
So to sum up the themes of this Year of Faith. As Pope Benedict writes, we are called ‘to rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith’. We need to deepen our faith, for ourselves and for the sake of all those we meet. We need to believe that it really matters, to have confidence that it is possible for our faith to touch others. We are called, in my own words, to go inside and outside.
We don’t need to be strong or numerous or capable or highly skilled. All we have to do is be faithful.
Let me finish with three quotations.
First, Mother Teresa’s famous saying: “God does not ask us to be successful, but to be faithful”.
And then, just in case you are worried that you are not as faithful as you should be, let’s not forget the words of St Paul at the end of his First Letter to the Thessolonians: “He who calls you is faithful, and he will carry it out” (I Thes 5:24). It’s his faithfulness that is the ultimate foundation, even when our own faithfulness is in doubt. And this knowledge is itself a cause of reassurance and a reason to believe.
And finally, these words from St Catherine of Sienna: “If you become who you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire”.
Pope Benedict calls us, in this year of Faith, to be who we are meant to be, to believe as we are meant to believe, and to give to others what we are meant to give. And if we do this, we will certainly set the world on fire.
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