‘You give them something to eat’
When I was a child, I shared a bedroom with my grandmother. In the afternoon, I would go to our room and see my grandmother sitting in her easy chair clutching her beads, her lips moving silently.
There was no need for me to ask, ‘What are you doing, Grandma?’ The Rosary was part of our family prayer and during October we would pray it together. No explanation was required: Grandma was praying and I did not disturb her.
As I grew older, I understood that while she was praying she was not only remembering the mysteries of Jesus’ and Mary’s lives, but connecting their stories with her own annunciations and crucifixions as well. She saw them as a piece.
When my father asked me if I would like to go for a drive on a Saturday, I did not need to ask, ‘Where are we going?’
Every Saturday he went to the neighbourhood parish to go to confession. It was no surprise that, when I was seven years old, I too would receive this sacrament.
My mother was elected publicity chair for the parish women’s group. My father belonged to the parish men’s Mission Club and helped run fundraisers for needy people. Both of my brothers were altar boys and eventually I became one of the sacristan’s helpers. It was part of life that one used one’s gifts for the parish community.
It was all very Catholic; my whole childhood revolved around the parish. My friends and almost all of our neighbours were Catholic and my school was Catholic too. Whatever my classmates and I learned about the faith in school we saw lived in our homes, among our friends and families and in our village. Life and faith were one; it was secure and clear, if a little insulated.
In our village there were many churches: Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Catholic. Catholics did not enter any of the other churches and a great curiosity about them built up in me. I remember when the Lutheran church near our home was undergoing renovation. My friends and I snuck around and tried to peek between the boards to see inside. Maybe the Lutheran children did the same when the Catholic church was renovated!
After I graduated from college, I became a teacher. The Catholic Church’s self-understanding had developed and we were called to be ecumenical – to work with other Christians towards unity, and short of that to work together in Jesus’ name to do good in the world. I had learned about the Second Vatican Council and joined an Ecumenical Urban Task Force in the city where I taught. It was exciting and fulfilling work. Together Christians were making a difference in that city. We had projects to address poverty and its causes, we picketed against unjust labour practices and we confronted racism.
I was only a few hundred miles from my childhood home, but light years from the insulation that it provided – for better sometimes, for worse other times. Working together ecumenically was far easier than ecumenical discussions about our beliefs. So much had to be explained that never did before; so much needed to be articulated beyond the words that my childhood Catechism answers afforded me.
A few years later, my husband and I returned to the village where I grew up to raise our son – things had changed. Nicholas went to the Catholic school and I taught there, but some of his friends were not Catholic. Some of my and my husband’s friends were not Catholic either. Some childhood Catholic companions had married people of other Christian Churches. We were expanding our understandings, but it was unsettling sometimes. No longer could we assume that everyone believed as we did and sometimes people even asked questions like, ‘Why do Catholics do that?’
The ‘Catholic’ practices we took for granted could not be taken for granted anymore. Some children did not know the prayers that everyone once knew. Some had one parent who was Catholic and another who was Presbyterian and they wanted to know the difference between these Churches and their beliefs. Others were suspicious of anyone who wasn’t Catholic.
In this milieu I was a teacher. How often I wished I could have magical powers – as a teacher and a parent – in order to effectively promote growth in faith for those I taught! Do you ever wish you had such powers? Not to gain money or power, but to share the Catholic faith. It would be so simple. We could reach to the heavens and catch that spark of faith. Then carry it carefully to our home, our parish, our neighbourhood, our workplace, our classroom – and ZAP! Infusing the knowledge that is the foundation for a relationship with Jesus Christ, and the conversion of heart and behaviour that follows, would be instantaneous and lasting. We could effect instant belief and hope and love, instant desire to learn about God, instant impetus to serve our neighbour.
Our work as parents and teachers would be accomplished once and for all. No recurring struggles as our children reach another age or have new questions; no doubts arising that would disturb our own faith; no battles about going to Mass. Parents and teachers have often asked me about the ways they might ‘hand on the gift of faith’. The good news here is that we recognise that faith is a gift from God. It is given; we have only to respond. The difficult part is that we look to ‘hand it on’ as we might hand on a family recipe. I often have the image of faith as a gift – a package wrapped in paper and tied with a bow. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? We just take that gift box and ‘hand it on’ to our children, and it contains all that they need to know, believe and practise to be good Catholics.
If, indeed, you could hold that ‘gift of faith’ in your hands, boxed and bowed, ready to hand on to your children, what would be in it?
When I have asked this question of parents and teachers, they give a variety of answers. They name prayer, love of neighbour, Jesus’ teachings, the commandments, hope, compassion for others, a sense of justice, forgiveness, or other dimensions of faith that are important. Sometimes Scripture is named, but not always. Then I ask, ‘What are the uniquely Catholic elements you would want to include in that gift of faith you are handing on?’
It is interesting that until the second question is raised, the sacraments or the Mass are only occasionally mentioned. The second question also brings answers that include the pope, the bishops and Church teaching. What would be – or what is – in the gift of faith you are handing on?
We know that forming others – and growing ourselves – in faith is not as simple as handing over a wrapped package, nor are there magical powers available to enable us to do this most important work. Except – and it’s a big except – we have faith and we have God’s grace. And our God is certainly magical; after all, God created the sun and the moon and the stars. Moses encountered God in the burning bush. God led the Israelites through the desert with a pillar of fire by night. If only God would perform tricks like that today! Then we would have the spark of faith; then we could point to the works of God and our children would believe.
