Guest Columnist A Question for Catholics: What is faith and has it become obsolete?

In my first column we reflected on the many ways we reduce faith – essentially to good deeds, orthodoxy, morality, and evangelization – without even knowing it.

These reductions are already at work in our approaches to the recently called “Year of Faith.” As Cardinal, the Holy Father surprisingly exclaimed, “The error of Pelagius has more followers in the Church today than it would seem.” (i) And as Pope, he seems to be even more insistent on the seemingly surprising fact that faith is not an ethical choice, an orthodox theology, or a set of moral achievements (see Part 1 of this article).

So what is faith exactly? To face the question starkly, is it even necessary in today’s world, where it seems sometimes even to us Catholics irrelevant for our daily lives? Has faith become obsolete?

I know a priest who says that every morning he wakes up, looks in the mirror and asks himself, “Why are you a priest? In fact, why are you even Christian?” Though it sounds a bit scandalizing, he is asking a very reasonable question. If we don’t have this kind of audacity, if we do not have a living, sustaining reason for why we have faith, why we need faith, then sooner or later it becomes irrelevant (which can play itself out in several ways in our lives), and rightly so. Can faith truly sustain life, or is it just another thing we add on to life, like paint? Is it as necessary as oxygen, or is it just a perfume, susceptible to losing its scent after a time? And what does Christ have to do with it all? I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed the Christ (the “answer” at the back of the book) so much so that both the question (“Why are you Christian?”) and the answer (“Christ”) no longer mean anything to us – they’re just words, which is why so many have left the Church. We no longer understand ourselves, and thus we no longer know Christ. Put in another way (let’s face this bluntly), “Whatever is irrelevant to my current experience and doesn’t touch my life now simply does not exist. It follows that a God who is not relevant to what I am living and experiencing today is an irrelevant God. He is not there, he is a God who is missing, a Christ who is missing.” (ii) So, once again, is faith even connected to life today?

Let’s start simply: if we look at our experience, we can easily learn that we have certain ineradicable needs in us which no person on earth can deny, expressed in everything from music (think just as an example of some modern-young-acoustic-existentially-hypnotizing bands like The Avett Brothers, The Head & the Heart, Mumford and Sons, Bon Iver, etc., who take these needs very seriously) to a plethora of great, revealing movies, to our obsession with Facebook. These things all express the irreducible needs we all have: needs for happiness, beauty, freedom, meaning, friendship, truth, love, and fulfillment, and all of it we want to be unending. But these are not theories or ideas, they are needs, which can only be met in experience. A couple doesn’t get married because they’ve thought about love. No; they’ve experienced it. And once they’re married, thinking and reading about love, or simply doing household chores, is not enough to sustain their relationship; they must experience that love again and again. A prisoner doesn’t simply want to dream about freedom; he wants to enjoy it.  Or again, we cannot just “will” happiness like the self-help books promise: it’s a gift – we want to encounter it, and that’s why we search for it. The same goes for all our needs. We as Catholics tend to forget how needy we are, and end up “stuffing” our needs in the name of some kind of ascetical righteousness. Instead, Pope Benedict is asking the ever-important question: Is faith in Christ connected to satisfaction of the heart, or not? (iii) Can it fulfill these huge needs, or is it in the end completely disconnected, simply an add-on? “If Christ cannot fulfill us, then let’s not waste our time any longer,” advised a priest friend of mine.

“What is Christianity? What is faith?”

