By Dr. Michael Downey
In Porta Fidei (“The Door of Faith”), an apostolic letter released on October 17, 2011, the Holy Father Benedict XVI announced that he would launch a Year of Faith to help Catholics appreciate the gift of faith, to deepen their relationship with God and to strengthen their commitment to sharing their faith with others. The Year of Faith will begin October 11, 2012, the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and will end November 24, 2013, the feast of Christ the King.
The starting date also marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In response to recent decisions and announcements made by the President of the United States and his administration, there are significant Catholic voices decrying these decisions as an assault on our central or core beliefs, the fundamental convictions of Roman Catholics. These events provide an opportunity to consider the nature of faith and what, precisely, is central to the faith of Catholics.
As the quieter months of summer draw near, and as we approach the Year of Faith, we might take a moment to ponder the questions: Just what is faith? What lies at the heart of the faith of Catholics?
Faith is far too often thought of as affirming the teachings or doctrines of a religious body. But this is to put the proverbial cart before the horse. Prior to considering “what” a person believes, we have to consider that dimension of a person who believes, or has faith, or makes an act of faith. This is, again, to ask: What is faith?
Faith is a multidimensional stance that a person takes in life that is at one and the same time God’s gift and our response. The two cannot be separated; and one does not come before the other. It is precisely as I am responding to God’s gift that I am expressing my faith. Faith is standing firm, being solid, being true. To have faith is to abandon myself without reserve and with boundless confidence into the arms, or straight to the heart, of the God whose faithfulness is more certain than my own life.
To be without faith is to live untouched, unmoved, unchanged by God’s presence and action in human life, history, the world. And in my own life. Without faith we trust our own and others’ powers instead of the rock-solid sureness of God’s life, light, and love. Without faith we anchor ourselves to the wind (Psalm 78: 39). For the prophet Isaiah (7: 9), if we do not stand firm in faith, we shall not stand at all.
What is central or fundamental to the Catholic faith is a trusting surrender to the Father, through Jesus Christ, in and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This confident surrender changes the way we live. Or it should. It is this that we express in our profession of faith, the Creed, week by week, year after year, in season and out of season.
All too often we look for heroic expressions of faith in faraway places and distant eras. Even as we know that our faith needs only to be as small as a mustard seed (Luke 17: 6), for many of us our faith feels puny and weak. But we need not look far for some low-key heroes who might move us to deeper faith. During this time of Pentecost, many of our young people are celebrating the sacrament of confirmation. They are expressing their belief in what is truly at the core of Catholic faith and life: the Spirit of God given to us. This is the very life of God poured into human hearts – enlightening us, enlivening us, guiding us, and healing us. There is nothing more central to Christian faith than this. For without the Spirit’s gift, we cannot express our faith. And in and through the Spirit’s gift, it is Christ who lives in us to the glory of God the Father.
Come Holy Spirit. Fill the hearts of your faithful. Enkindle in us the fire of your love.
Dr. Michael Downey is Diocesan Theologian and Director of the Office of Continuing Formation of Priests.