What does it mean to have faith in God? Now I know this sounds odd, but it’s possible to have lots of doubts about God and the Church and the Catholic Faith, and yet still have faith in God. It’s a bit like having faith in one’s parents. You may disagree with them about some things, and even get angry with them about others ; you may not like some things they do and some opinions they hold, and yet for most people (unless they have very bad parents) there is still an underlying faith, a relationship with them, that is bigger than the problems and disagreements.
Jesus says that even faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains, (Matt 17:20) and that’s comforting for those who feel that the strong faith they once had as a child or a teenager is somehow disappearing amidst all the new things that happen at University. But this doesn’t mean just leaving that faith to sit quietly and largely unnoticed while you get busy with everything else. One of the reasons I encourage students to stay after Sunday Mass is because faith is strengthened by being in the company of people one’s own age who are also facing struggles with their faith. There just aren’t some people who go to Mass and have a strong faith, and others who don’t go to Mass much, and struggle. Indeed those at Mass can often have more struggles, than those who tuck their faith away and try not to think about it too much.
The problem is that if you tuck your faith away, it remains the faith of a child, and when adult challenges come as they will, then at some point that childish faith will crumble. I was horrified to hear of a Christian who became an atheist, partly because she felt unable to challenge or question the things that were being preached at her in Church. Maybe there are some priests who do not want to face your questions, but I am NOT one of them, so please feel free to question anything and everything that you think the Church is teaching you, either in person or by email. That is what a University Chaplain, indeed any Priest, is for! Struggling with faith, practising the faith, is the only way to make it grow!
Today in our 2nd reading (Romans 3;21-28) we have the classic passage that Martin Luther used when he broke away from the Catholic Church and began the Protestant Reformation. The disagreement then was largely a mis-understanding. Luther quite rightly argued that it is our faith in God’s grace – his gift of himself to us – that is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. He attacked all the outward prayers, the saying of rosaries, the lighting of candles, the giving of money, that the Church said were the way to God. Luther argued that faith was an inward thing – what you hold in your heart – not a series of outward practices. The Church argued that without those outward practices, faith has no meaning. In the end it became a political, rather than a religious conflict, as the Church tried to retain its traditional power over people, rather than allowing them to discover new ways of expressing their faith. Soon after that, the Church realized it had to express itself in more flexible ways to face the new challenges of the 16thC, but sadly by then the Protestants had gone their own way, and the opportunities to grow together had disappeared.
All Christians actually agree about this, despite the divisions created back then. Faith, trusting in God, however small that faith may be, is the way God enters our lives and gets rid of those things in us that separate us from his love. That is what Paul means by being “justified by faith”. We will never get close to God just with outward observances. So simply going to Mass, or rattling off a few prayers, will not of itself bring us close to God. There has to be a real openness to God within us. But, on the other hand, to claim to have faith and never to express it in prayer and in trying to live a good life, is just nonsense. As Jesus says in the Gospel (Matt 7:21-27) – those who talk religion, who act in a religious manner, but don’t listen to God and act on it, are like people building on sand – when troubles come, they will be swept away by the flood!
The 40 Days of Lent begin this week and that’s a good time to find some way in which we can all grow in the faith and listen to God more. Maybe you could come to our Faith Seminars after Sunday Mass, or make a point of questioning the priest about his Homily as you leave Church or by email rather than just vaguely listening and then forgetting. Yes, you can give up some food for Lent, but make it an act of faith, not just a dieting exercise. And maybe you might give something to charity, or even do a sponsored thingamy for some worthy cause, but again do it for God, and that way you will grow in faith.