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Growth in the Faith
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Feast of Saint John the Evangelist is a most appropriate occasion to speak on a subject like this one. In fact, I would suggest as a theme for a retreat, the following passage of our Savior recorded by John from the Last Supper: Now this is everlasting life that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. The important word in this summary of Christianity given us by Jesus is the word know.
What does it mean to know God and Jesus Christ? It means to believe in God and believe that He sent His only begotten Son to become man. We believe by faith. Faith, we should remind ourselves, is a virtue of the mind. We do not believe with our feelings, sentiments, or affections, or even with the will, though all of these are active and should be operative in faith. We believe, we know. Faith is supernatural knowledge. It is, therefore, a virtue of the mind even as hope and charity (the other two theological virtues) belong to the will.
Faith is knowledge; the lack of faith is ignorance. And Christ told us, This is eternal life, to know---He might have said, This is eternal life, to trust in God and in Jesus Christ whom He sent, or---to love God. But He didnt. Rather, He said, Eternal life is to know.
Why is faith so important? It is so important because without faith, no other supernatural virtue is possible. Without faith, hope is impossible. Faith, as Saint Paul tells us, gives substance to our hope. We must first believe there is a heaven before we can in any intelligible sense hope to get there. Hope is the desire of future good things. Yes, but we must first know that there are future good things to look forward to and, above all, that they are good; otherwise, we wont want to attain them.
Without faith, love is impossible. Faith gives meaning to all our loves. It gives us the object, the reason, the thing, or especially the person whom we are to love. We must first believe there is a God before we can love Him. We must believe that Jesus is the Son of God before we can love Him. We must believe that Jesus is the Son of God; otherwise, we may be bursting with affection and thats all---we will just be bursting with affection! It is not love that saves; it is loving the right object. Without faith, love will destroy us, because we shall love what we should not love or love in the way we ought not to love. Love alone is not salvific. In fact, love without foundation in faith is maniac.
What are we to believe? A simple, broad-ranging answer is that we are to believe all that God has revealed to us, without any exceptions. We may not pick and choose. We may not have preferences among the things that we believe. We are to believe in the Trinity, that God is an eternal, infinite community, a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are to believe in the Incarnation, that, as mysterious as it is and incredible as it sounds, the infinite God whom the heavens cannot compass confined Himself within the body of a little babe. You dont comprehend that. But if we are Christians, we had better believe it.
We believe in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, that Christ came into the world with a human body and a soul which then became victims to be sacrificed and mind you, not just His body but also His human spirit. We believe that He came into the world with a human will which did the sacrificing. A priest must have something to sacrifice, called victim, and must have the willingness to make the sacrifice. Christ had both. And we believe that behind that human body and soul which was sacrificed and behind that human will which did the sacrificing, was the infinite God. Yet, as often as we have seen crucifixes with Christ in sacerdotal vestments on the cross, we may fail to realize that they are not just pieces of art; their purpose is to reveal a mystery, the mystery of the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
We believe in the Church, that it is an extension of the Incarnation, continuing Christs priestly work among the sons and daughters of men; and that within this Church is His only divinely-instituted priesthood. There is only one---His priesthood. It is divinely instituted to make the Incarnation a living reality in our midst and to administer the sacraments, without which, faith tells us, we shall not be saved. All of this we are to believe.
Are we to grow in the faith? Now that, I submit, is a strange question, because judging on my knowledge of people who are striving as hard as they can to live a good spiritual life, they seem to be striving to grow in all kinds of virtues, and God bless them for the effort: to grow in trust in Gods Providence; to grow in His love and to grow in the love of others; to grow in patience, to grow in obedience; to grow in humility---and so on down the litany of the virtues. But when was the last time you heard anyone talk about growing in faith?
Never has it been more practically important in the spiritual life to emphasize the need for growing in faith, not merely keeping it, just as we could not say it is enough to merely keep the love of God---we spontaneously talk about growing in that love. It hardly makes sense to say to keep my virtue of patience. We talk about growing in it. Whatever happened to our vocabulary?
