Sunday, August 12, 2007

“What Makes Our Faith The ‘Right’ Faith?”

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 12, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Hebrews 11: 1-2, 11-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Nineteenth Sunday 2007]

Two weeks ago I asked the teenagers at Thursday night youth group to do some brainstorming. I said, “I want you to come up with a list of topics that we can discuss during the upcoming year on Thursday nights. What are the questions you have about God and the Church? What issues are important to you as a teenager? What questions about faith and life have other people challenged you with—at school, at work, or even in your own family?”

They responded with quite an extensive list: Can a Catholic believe in evolution? How do you show proper respect for someone of the opposite gender? How far is too far? How can you keep your prayer life strong when you don’t have a lot of free time? What do you say to someone who thinks that Catholics hate homosexuals? What are indulgences? What does papal infallibility mean?—those are just some of them.

One question, however, stood out among the rest, because it was so basic and so foundational. I thought of it as I was reflecting on today’s second reading from Hebrews 11. Interestingly enough, it was suggested by a young man who was at youth group for the very first time that night. He said, “What makes our faith the ‘right’ faith?”

You can’t get any more basic than that, can you?

He said, “Fr. Ray, there are lots of Christian groups out there; there are many different religions out there—Christian and non-Christian. Why is the Catholic faith the right one?”

Since this was just a brainstorming session, there wasn’t enough time to get into a big discussion and give him a satisfactory answer. But I did say to him, “Obviously we’re dealing here with a matter of faith. And because it’s in the realm of faith, you won’t be able to prove that Catholicism is the ‘right’ religion in the same way that you would prove that 2 + 2 = 4. But what you can do—and what you should do—is formulate reasons for your belief in the Church: strong, rational reasons for your belief that the Catholic religion teaches the fullness of God’s revealed truth. We can talk about what those reasons might be some Thursday night in the near future.”

After I said this someone else in the group quoted a passage from 1 Peter, chapter 3, where St. Peter imparts this same advice. He says, “Should anyone ask you the reason for this hope of yours, be ever ready to reply.” (1 Peter 3: 15)

At the beginning of this text from Hebrews 11, Abraham the patriarch is mentioned. In the Book of Romans, chapter 4—and in Eucharistic Prayer #1—Abraham is rightly referred to as “our father in faith”. That should come as no surprise to us, because Abraham is our spiritual ancestor, and he exhibited great faith at many crucial times in his life. But his faith wasn’t blind; his faith was never blind! Abraham had reasons for believing; he had reasons for following the instructions that God gave him. For example, it says there that Abraham believed God and became the father of a child in his old age because “he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.” There we see one of his reasons for belief: his previous experience of God’s trustworthiness. His attitude was, “Sarah and I should continue to try to have a child, even though I’m a hundred years-old and she’s ninety, because God has promised me descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky—and God has never lied to me in the past.” Later on it says that Abraham was ready to offer up Isaac in sacrifice, because “he reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead.”

Abraham had these and other reasons for believing. And he was not unique. All the Old Testament saints mentioned in this 11th chapter of Hebrews had their personal reasons for believing; their personal reasons for embracing and following their religious convictions.

What about you? Most (if not all) of you are Catholic. If you haven’t heard the question already, the odds are you will hear it at some time in the future—perhaps from a Jehovah’s Witness or an Evangelical Protestant: Why do you remain a member of the Catholic Church? Or, as that teenager would put it: What makes you think that your faith is the ‘right’ faith?

Of course, since I’m asking you the question today, it’s only fair that I should pose it to myself. And I did—earlier this week. That led me to sit down and to write out some of the reasons why I believe that our Church is the “right one”—in the sense that it teaches the fullness of God’s revealed truth. I’ll share a few of them with you this morning. These, incidentally, are in no particular order.

The first reason I’ll mention is “the content of the message.” I believe the Catholic Church is the right one because of the message she teaches. I’ve tried to imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived the gospel as the Church teaches it in her Catechism. And what I’ve come to realize is that the world would be as good as it could possibly be (given its fallen condition) if everyone in it made the effort to live according to the Church’s commandments and guidelines. It wouldn’t be perfect—because we’re all imperfect sinners—but it would be as good as it could be, under the circumstances. That, of course, is exactly the way I would expect it to be if ours is indeed the “right” faith!

Another reason for my belief in the Catholic religion is “the consistency of the message.” Every other church has changed her teachings with the times. But the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Catholic Church have never changed. Our understanding of them has grown and deepened over the years—that’s true—but they’ve always remained consistent. That, too, is what I would expect of the “right” faith.

I also believe in the Catholic Church because of the example of those who have radically lived her message (i.e., the saints). As we all know, some people condemn the Church by pointing to the sins of individual Catholic clerics and lay people. But that’s wrong! You don’t judge the worth of any institution by the people who live on its fringes. You judge the character and worth of an institution by the people who live according to its true spirit; by the people who live closest to its heart. And when you look at those who have lived the Catholic message most completely in the last 2,000 years—the Mother Teresas and the John Paul IIs and the other great saints—what you find is that these men and women were the most perfect, even from a purely human perspective! They were the most loving, the most honest, the most virtuous people of all! Once again, that’s exactly what I would expect from those who practice the “right” faith in a deeply devoted manner. I would expect them to be the best.

Obviously my primary reasons for being Catholic are rooted in my convictions about Jesus Christ. I believe he is who he said he was—the divine Son of God. I believe that in part because I can find no imperfections in his teachings, as those teachings are interpreted for me by the Catholic Church. His words, as recorded in Scripture, are all words of truth!

I also believe he rose from the dead, as he predicted he would. I believe that for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the witness of Peter and the other apostles. Think about it: On Holy Thursday and Good Friday these men all ran away in fear. They acted like cowards, because they were cowards! Later on, however, they were willing to be beaten, and stoned, and even killed because of their faith in the resurrection. How do you account for this change? Do you really think that these otherwise cowardly men would have been willing to die for a lie, for something that they knew wasn’t true? I don’t think so. From my perspective, the only thing that could possibly have changed them was A PERSONAL ENCOUNTER with the risen Jesus! They were willing to go the distance for him, so to speak, only because they had actually seen him and touched him and talked with him after Easter.

Why do you believe what you believe? What makes the Catholic faith the “right” one?

I’ve just shared with you some of my personal answers to those questions. Now it’s important for you to think about yours. Please do that in the coming week. I even encourage you to write down some of your reasons, as I did the other day. Do it not only for yourself, but also for your family and friends. You see, many people today leave the Catholic Church for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups and even for non-Christian religions because no one ever gave them solid reasons for believing that the Catholic faith is the “right” one.

Don’t let that happen to your friends and relatives!

Reflect in a serious way on your reasons for believing. When you do, you will probably find that some of your reasons for being a Catholic are the same as mine, while others are different.

It really doesn’t matter.

The important thing is that you have solid reasons for your faith, that you know what they are, and that you can express them clearly to others—especially to those who are sincerely searching for the truth.