Will Jesus find a lively faith when he returns?

Father John A. Kiley

Certainly one of the saddest lines in Sacred Scripture is the conclusion to this Sunday’s Gospel: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus who will labor, preach, sacrifice, suffer and die for the salvation of mankind wonders whether his life work will come to naught. And well might Jesus worry.

In 1975, 64% of the babies born in Rhode Island were baptized Catholic. In 2012, 28% received Catholic baptism. In 1975, 57% of Rhode Island funerals took place in a Catholic Church. In 2012, 48% received Catholic burial. In 1975, 51% of the state’s weddings were Catholic celebrations. In 2012, a lamentable 16% of married couples chose to wed in a Catholic church. The diminution of practice clearly evidences a diminution of faith. Well did Pope Benedict declare a Year of Faith, hoping to recapture, especially in Europe and America, the faith that guided our Catholic ancestors.

Pope Francis, as this column has noted recently, published the encyclical “The Light of Faith,” outlining and explaining the role of faith in the modern world. Early in his letter, the Pope cited the example of Abraham, whose faith looked both to the past and to the future. Abraham accepted God’s stated word that he would be a father to many nations and continued to hope that this promise would eventually hold true, even when Isaac’s life was threatened. Israel’s faith also looked both to the past and to the future. Israel was heartened by God’s mighty deeds in releasing the Jews from bondage in Egypt but Israel continued to hope in the promise of fulfillment in the Promised Land toward which she journeyed. The faith of Christians also looks both to the past and to the future. The Apostolic Tradition instituted by Christ and handed over to his disciples is a legacy from the past but believers continue to hope that faith will bear its full fruit in the future – reconciliation, resurrection and eternal life.

The Apostolic Tradition which guides the Church toward ultimate fulfillment in the next life is supported by four pillars considered in Chapter Three of the new encyclical. The four elements which comprise the “storehouse of memory” which the Church hands down are familiar to anyone who has opened a Catholic catechism: the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. While faith is the “root and foundation” of all holiness, it is the Church’s beliefs, rituals, morals and prayers that form, guide and support an authentic faith. Catholic beliefs, Catholic rituals, Catholic morals and Catholic prayers have certainly developed over the centuries but the substance of these four pillars has an unalterable Apostolic basis. Like Abraham and like Israel, the Christian faith looks to the past for authenticity and legitimacy.

Faith’s past, Jesus’ acts of love which brought new life to the world, comes down to us through the memory of others, through witnesses, and is kept alive in that one “remembering subject” which is the Church. The Apostolic legacy of creed, ritual, morals and prayer makes all believers “contemporaries of Jesus Christ,” who still guides us on our journey of faith. The Creed reminds us that it is impossible to believe on our own. Faith is not simply an individual decision which takes place in the depths of one’s heart. True Christian faith always expresses professed beliefs held within the Church’s communion. Faith also needs a setting in which it can be properly explained, one suitable to what is being communicated. For transmitting a purely doctrinal content, perhaps a book might suffice, or the repetition of a spoken message. But what is communicated in the Church, what is handed down in her living tradition, is the incarnate word which touches the core of our being engaging our minds, wills and emotions. The best means capable of engaging the entire person, body and spirit, interior life and loving relationships, are the sacraments, the Church’s liturgy. The sacraments communicate a fleshly memory of Jesus Christ and his work. In the Lord’s Prayer Christians learn to share in Christ’s own spiritual experience and to see all things through his eyes. From the only-begotten Son of the Father, we come to know God as Father ourselves, leading our lives by his plan. Similarly the Decalogue are concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the self in order to enter into dialogue with God, be embraced by his mercy, and bring that mercy to others. A renewed appreciation of these four basic Christian elements will certainly be vital in any restoration of a lively and fruitful Christian faith.