Sunday, December 21, 2008

Do You Have Doubts, Or Do You Simply Have Difficulties?

Cardinal John Henry Newman

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 21, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 1: 26-38.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2008]

Do you have doubts, or do you simply have difficulties?

People will sometimes tell me that they have doubts about certain teachings of the Catholic Faith: it might concern something strictly theological, like the Trinity or the virgin birth of Jesus; or it might be about a moral matter, like the proscription against artificial contraception or in vitro fertilization.

But what I want to know is this: Do these people actually have doubts, or are they simply experiencing what Cardinal John Henry Newman referred to as ‘difficulties’? One of Newman’s best known sayings is this one: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make a doubt.”

It’s normal to have difficulty understanding the Blessed Trinity; it’s normal to have difficulty grasping how God became man in Christ Jesus; it’s even normal to have difficulty understanding the reasons behind some of the Church’s moral teachings.

But all those difficulties put together and multiplied by 10,000 do not add up to one single doubt! As Cardinal Newman indicates in that line I quoted a few moments ago, difficulties and doubts are qualitatively different things!

This is something that many sincere believers do not seem to realize; hence they confuse the two realities. They ponder and wonder and question, and they think they’re having doubts, when in actuality they’re simply experiencing ‘difficulties’—some of which even the great saints experienced!

Take Mary at the Annunciation. If you read this story from Luke 1 that we just heard, without knowing the difference between difficulties and doubts, you might make the mistake of thinking that Mary actually doubted the Lord—especially when she said to Gabriel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

But that’s not true. Mary didn’t doubt: not for one single second! However she did experience a number of difficulties that she initially couldn’t make sense of.

For example, when the angel first appeared to her and extended his famous greeting—“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you”—it says that Mary was “greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

Mary had difficulty understanding why God’s angel would appear to her—a lowly maiden of Nazareth—and what the purpose of his visit was. Now you might say, “But Fr. Ray, Mary was so holy; why wouldn’t God send an angel to her?”

Yes, she was; and to us it makes perfect sense. But people who are truly holy don’t think they’re special! They think they’re ordinary, because they’re so humble. And Mary, because she was sinless, was even more humble than all the other great saints of Church history!

So her reaction was completely understandable. It was a difficulty, not a doubt.

Then we have her famous question about how the conception of the Son of God would occur. It begins with the words, “How can this be . . . ,” which seem to imply doubt. At first glance it appears as if Mary is saying to Gabriel, “Can God possibly do such a thing?”

But once again, we’re in the realm of ‘difficulty,’ not doubt.

This verse is one of the clearest indications in Scripture that Mary was ALWAYS a virgin, even after the birth of Jesus. Many Protestants, of course, don’t believe that. They believe Mary was a virgin up until the time of our Lord’s birth, but that she and Joseph lived a normal married life afterward.

However, if the Protestant position is true, then Mary’s question makes no sense! If Mary intended on living a normal conjugal life with Joseph, why would she have asked a question about how the conception of the Savior would occur? We have no reason to think that Mary was ignorant of the basic principles of biology!

The way the question is phrased indicates that Mary and Joseph intended to refrain from relations during their entire marriage, which supports the Catholic teaching that Mary’s virginity was perpetual, not temporary.

And so, once again, we’re dealing with a difficulty, not a doubt! Based on the vow she had made to the Lord to be continent even after her marriage, Mary had difficulty understanding how she was going to get pregnant and have a child.

Gabriel, of course, told her how, and that eliminated the difficulty—after which Mary expressed the faith that had been in her heart all along! She said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary needed the help of Gabriel to deal with the difficulties she experienced at the Annunciation. At times we also need help dealing with ours.

Do we seek that help and deal with our difficulties quickly and effectively? Or do we just sit back and let them multiply? Ten thousand difficulties do not make a doubt—that’s true; but even a few difficulties can lead to doubt if they’re never addressed.

Just ask your ex-Catholic friends who are now Jehovah’s Witnesses or evangelical Protestants or Scientologists—or atheists!

Obviously, they all had difficulties with the Catholic faith that were never addressed in a satisfactory way; consequently, they ended up embracing another religion—or rejecting religion entirely.

This is one of the reasons why I have my youth group for teenagers every Thursday night. I want them to have a place where they can come to deal with the spiritual and moral ‘difficulties’ they have as young people. My pastor, Fr. Pat Rotondi, helped me address my difficulties when I was a teen (a few years ago), and I know what a positive difference that made in my young life. At a crucial time in my development, it helped me keep my head on straight (more or less!).

The bottom line is this: None of us can avoid difficulties! (In a sense, that’s the bad news.) Everyone with faith experiences them; even our Blessed Mother did. But the good news is that even if our personal difficulties are serious and challenging and numerous, we can always avoid doubts—if we want to.