God could perform miracles like that today, of course. God could have ‘zapped’ all of us to assure we would always respond to his love positively. But that’s not what God chose to do. Instead, God sent his only Son to become a human person. John’s Gospel tells us, ‘And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14). The all-powerful God sent his only Son, not in majesty, but in infancy; not with magical abilities, but with the love that works miracles. God became one of us and his coming transformed humanity.
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, (Gaudium et Spes) from the Second Vatican Council tells us that the Son of God ‘worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin’ (GS 22).
Therefore, you and I do not need to wish for magical powers; we have the power of being sons and daughters of God, made in his image. We have the human abilities that Jesus did, now shot through with divinity and grace. We have all that we need to live and grow in our own faith and to assist others to grow in faith.
In Baptism we received the ‘light of Christ’. Those baptised as adults heard the words, ‘You have been enlightened by Christ. Walk always as children of the Light and keep the flame of faith alive in your hearts.’ How do we walk ‘as children of the Light’?
Years ago, before airline security tightened and limited how much baggage one could bring, I was travelling by plane to give a talk in another state. I was in line to board the plane, carrying only my Bible, as I needed to review the Scripture I was using in my presentation. In front of me were two women who had forty-two pieces of luggage between them: back packs, duffle bags, suitcases and huge handbags. Seeing them struggle and knowing their efforts would delay my boarding the plane, I offered to assist them. They gave me twelve pieces of luggage, or at least it seemed that many! We boarded and their seats were in the row just in front of mine. I helped hoist their luggage into the overhead compartment and then continued to my seat, still clutching my Bible. As I passed the two women to enter my row, one of them said to the other, ‘No wonder she acts the way she does!’
They must have noticed me and my Bible! I was smiling, pleased. Then the other woman said, ‘Yes, no one at work likes her, she’s awful’. Alas, they were not speaking of me; but for one brief, shining moment, I thought my life was evidence of living the gospel. And, isn’t that what is supposed to happen?
The key to nourishing others’ faith is our own faith. When I ask parents and teachers about who helped them to grow in faith, they name grandparents and parents, teachers, priests and neighbours. When I pose the question, ‘How did they help you to grow in faith?’ there is always a strong element of witness. ‘My mother was always reaching out to neighbours who were ill.’ ‘The teacher I had really showed what forgiveness means.’
‘There was a girl who lived near me and she volunteered at the local hospital. She taught me about compassion.’ Think of the people who have helped you to grow in faith. Was it only with their words, or did their example prove the greater influence? If we are to spark faith, to hand on the gift of faith, to nourish young faith, we must be effective witnesses and more.
My grandmother set a good example as she sat quietly and prayed; because of the whole Catholic culture that enveloped me, she did not need words to explain her prayer. Today, in the midst of diversity and the variety of beliefs, perhaps we need both example and words. There are many people who sit and pray, some Christian, some our Jewish brothers and sisters, some of other faiths. We have to both do and be able to give voice to what we do and why we do it. The African community has a saying, ‘You must walk the talk’, when calling to witness. Today we are called to also ‘talk the walk’ in order to articulate our faith.
Many fine humanitarians do good works; when we do such works, it is in the name of Jesus Christ. That fact may not be evident unless we say it somehow. A study of young adults found they have great dedication to causes for peace and justice; the same study showed that many of them do not see any connection between their service to these causes and their faith. Perhaps they followed good example, but the words that make the connection were never uttered.
When we make a meal for a grieving family, or visit an elderly homebound person, do we tell our children Jesus is the reason? Faith is not only the source of good works for disciples of Jesus Christ, it is the sustenance which enables us to continue good works when the results are not immediate or even when our efforts seem to fail.
Jesus can only be our sustenance if we have responded to his call to be disciples, if we have experienced that conversion of heart that is necessary to embrace his teachings and to live as he asks. I saw a T-shirt recently that said, ‘Change is good. You go first’. Conversion is change and, therefore, is not easy, but the reward is exceptional.
Jean Vanier, who founded the L’Arche community of disabled persons, described this reward when he said, ‘The whole mystery of Christ is to change us so that we become the face of Jesus, we become the hands of Jesus, that we become the heart of Jesus, that our body becomes the body of Christ, that our words become the words of Christ’ (‘Seeing God in Others’, aired on ‘30 Good Minutes’, programme #3901, 7 October 1995). God’s only Son became like us; we change to be like him and to proclaim his good news in word and deed to one another and to our children.
So, we have to change to become like Christ, to witness to our Catholic faith by our good deeds. We need to be able to share our faith in words as well so that others might grow in faith. We may feel like the disciples felt when Jesus preached to the huge crowd. Remember the story – the people had been there in the deserted place listening to Jesus for a long time and it was getting late. The disciples wanted Jesus to dismiss the crowd ‘so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat’. But Jesus says, ‘You give them something to eat.’
In the midst of today’s world, the hungers for faith and meaning, people – including our children – sit in the ‘deserted places’ of life and wait for nourishment. We may be tempted to point them to other places, to someone else who can satisfy their hungers, but Jesus says to you and to me, ‘You give them something to eat’.
In John’s Gospel, the story of the multiplication of the loaves includes a boy who had only five loaves and two fish to give to Jesus, and with these Jesus fed the multitude. We have talents, but they may seem meagre in the face of the overwhelming challenges of living and handing on the faith today. Yet, if we offer those abilities to Jesus, we become the instruments through which nourishment of faith can flow.
What talents and abilities do you have that help you to share your faith with others?
How will you ‘feed’ your own faith this year?
Tell the story of someone who helped you to grow in faith