All of this begs the question: so what is faith? If we look at the origin our own faith, as well as that of the apostles’, we get a better hint: something happened to us. Whether it was a powerful experience we had, a person we met, or an event we attended, something happened to us. We can call this an “encounter,” or an “event” (two of Pope Benedict’s favorite words if you pay attention to his writings and talks). An encounter and an event happen in life, in our experience, just like all the needs explained above do. This is the “something that comes before” all else in Catholicism. The apostles met a guy named Jesus who was exceptionally fascinating to them, who made them ask, “Who is this man?” 20 centuries later, I was 18 years old and met a guy named Mike who was exceptionally fascinating to me, and made me ask, “Who is this man?” It was that same attraction to Mike’s authenticity, his freedom, his interest in me, his intensity, and the radiating joy I saw in his eyes that the apostles experienced in Christ. We found something so striking, so corresponding to what we actually wanted to live and experience in life that we just wanted to stay with Jesus and Mike and follow them wherever they went. The difference with Mike was that he wasn’t the origin of his freedom or joy - he claimed it was Christ. And I had no reason to doubt him. So I hung out with Mike – as did the apostles with Christ – for the next several months, and that experience of correspondence kept happening. 

Christianity, in the final analysis, is a fact: the fact that God became a man – a real event that happened in a physical place around 2,000 years ago. Either this happened, or it did not. But it is only possible for me to experience that same fact today if it actually happened and if this “event of Christ” keeps happening, even now. But I did experience the event of Christ through meeting Mike, and through what I’m living today. Faith is essentially this: the recognition of this saving and fulfilling presence in my life, through a credible witness. And it is only if this presence of Christ can correspond to the needs of my heart and life that faith in Him can be sustainable, or more clearly, “necessary” for my life, sustaining me, and not become stale and moldy. As Msgr. Luigi Giussani says so powerfully, “I came to believe that only a faith arising from life experience and confirmed by it (and, therefore, relevant to life’s needs) could be sufficiently strong to survive in a world where everything pointed in the opposite direction, so much so that even theology for a long time had given in to a faith separated from life.” (iv) The encounter I had changed me violently (I was a new person) because it actually corresponded to all those needs of my heart, and even intensified them. I remember after I met Mike feeling like I woke up from an extremely long sleep and scales were falling from my eyes, and I could see reality in a way I never could before. My desires, too, awoke. It was as if I had been living an inhuman life, and I was becoming human again. I was more interested in people, including my own family. I felt like life finally had meaning, and a path. I met friends who in two days I felt closer to than my friends of nine years. I had a radical hunger to read everything I could about Christ, and everything else for that matter. I was happy – not the excited happiness that fades quickly, but the certainty and gladness that life was actually good, and even more than good, it was beautiful. Even more profoundly, I had a sense of self-awareness and worth that I never had before. The more I hung out with Mike and these friends, the more all of this happened. Christ gave me back my heart, my humanity.

God chooses to come to us is through encounter and event – through experience. It wasn’t a program the apostles and I met. It was a man. God could’ve yelled a perfect lecture from heaven on faith so that all on earth could hear, or made a detailed book on virtue for us and drop it from heaven; but He chose instead to become a man, to meet us, to live with us, as Fr. Carron explained to my friend – who as you remember was doing all the right things (daily Mass, rosary, holy hour, etc) but was miserable and about to leave the Church – in answering “What is Christianity?” Fr. Carron went on that afternoon to explain: “God chose this method – incarnation – so we can have a relationship with somebody in which meaning is revealed. Instead of sending us what the meaning of life is, he became man to show us what the meaning of life is … This kind of freedom (in the witness we met), this kind of intensity, this kind of mercy, this kind of forgiveness, this kind of surplus, the intensity of humanity that we couldn’t imagine before. Even 2,000 years later, we met somebody who lives in such a way, and we ask, ‘Who is this? Can you explain how you can live in such a way?’ We are struck like the first time … This is the continuation of the Incarnation.” (v) And this is the continuing method He uses down the centuries to produce the recognition and experience of faith: presence, witness, encounter, correspondence.