Why is it crucially important to grow in the faith? Because the true faith is being assaulted on every side. As I prepared to write a paper for the annual meeting of the American Mariological Society, I had just finished reading a recent book by Raymond Brown---six hundred pages of a studied, learned effort to disapprove that anything about the infancy of Christ in the Gospels is historically true. And what is saddest to relate, the book received an imprimatur. You cant even preserve your faith after you either read that book (which I dont believe too many will) or listen to what I am afraid will be taught by many priests who will have read it and who will then in the pulpit, if not deny, cast reflection or doubt on the validity of the Annunciation, of the Visitation, of Christs virginal conception, or on the historicity of Christmas! My dear friends in Christ, you dont just keep your faith in a safety-deposit box and hope to cope with this demonic assault from inside the Church on the cardinal mysteries of Christianity.
Why is it important to grow in the faith? Because without a clear, strong, and intelligible faith---a faith that makes sense---it is useless to talk about anything else in the spiritual life, because nothing else has meaning. Choose at random anything in the spiritual life, adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, for example. Does it make sense unless you first believe that Christ is in the Eucharist? Why bother even attending the Sacrifice of the Mass? Or why not, as so many are doing, make a spectacle of the sacred liturgy? In the minds of so many, faith in the sacrifice has weakened and in some has been lost.
I now have to read, in front of Catholic Churches in New York City: Sunday. Eucharistic Service. 7:00, 8:30, 10:15, and 12:00 noon. Eucharistic Service: What happened to the Mass?
Why is it important to grow in the faith? Because generosity is not enough; self-control is not enough; devotion in prayer is not enough; love is not enough; mysticism, if you please, is not enough---unless all of these are rooted in the sound, orthodox Roman Catholic faith, as taught by the Church, which is the divinely appointed identifier and interpreter of Gods revelation.
You almost ask yourself, What is more important than growing in the faith? Frankly, from the viewpoint on which we are speaking on our subject, nothing is more important, because it is the foundation of everything else. When we say faith, hope, and charity, that placing of faith first is not for euphonic reasons; it is because faith is first. Without faith there is no hope or charity.
If faith is so important, why speak precisely about growing in the faith? Why not simply say that we must keep the faith or defend the faith? First of all because you cannot keep your faith as you might keep some money in a cash register or some food in a box or bottle. Faith is not a material commodity. And secondly and most pertinently, because faith is a living reality. We have no option, and our age chronologically or our stage in the spiritual life supernaturally do not matter. An hour before we die, we are still to be growing in our faith. This is the most profoundly necessary thing in todays beleaguered and besieged Catholic Church. You either grow in the faith or you weaken in it and risk the danger of losing it.
One more and final question that will actually open up a panorama of questions. How do we grow in the faith? Recall that in the famous parable of the Savior of the seed falling on different kinds of ground, the seed fell on the unfruitful soil three times. In each case, there was no harvest. Only when the seed fell on good soil did it produce fruit. Now the first kind of unfruitful soil on which the Savior told us the seed (which is the Word of God, which is revelation) fell was the pathway. Why didnt it bear fruit? Because, having fallen on this kind of ground, it was not understood. These are Jesus words. Thats it. And then the Savior adds, So the devil stole it away. And His Evangelist John could not have been more lucid in talking about the meaning of faith as that which we are to understand, that which we are to grasp, in a word, that we are to grow in.
So we come back to our question, How? There are four ways, the Church tells us. We are to grow in faith first, by meditating on the mysteries of Gods revelation; second, by studying the faith---reading, reflecting, discussing; third, by praying for an increase of faith---Lord, that I may see, see better, see more clearly; and fourth, by putting the faith we have into practice. Meditation, study, prayer, and experience are what the Church tells us we are all to put into practice if we hope, and we must want to hope, to grow in the faith we already have.
As strange as it may seem, the faithful (and we are the faithful) gravely need to take this lesson to heart, that God is immensely pleased if we strive to deepen our diving faith. He is pleased because, as the Savior told us, This is eternal life, to know God and Jesus Christ whom He sent. He is pleased because, after all, that is what we are on earth for, to prepare ourselves by growing in faith, to possess the vision of the Trinity for which we were made. We shall enjoy God as much in heaven as we have believed Him on earth. The deeper the faith is, the greater the vision hereafter. And the vision, we believe, is beatific, it gives joy. All the joy in this life and in the next comes uniquely from knowing God: here by faith, hereafter by vision.
Transcription of the Homily
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