Monday, September 6, 2010

why do you believe?

Pope Benedict XVI released a special message for the young people of the world, with an eye to the upcoming World Youth Day in Spain. Filled with beautiful truth and pastoral wisdom, there is one theme that particularly struck me:

How can faith in Jesus Christ become mature, "grown-up," authentic?

I recently visited a univerisity campus in which a speaker asked a group of Catholic students if they believed that Jesus Christ is God. They all said yes.

But then he asked why they believed this, and no hands went up. A few feeble attempts to defend their belief (e.g., "the Bible says so..."; "My parents told me..."; etc.) and the speaker effortlessly swatted away the responses like flies.

He concluded: "Most of you believe because your mommy and daddy told you to." The room was silent. These students, mostly college freshmen, realized how truly immature their faith was. It demonstrated how and why so many young Catholics weakly surrender their tradition and feebly acquiesce to whatever ideology the herd happens to be feeding on at the moment.

The Holy Father knows this grave situation among many of our young people, and offers us young people a real solution: because faith is knowledge of God, we must come to real and personal knowledge of God. This is how faith becomes mature.

Pope Benedict says as much, in his Aug 6, 2010 letter to youth:

Enter into a personal dialogue with Jesus Christ and cultivate it in faith. Get to know him better by reading the Gospels and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Converse with him in prayer, and place your trust in him. He will never betray that trust! “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 150).

The Holy Father knows how dangerous and ultimately fruitless childish faith is, and how as we reach a certain age, we cannot believe because "our mommy and daddy told us." By personally encountering Jesus Christ in prayer, the Gospels, and in the teaching of the Church, an immature faith--which fails so many high school and university students today--becomes mature and true. The Pope writes:

Thus you will acquire a mature and solid faith, one which will not be based simply on religious sentiment or on a vague memory of the catechism you studied as a child. You will come to know God and to live authentically in union with him, like the Apostle Thomas who showed his firm faith in Jesus in the words: “My Lord and my God!”.

This is no abstract theory for the Holy Father. He himself knows the great interior struggle that this poses for young people, but also that it is a hopeful struggle. He describes this with respect to his discernment as a young man about whether God was really calling him to be a priest or not. The Pope writes:

Here, once more, I think of my own youth. I was somehow aware quite early on that the Lord wanted me to be a priest. Then later, after the war, when I was in the seminary and at university on the way towards that goal, I had to recapture that certainty. I had to ask myself: is this really the path I was meant to take? Is this really God’s will for me? Will I be able to remain faithful to him and completely at his service? A decision like this demands a certain struggle. It cannot be otherwise. But then came the certainty: this is the right thing! Yes, the Lord wants me, and he will give me strength. If I listen to him and walk with him, I become truly myself.

Faith is a kind of certainty, although because it deals with knowledge of God, it is different from the empirical or mathematical certainty that serves us in other areas of knowing. This is why access to prayer, divine Revelation, and the tangible gifts of the Church and the Sacraments are essential components.

When high school or college students come to me, their priest, and confess that they are "losing their faith," or "having doubts," I respond without any surprise; in fact, I try to reflect a fatherly hope that their faith is ready for new maturity.

Like a child bursting out of his toddler pants, they know something doesn't fit. Their pants are fine; they are just too small, suitable for a younger sibling. Often, though, they are uncertain that more age-appropriate faith is either real or accessible to them.

So I encourage them to describe their faith, and almost every time we discover together that is nothing wrong with their faith. It's just that their faith is appropriate for a nine year-old. It lacks intellectual content, a capacity to be rationally defended, a clear connection to action and values, and has little motivational power in their daily life.

Losing that faith is, in a certain sense, a necessity--provided that the young person is ready to embark on the struggle involved when God calls faith to mature.

1 comment:

  1. I have often wondered a close variation of this: how does a person develop beyond the hyper-emotionalism and snowglobe-community of the typical "teen/young adult Mass", cafeteria Catholic, "all that matters is you're here" type of faith, with its patchy teachings (at best), complete disconnect from the past and the larger Catholic world, and distortion of truth caused by liturgical abuses? Especially when in most places in the United States, there is no orthodox alternative. How do people deepen and grow in a broader, more orthodox faith when the first hurdle they must overcome is discovering that what they are doing, no matter how good it feels or how holy it seems, is not to be done? Or is it inevitable to come across as one obsessed with rules, even if they are the instructions and teachings of Holy Mother Church...

    I feel like an old geezer complaining about them crazy yutes at 22. How are such potentially delicate matters brought up and discussed with charity? I don't want to harden anyone's hearts with "So it is written, so it shall be done."