Circular Letter: Summer/Fall 2012
“Lord, increase our Faith!” (cf. Lk 17:5)
As we prepare for the beginning of the Year of Faith in October, we want to reflect briefly on the theological virtue of faith. We find a definition of faith in the letter to the Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). “Substance” has here the sense of the first beginnings of a thing. In this sense, faith contains the beginnings of the knowledge of God we will one day enjoy fully in heaven, when we shall “see Him as He is” (1 Jn 3:2). Through faith livened by hope and charity, we come into a real communion with God here and now; it is the “first fruits” of the Beatific Vision of heaven, the “pledge” of future glory. In Christ, God became present to us in a new and real way.
[In] Christ, God has revealed Himself. He has already communicated to us the “substance” of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty. It is the expectation of things to come from the perspective of a present that is already given. It is a looking-forward in Christ’s presence, with Christ who is present, …to His definitive coming. (Pope Benedict XVI, Spes Salvi, 9)
God’s real presence through faith serves as a “proof of things not seen”, for the sake of which man adheres to all God has revealed in the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). The Second Vatican Council states, “By faith man freely commits his entire self to God, making ‘the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals,’” (Dei Verbum, 5; citing First Vat. Council, c. 3). Faith is a life-changing and life-guiding principle. Having already heaven within, the things of this world take on a different perspective. The great ascetics and the martyrs could renounce the “substance” of this world for Christ’s sake, because they had already tasted in faith the “substance” promised; heaven was already present to them, making the things of this world less relevant to them.
The primary object of our faith is the First Truth, God Himself, who has revealed Himself to us and who is the goal of all our desires and actions. “The believer’s act [of faith] does not terminate in the propositions, but in the realities [which they express]” (St. Thomas Aq. Summa Theo. II-II, 1, 2 ad 2). We believe first of all not in a sentence written about God, but in God Himself, in the unity of the three Divine Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and all that He has revealed through His word. “By divine Revelation God wished to manifest and communicate both Himself and the eternal decrees of His will concerning the salvation of mankind” (Dei Verbum, 6). For a Christian, believing in God cannot be separated from believing in Jesus Christ, because He is God, the Second Divine Person, through whom God has chosen to reveal Himself: “Believe in God, believe also in Me” (Jn 14:1). We believe also in the Holy Spirit, because He is God: “No one comprehends the thoughts of God, except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11).
Faith is a gift made possible only by grace which requires man’s cooperation. We do not believe the tenets of the faith because they seem reasonable; rather, we believe on the “authority of God Himself, who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived” (Vat. 1, Dei Filius, 3). Faith is not the work of human reason; it is of things “unseen” and beyond human capacity. Faith must therefore be received and embraced by the will, which is supported by the signs worked by Christ (most importantly, the Resurrection) and assisted by “the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and ‘makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth’” (Dei Verbum, 6; citing 2nd Council of Orange, can. 7). The Holy Spirit uses especially in this work of opening the heart the mediation of the holy angels. St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “Divine revelation reaches those of lower degree through those who are over them, in a certain order; to men, for instance, through the angels, and to the lower angels through the higher, as Dionysius explains (Coel. Hier. iv, 7)” (Summa Theo., II-II, q. 2 art. 6).
This is not to say, however, that faith and reason are opposed. “Faith seeks understanding” (St. Anselm, Prosl. prooem.). If we love God, we want to know better the One in whom we believe. Through faith great mysteries are opened to us, and their connections among one another and with Christ, the center of divine Revelation, can be understood through faith seeking understanding. And through understanding, our faith is not weakened as if it depended upon reasoning, but deepened and strengthened. As St. Augustine writes, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe” (Sermo 43, 7, 9). It is through the gifts of the Spirit that faith is deepened, as the Second Vatican Council states, “The same Holy Spirit constantly perfects faith by His gifts, so that Revelation may be more and more profoundly understood” (Dei Verbum, 5).
We receive our faith as a gift from God, from whom alone is our salvation; nevertheless, we receive the life of faith through the Church and her Sacraments.
