Sunday, 26th May 2024

Year of Faith

Posted on 28. Mar, 2012 in Carousel

A reflection by Fr Billy Swan on the Year of Faith declared by Pope Benedict XVI

A few months ago, my father died. At the time of his death and since his passing, I thank God for the gift of faith and for the consolation and strength it has provided. It has not been easy. In composing the homily for his funeral Mass, I thought of all the times I had done this before for others but that for my own father, it was so different. In parish, while preaching and in pastoral care, I had used the language of hope and eternal life often and easily. Now, with my father’s death, I was brought back to the very basics of my own Christian faith: to honestly face suffering, to consider hope, eternal life and what it means to believe. The death of my father had brought these questions to the surface in a way that made me wonder: do we as Christians really believe what we say we do?

With the Apostolic Letter of 11th October 2011, Porta fidei, Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year of Faith. This year will begin on 11th October 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and will conclude on 24th November 2013. With his letter, the Pope’s desire is clear: to empower all Christians to ‘share in the salvific mission of the Church’ (Lumen Gentium, 33) and to be active participants in the new evangelization: a process that will gain further momentum in October of this year with the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which will have as its theme The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. However, in order that Christians share more fully in their missionary calling, Pope Benedict points to the need for believers themselves to rediscover the joy and life we derive from a life of faith in the Lord. The Holy Father speaks of the need for Christians ‘to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ’ (Porta fidei, 2). In the same letter he describes the year of faith as ‘a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world’ (Porta fidei, 6). With these directives the pope is leading us back to the sources of our Christian faith: to consider what we believe and most importantly in whom we believe so that our faith may take a deeper root in our lives and express itself in virtue and charity. This summons to authenticity and conversion could be expressed as an opportunity for the whole Church to consider if we truly believe what we say we do: so that we can realize our common vocation to be the salt of the earth and light of the world (cf. Matt. 5:13-16).

The necessary connection between the faith we profess and how we live has always been important. In the Old Testament, God warns of the constant danger of superficiality when he speaks of Israel as a people ‘who honour me with their lips but whose hearts are far from me’ (Is. 29:13). In the Gospels, with the parable of the sower, Jesus teaches of the necessity for the seed of his word to penetrate roots into deep soil if it is to produce a rich harvest (cf. Matt. 13:1-23; Mk. 4:1-20; Lk. 8:4-15). Similarly in John, the beautiful image of the vine and the branches promises that those who are truly in communion with Jesus will bear fruit in plenty (cf. Jn.15:1-8). With St Paul, faith in Christ did not remain at the surface of a mere profession but led to the transformation of his whole being so that he could say ‘it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20). In the early centuries of the Church, we recall the memory of the martyrs and the torments they endured to remain faithful to Christ and the gospel. Their fortitude remains a shining example of a faith built on rock (cf. Matt. 7:24-27), of something inside them so deep and strong. Through their sufferings they too were tested if they really believed what they said and with their witness onto death, their faith has been proven like gold (cf. 1 Pet. 1:7). In our own time, the importance of faith having deep roots in human existence and culture was emphasised by Pope Paul VI in 1975 when he insisted that the evangelization of peoples and cultures must not be ‘in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots’ (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 20). This teaching came at a time when the divorce between faith and culture was taking hold in Europe where the vast majority of citizens were Christian but where Christian culture was being undermined by secularism: a trend that has continued to the present day.

It is in this sense of continuity that Pope Benedict’s declaration of a year of faith finds its context. Porta fidei essentially invites us to understand Christianity in a new way: not so much as a badge of religious affiliation but as a transformed existence by the Spirit of Christ that in turn brings transformation to the Church and to the world. To arrive at this point we return to the sources, to the basics of our faith and to what we have already received. Here is an invitation to return to the Scriptures, the creed, the commandments, the sacraments and to the prayer Tradition of the Church to discover again ‘the wealth of teaching that the Church has received, safeguarded and proposed in her two thousand years of history’ (Porta fidei, 11). In these limitless resources are contained wisdom, meaning, the blueprint for a beautiful life and a beautiful world as God always intended. They are vessels that contain the language in which the heart of God speaks to the heart of man. They await to be unpacked, explored and shared by those who are thirsty for ‘living water’ (cf. John 4:10).

Re-discovering the faith we profess helps to know Christ more and not just know about him. The creed for example is no longer understood as a dry formula of words but as a summary of all that God has done for us, and continues to do in Christ’s love. For this reason it is full of spiritual power that has the potential to move hearts and to change lives. For Soren Kierkegaard, the creed of the primitive Church ‘is like an enchanted castle where, locked in slumber, lie the handsomest of princes and the loveliest of princesses. It only needs to be aroused for them to leap to their feet in all their glory’ (The Journals, II.A.110, entry 127). This year of faith is a call to arouse the spiritual depths of what we believe and in whom we believe so that we may participate fully and effectively in the new evangelization.

I conclude with two examples of articles of faith we profess all the time but perhaps whose implications we have only begun to realize. The first relates to God who has adopted us as beloved children and co-heirs with Christ in the Spirit. As co-heirs we are inheritors of a blessed life in this world and in the next. We have received nothing less than God himself, conferred with ‘every spiritual blessing in the heavens’ (Eph. 1:3) where God promises us that ‘everything I have is yours’ (Lk. 15:31). Do we really believe this? Do we really believe that God has given himself totally to us? It seems almost too good to be true and yet it is. The second article of faith with explosive implications is that as co-heirs with Christ we are brothers and sisters in him. If I believe this is true then I can no longer remain indifferent to the plight of people I see in need, no matter how separated we are by nationality, culture or belief. They too are part of my family, I am responsible for them and am united to them in God. What if we all were to really believe this and act as if it were true? This year of faith is an opportunity to ignite the full potential of what we believe and what that faith implies.

Death is difficult and painful. Yet the loss of my father has led me back to the source of true hope and joy: Jesus our brother, friend and Lord who suffers with us and in whom all are alive. At this time of bereavement, the Porta fidei has been the place where gratitude and grief have met and embraced. May the year of faith lead all Christians to rediscover the gift we have received so that we may truly believe what we profess. May our shared journey that passes through the Porta fidei ‘lead us to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’ (T.S. Eliot, «Little Gidding», The Complete Poems and plays of T.S. Eliot, 197).

Fr Billy Swan is a priest of the diocese of Ferns and was Director of Formation at the Pontifical Irish College .