Begging and Companionship

It seems as though what we need more than anything during the Year of Faith is to become…beggars. We can’t force this encounter, but we can beg: to beg for Christ to show us His face again and again and again. And to beg for companions who we can follow on the journey. Once a week I meet with friends and we judge together – through the confusion and complexity of life – our lives, our work, our relationships – in short everything – and how it is that Christ is showing us His face and meeting us now, concretely (and not a focus on what we need to “do”). We beg to see this. And if we can’t see it, we ask, challenge, confront, and verify (true begging is exhausting, but in the end much more freeing than moralism). Following these friends within the Church has revolutionized my faith and my life. My identity is intertwined with belonging to this companionship (not just friends) which He has given me. And because of it, my life has changed: I look for Him more, I face relationships, work, and life differently. Even more profoundly, I look at myself differently, because of the way I’ve been looked at – with a love and a belonging that won’t let go, even when I do. I’m finally following something other than myself. It’s precisely because of my faith in Christ and my belonging to these friends within the Church that my affection, freedom, desire, and perception of things are heightened in a way unimaginable before.  Alone this is all impossible. This, it seems to me, is what we all need, because this is Christ’s way. As Pope Benedict proclaims in his apostolic letter for the Year of Faith (along with his constant emphasis on the Church as communion): “It is the lifelong companion that makes it possible to perceive, ever anew, the marvels that God works for us.” (vi) But even this companionship and this following needs a poverty of spirit in order to continue. Speaking of the first beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the Pope explains, “These are people who do not flaunt their achievements before God. They do not stride into God’s presence as if they were partners able to engage with him on equal footing. They do not lay claim to a reward for what they have done...They are lovers who simply want to let God bestow his gifts upon them...they come with empty hands” (vii) As Msgr. Giussani says, the truest stance of man is that of the beggar: “Structurally man waits; structurally he is a beggar; structurally life is promise.” (viii)

Only when Christ becomes something real again for us, something experienceable, as necessary as the air we breathe, will we become new creatures, who see differently, who live differently. During this extraordinary and loving gift to us of the Year of Faith, let us beg Christ once again to see His face, to experience His irreplaceable gaze on us through a companionship, and to correspond to our deepest needs and desires. “The greatest miracle of all was that truly human gaze which revealed man to himself and was impossible to evade. Nothing is more convincing to man than a gaze which takes hold of him and recognizes what he is, which reveals man to himself. Jesus saw inside man. No one could hide in front of Him … This also happened to Zacchaeus, the senior tax collector, the most hated man in all of Jericho (Lk. 19: 1-10). Surrounded by a great crowd, Jesus was passing by on the road, and Zacchaeus, a small man, was curious and climbed a tree for a better look. Upon reaching that tree, Jesus stopped, fixed His gaze upon him and cried: “Zacchaeus!’ Then He said: ‘Come down quickly, because I must stay at your house today.’ What suddenly struck Zacchaeus? ... Quite simply, he had been penetrated and captured by a gaze that recognized and loved him for what he was. The ability to take hold of the heart of a man is the greatest, most persuasive miracle of all.” (ix) This gaze, which continues today, is at the center of the Year of Faith.

(i) Antonio Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days, February 1991; p. 40.
(ii) Giussani, Luigi, Msgr., “The Risk  of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny,” The Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, 1995, pp. 12-13.
(iii) Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Address for Welcome Ceremony, World Youth Day, Cologne, Germany, August 18, 2005.
(iv) Giussani, “The Risk  of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny”, p. 11.
(v) Fr. Julian Carron, “What is man that You should care for him, mortal man that You keep him in mind?”: There is no greater adventure than the discovery of one’s own humanity, Communion and Liberation live assembly, Colorado.
(vi) Pope Benedict XVI Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” “Porta Fidei,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, Paragraph 15.
(vii) Pope Benedict XVI, “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration,” Doubleday, Random House Inc., New York, 2007, p. 76.
(viii) Giussani, Luigi, Msgr., “The Religious Sense,” McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 1997, p. 54.
(ix) Giussani, Luigi, Msgr., “At the Origin of the Christian Claim,” McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 1998, p. 53.

Copyright Jonathan Ghaly, All Rights Reserved.

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