Profession of faith is an act both personal and communitarian. It is the Church that is the primary subject of faith. In the faith of the Christian community, each individual receives Baptism, an effective sign of entry into the people of believers in order to obtain salvation. (Porta fidei, 10)
From the Church we learn the full content of our faith. We cannot profess the faith unless we first know it:
Evidently, knowledge of the content of faith is essential for giving one’s own assent, that is to say, for adhering fully with intellect and will to what the Church proposes. Knowledge of faith opens a door into the fullness of the saving mystery revealed by God. The giving of assent implies that, when we believe, we freely accept the whole mystery of faith, because the guarantor of its truth is God who reveals Himself and allows us to know His mystery of love. (Porta fidei, 10)
The Church preaches the faith with the authority of God Himself. “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Dei Verbum, 10). The Church teaches not only the content, but also the language and all the implications of faith for a life of faith: “As a mother who teaches her children to speak and so to understand and communicate, the Church our Mother teaches us the language of faith in order to introduce us to the understanding and the life of faith” (CCC 171). Throughout the world and through all times, nations and cultures, the Church has only one faith, guards it “with care, as dwelling in but a single house, and similarly believes as if having but one soul and a single heart, and preaches, teaches, and hands on this faith with a unanimous voice, as if possessing only one mouth” (St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haeres., 1, 10, 1-2).
The Creed (symbol of faith) is given to us by the Church as a summary of the principal truths of faith that all are to believe and live by. “To say the Credo with faith is to enter into communion with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and also with the whole Church which transmits the faith to us and in whose midst we believe: ‘The Creed is the spiritual seal, our hearts’s meditation and an ever-present guardian; it is, unquestionably, the treasure of our soul’” (CCC 197; citing St. Ambrose, Expl. Symb. 1). There have been many Creeds or symbols of the faith throughout the ages, and each one has its own emphasis and importance. The two most commonly prayed today are the Apostle’s Creed, the ancient symbol of the Church of Rome, and the Niceno-Constantinople or Nicene Creed, so called because it stems from these two councils. It remains common to all major Christian Churches. In this Year of Faith, the Holy Father hopes that there will be many opportunities for the faithful to make a solemn profession and renewal of the Creed through special liturgical ceremonies. “Religious communities as well as parish communities, and all ecclesial bodies old and new, are to find a way, during this Year, to make a public profession of the Credo” (Porta fidei, 8).
Faith in God also affects the way we live and transforms our merely natural existence into a life in, with and for God.
“We were buried … with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Through faith, this new life shapes the whole of human existence according to the radical new reality of the Resurrection. To the extent that he freely cooperates, man’s thoughts and affections, mentality and conduct are slowly purified and transformed, on a journey that is never completely finished in this life. (Porta fidei, 6)
If we truly believe that God is and that He Himself is the reward of those who believe in Him, then we will seek to use everything that is not God only in so far as it brings us closer to Him, our final end. Faith is therefore closely connected to morals, as the Catechism states: “Our moral life has its source in faith in God who reveals His love to us. St. Paul…shows that ‘ignorance of God’ is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations (cf. Rom 1:18-32)” (CCC 2087). In the Work of the Holy Angels, we express our firm resolution to seek only God and His Kingdom with the words, Soli Deo!—for God alone! We pray often the prayer of St. Nicholas of Flue, one of the patrons of the Work:
My Lord and my God, take everything from me that keeps me far from You.
My Lord and my God, give everything to me that brings me nearer to You.
My Lord and my God, take me away from myself, and give me wholly to You! Amen.
When faith is experienced as a living relationship and communion of love with Christ, it makes us fruitful in good works, which attracts others to Christ and the message of the Gospel. The joy of believing leads to the desire to bear witness and communicate the faith to others.
Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy. It makes us fruitful, because it expands our hearts in hope and enables us to bear life-giving witness: indeed, it opens the hearts and minds of those who listen to respond to the ’s invitation to adhere to His word and become His disciples. (Porta fidei, 7)
“Faith works through charity” (Gal 5:6), and as St. James writes, “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:20). Therefore, Pope Benedict encourages the faithful in this Year to bear witness to the faith especially by works of charity. St. James challenges us:
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Show me your faith apart from (Jas 2:14-18)
Through faith we can recognize Christ in the needy whom we serve, while charity impels us to assist them with the love we have received from Christ.
