How We Grow In Faith

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How We Grow In Faith

Deacon Bill Stimpson

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Years ago (plus twenty-five) I gave a homily on how faith develops. Faith development follows a consistent pattern, human experience leads to discernment; discernment leads to decision and decision leads to faith in action. This pattern is consistent throughout the Scriptures. After Mass, a middle-aged couple came up to me and challenged my homily. They argued that Faith comes through reading the Catechism. Before I could ask them for more clarification about their position on faith development, they had walked away. I was left to presume more than I should need to, but I would suggest, that this couple was raised and educated under the influences of the Baltimore Catechism. The Baltimore Catechism, the oldest living Catholic catechism in the United States was centered on a dialogue format – One is asked a question and one gives the “right” answer. The format was easy because it was designed for children. In the early stages of learning, most children learn through memorization. The short coming of the Baltimore Catechism was that it had no “adult” companion to explain in greater detail how the Teachings of the Church came about, and a more in-depth journey into the significance and nuance of a particular teaching.

In our modern culture, there are many people of all age groups who will not simply take something as fact based upon one person’s say so (politics aside). This is a good thing (even in politics), to be somewhat skeptical of what we are told. Asking “Why?” is not a bad question if we really want an answer. If we only want an argument, then asking “Why?”; is pointless, we aren’t really listening to an answer, just mentally preparing a rebuttal. For the young, it is sufficient to teach responses to questions. As people grow older, they need to develop a deeper understanding into just how a teaching came to be. In today’s world; “Because Father said so!” or “Because Sister said so!” is not enough. We are far better educated than the people of the sixteenth century, we cannot effectively promote the faith of the Church, devoid of understanding. The Teachings of the Church, her Doctrines, are the result of a process of discernment, they are a synopsis, a summary of all the theological debates, the history that defined the teaching or doctrine.

At the core of every teaching of the Church is Sacred Scripture. Sacred Scripture did not come to us as some finished work; a work without struggle and interpretation. With very few exceptions, the Scriptures were written by authors other than the participants of any particular Bible story. The stories were passed from one generation to the next through a recital of the Sacred Stories. (Note: Before a Sacred Story could be told, it must be absolutely memorized verbatim. There was no tolerance for – “As I recall…”.) The Scriptures come to us via a process of human experience with the divine, discerned and decided toward an action. In reading the story of Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 12 through 22, it would be difficult not to see how through one human experience after another, reflected upon through divine intervention, that Abraham (Abram) was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Faith, the faith Abraham had did not come through any catechism, it came by way of experience, reflection and decision that lead to actions.

The ultimate goal of Christian education should go far beyond statements of beliefs, rote prayers, names and dates. The ultimate goal of Christian education is two-fold; to effectively transmit the Christ Ethic – Love God and Love Neighbor – to the hearts and souls of the faithful[1]; and to promote the understanding that Christian education does not end. The Christian evangelist is most effective when they are able to defend their beliefs against the criticisms and denials of the non-believer. The goal of Catechists is to prepare the faithful to become effective evangelists. The process begins by taking the human experiences and explaining them in a Christian perspective. Explanations lead to understanding, and understanding sustains beliefs. As the understanding is broadened, and deepened, faith is fortified. With a strong and vibrant faith, we can share with others the power God has given us to combat the evil in our own thoughts, words and actions. It is the strength of our faith that determines more correctly the effectiveness of our evangelization.

[1] Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, USCCB  pp 229-232