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Retreat on the Credo
Our Need of Faith
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
I would like to call this a retreat of faith. The longer I live in the priesthood and the more souls I come into contact with the more certain I become that what most people mostly need to grow in holiness in the modern world is a deep abiding faith. Rather than rely on my own wisdom and insight, let me quote in sequence from the addresses of our Holy Father to three groups of people - to bishops, to priests, and to religious. In every case and on every feasible occasion the Vicar of Christ tells his audiences that what persons in every state of life should mainly look to, seek to preserve and grow in is their faith. Provided the faith is sound everything else is secure. Trials and suffering are the lot of every human being in this valley of tears, but the very crosses we bear or the pains we endure take on meaning and become valuable assets to heaven on one condition: that those who endure have the faith. With faith everything makes sense, without faith everything in life is nonsense.
Speaking to the bishops of the United States, the Pope quoted from a letter that Pope Paul VI had left to his successor. It was a letter written by an American bishop on the occasion of his appointment to the episcopacy. The full text is a beautiful letter. It is worded in the form of a series of resolutions and the first resolution this bishop-to-be makes I quote. "I am resolved to be faithful and constant in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to maintain the content of faith entire and uncorrupted as handed down by the apostles and professed by the Church at all times and places." First then bishops need to have the faith.
Two weeks ago I spent two days, on his invitation, with a member of the hierarchy in the South. Long hours, far into the night, we talked about what bishops most need: they need to believe. The stronger and deeper their faith the more courageous they are in leading their flock on the way to salvation.
During the same pilgrimage in the United States, the Holy Father spoke to seminarians preparing for the priesthood. His one theme was keep the faith."Be strong in your faith, faith in Christ, faith in His Church, faith in all that the Father has revealed and accomplished through His Son and in the Holy Spirit. Since baptism you have lived the faith, aided by your parents, your brothers and sisters and the whole Christian community. And yet today I call upon you to live by faith even more profoundly, for it is faith in God which makes the essential difference in your lives and in the life of every priest."
I have taught over five hundred Jesuit priests; I know them, I love them; I know what priests most need: simple, strong faith.
Some months before the two addresses which the Holy Father gave to bishops and to priests-to-be, he visited Mexico where he spoke to religious women about the importance of faith in their consecrated lives. "Never forget," the Pope told them "to maintain a clear concept of the value of your consecrated life you need a deep vision of faith which is nourished and preserved with prayer. This faith will enable you to overcome all uncertainty with regard to your own identity, and will keep you faithful to that vertical dimension which is essential for you in order to identify you with Christ from the beatitudes and in order to be true witnesses to the kingdom of God for men in the modern world."
So the litany of papal exhortations goes on to the married and the single, to young people and children, to those in good health and those ill and bedridden with pain. In every vocation and every walk of life to live that life as Christ wants His followers to we must have deep faith in the truth of what we are doing. As a prelude for the retreat then I would like to give you a preview of what I plan. I wish to use the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed as the framework of our twelve main conferences during the retreat.
What is faith? Faith is the virtue of the mind by which we accept on the word of God whatever He tells us is true, not because we understand why it's true, but only because God revealed it. Faith, then, is the submission of our minds to the mind of God, He telling us so many things that by ourselves we'd never dream even of conceiving let alone think that all of this is true except the infinite mind of God has revealed it. You don't explain the Trinity; no one claims to understand the Incarnation; none of the mysteries is comprehensible to the human mind, yet we believe them because God says they are true.
Let's make sure we know that we believe with the mind; we don't believe with the will, not even with the feelings or the emotions. We submit our minds to the mind of God, trusting that He knows, and because He is God He has a right to tell us, "Believe."
Why is faith so important in the spiritual life? Faith is so important in the spiritual life first because it is the basis of our hope. The only reason we look forward to a heaven beyond this life is because we first believe there is a heaven. No one hopes in what does not exist: no one looks forward to the fulfillment of a dream. The most revealing definition of faith is given by St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews in which he tells us, and this in many ways is the motto of the retreat, "faith is the foundation of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." Unless people believe they have nothing to hope for. A person without faith is a person without hope. That's why last year we reached the unenviable record of a hundred thousand suicides in the United States.
Why is faith so important in the spiritual life? Because it is the foundation of our love. It is not only that people do not love what they do not know; we cannot love unless we first know. Unless I believe there is a God, how can I love Him? Unless I believe that beyond and behind and beneath sometimes the very annoying and crusty human exterior of the people I deal with, unless I believe that behind that sometimes offensive humanity is the spirit of God dwelling in the human soul, how can I love unlovable people? Either faith tells me and reveals to me that even the most abandoned person is lovable or I won't love him for the simple reason that I cannot; I must see goodness in people to love them. And reason does not show us enough goodness in other people. Either faith discloses it or our hearts will be closed to them.
Why is faith so important in the spiritual life? Because it is the principal motive for our prayer. A person prays only if he or she believes that God wants to be honored and praised, in a word, adored. A person prays only if he or she believes that they are desperately in need of God's help. It takes faith to bring us to our knees in prayer. No one could possibly, rationally genuflect before what looks and tastes like a piece of bread unless faith told the person it's not bread but the Eternal Son of God in human form.
I ask you to ask God especially for His priests that they might have the faith to show their respect and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. As long as I live I will not forget the centennial celebration at a large Catholic university. Several thousand people in the congregation, the president of the institution the principal concelebrant with about forty concelebrating priests. He pronounced the words of consecration and did not genuflect; again the chalice and did not genuflect. It is faith and faith alone that moves us to pray.
Why is faith so important in the spiritual life? Because it is the main reason for our participation in the Mass, our adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and our reception of the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation. The only people who participate at Mass are those who believe. How obvious can you be! The only people that spend any time ever before the Holy Eucharist are those who believe. Why should I kneel down before another sinner like myself and tell him my tale of woe? As a human being he has no right to the secrets of my conscience. Ah, but if I believe, it is faith that brings us to Christ in the sacraments.
Finally, why is faith so important in the spiritual life? It is so important because faith is the only real explanation of our purpose in this world. It is the only reason that we can appeal to as to our use of creatures as the means of reaching our final destiny. I must believe that God made me. I must believe that God made me for Himself, that He made me to possess Him eternally in the beatific vision. I must believe that everything in life, everything has a purpose and that purpose is that I am to use certain creatures as means of reaching heaven and I am to give up, surrender, and if need be get rid of other creatures if they stand in my way. But I must believe, because, as by now we all so well know, not everything in life that leads us to our eternal destiny is naturally pleasant, as not everything that is a hindrance to reaching heaven is necessarily painful. It takes faith to know the difference. Reason, emotions, the example of other people is no safe guide. Faith alone tells us there is a life beyond this one. Faith alone tells us that this life is the divinely ordained condition for whether I will be happy or unhappy in eternity. And what is in many ways the most important function of faith, not only telling us what is good and what is bad, but telling us how we are to use what is good and how we are to avoid what is bad.
There is no more important plea in all the four gospels than the honest prayer of the blind man. Remember? "Lord, that I may see." In our Lord's Eucharistic presence I would like to help you and myself to penetrate beyond the veil of our faith so that we might see, see more clearly, see more deeply and as a consequence love more generously. There is no one stronger than the man or woman of conviction. And the convictions we most need in the spiritual life are convictions of faith.
Lord, we believe, we do believe; help our unbelief.
Conference transcription from a retreat
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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