We find in Scripture and in the history of the Church many models of faith. In the Old Testament, Abraham through faith went out of his own land and became a sojourner in the land of the promise. Living in tents he waited over twenty-five years in the obscurity of faith for a promised descendent. And when this son was finally born, “in hope believing against hope” (Rom 4:18) Abraham trusted God when he was asked to sacrifice and kill this son of the promise:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead. (Heb 11:17-19)
Therefore, because of his great faith, Abraham became the “father of all who believe” (Rom 4:11) and in him all generations were blessed. Through believing and persevering in times of darkness and trial, Abraham grew in faith. “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised” (Rom 4:20-21). In this same way we want to grow especially in this Year of Faith by holding firm to our beliefs, even in the midst of all the trials and persecutions of today’s culture and radical secularism. As St. Augustine writes, “Believers strengthen themselves by believing” (De Utilitate Credendi, I, 2). And Pope Benedict states, “Only through believing does faith grow and become stronger; there is no other possibility for possessing certitude with regard to one’s life apart from self-abandonment, in a continuous crescendo, into the hands of a love that seems to grow constantly because it has its origin in God” (Porta fidei, 7).
The Church finds, however, the greatest example and model of faith in the Blessed Virgin Mary. “At the announcement that she would give birth to ‘the Son of the Most High’ without knowing man, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responded with the obedience of faith, certain that ‘with God nothing will be impossible’: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word’” (CCC 494; cf. Lk 1:28-38). The greatness of Mary lies more in her faith than even in her calling to divine Motherhood, as St. Augustine states, “Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ” (De virginitate, 3). Throughout her life in the midst of so many contradictions in the life of Jesus, the “Son of the Most High”—His birth in a stable, persecution by the religious leaders of the people, His condemnation and death on a Cross—Mary never wavered in her faith nor ceased to entrust herself to the loving Providence of God, believing steadily in the fulfillment of His word. “And so the Church venerates in Mary the purest realization of faith” (CCC 149).
Just as the book of Hebrews listed the great models of faith of the Old Testament (cf. Heb 11), Pope Benedict lists numerous models and incentives to bear witness to the faith in the history of the Church:
By faith, the Apostles left everything to follow their Master (cf. Mk 10:28). …They lived in communion of life with Jesus who instructed them with his teaching, leaving them a new rule of life, by which they would be recognized as his disciples after His death (cf. Jn 13:34-35). By faith, they went out to the whole world, following the command to bring the Gospel to all creation (cf. Mk 16:15) and they fearlessly proclaimed to all the joy of the resurrection, of which they were faithful witnesses.
By faith, the disciples formed the first community, gathered around the teaching of the Apostles, in prayer, in celebration of the Eucharist, holding their possessions in common so as to meet the needs of the brethren (cf. Acts 2:42-47).
By faith, the martyrs gave their lives, bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel that had transformed them and made them capable of attaining to the greatest gift of love: the forgiveness of their persecutors.
By faith, men and women have consecrated their lives to Christ, leaving all things behind so as to live obedience, poverty and chastity with Gospel simplicity, concrete signs of waiting for the Lord who comes without delay. By faith, countless Christians have promoted action for justice so as to put into practice the word of the Lord, who came to proclaim deliverance from oppression and a year of favor for all (cf. Lk 4:18-19).
By faith, across the centuries, men and women of all ages, whose names are written in the Book of Life (cf. Rev 7:9, 13:8), have confessed the beauty of following the Lord Jesus wherever they were called to bear witness to the fact that they were Christian: in the family, in the workplace, in public life, in the exercise of the charisms and ministries to which they were called.
By faith, we too live: by the living recognition of the Lord Jesus, present in our lives and in our history. (Porta fidei, 13)
While a firm faith is necessary in order to endure the many trials of life, we also firmly believe in the hope our faith gives us, that Our Lord Jesus has conquered evil and death and has prepared for us a place in heaven. “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also” (Jn 14:3). In order to persevere in faith, we need to nourish it with the word of God and the teachings of the Church. Prayer strengthens us especially in times of temptations against the faith. But even trials can be an occasion for strengthening our faith, when we hold fast to our confidence in the help we have in Christ. “With this sure confidence we entrust ourselves to Him: He, present in our midst, overcomes the power of the evil one (cf. Lk 11:20); and the Church, the visible community of His mercy, abides in Him as a sign of definitive reconciliation with the Father” (Porta fidei, 15).
Let us entrust ourselves in this Year of Faith especially to Mary, who was called “blessed because she believed” (cf. Lk 1:45), and to the holy angels, who announce and mediate to us the gift of faith, and help us through all our trials.
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