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Living the Year of Faith: How Pope Benedict Wants You to Begin

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 17, 2012

The Holy Spirit has urged me to read the inaugural documents for the Year of Faith. Of course while one should seek the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in all things, one should never claim the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for anything. Those of us who are prone to expose all too clearly our own faults and weaknesses have a special need to heed this advice so as not to give the Holy Spirit a bad name.

But if your inclination when presented with documents of this type is to say, “Well, really, what will this tell me that I don’t already know?”; and if the Pope clearly wants people to read what he has to say on the subject; and if you go ahead and do that—well, then, the claim of Divine inspiration is a stone cold lock: You’re good.

Porta Fidei – the Door of Faith

The most important document orienting us to the Year of Faith is the Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, in which Pope Benedict explains what has led him to proclaim the Year of Faith and what he expects us to bring to it and get from it. “We cannot accept,” Benedict writes, “that salt should become tasteless or the light be kept hidden (cf. Mt 5:13-16). The people of today can still experience the need to go to the well, like the Samaritan woman, in order to hear Jesus, who invites us to believe in him and to draw upon the source of living water welling up within him (cf. Jn 4:14).”

Pope Benedict deliberately decided to start the Year of Faith on October 11th, the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. He regards the Council documents as a “sure compass by which to take our bearings”. This Year of Faith is intended to:

provide a good opportunity to help people understand that the texts bequeathed by the Council Fathers, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, “have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church’s Tradition…. I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century.” (5)

At the same time, the Catechism, which Pope Benedict regards as one of the most important fruits of the Council, is to play a key role:

[T]he Year of Faith will have to see a concerted effort to rediscover and study the fundamental content of the faith that receives its systematic and organic synthesis in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here, in fact, we see the wealth of teaching that the Church has received, safeguarded and proposed in her two thousand years of history. From Sacred Scripture to the Fathers of the Church, from theological masters to the saints across the centuries, the Catechism provides a permanent record of the many ways in which the Church has meditated on the faith and made progress in doctrine so as to offer certitude to believers in their lives of faith. (11)

We need to remember here that the current official Catechism is not like the Baltimore Catechism; it is not a series of questions and succinct answers for young students to memorize. It is rather a systematic exposition of Catholic doctrine, including its Scriptural roots as well as the Patristic and other contributions which have shaped its formulation and expression. Hence reading the Catechism is a far richer experience than many of us imagine when we think if “catechisms”.

Now of course Pope Benedict does not see the Year of Faith as a sterile study fest, in which we think to fulfill our life of Faith by reading a few documents, or learning some spiritual things without putting them into practice. The Devil knows orthodox doctrine better than we do, and it has done him no good at all. The Pope points to the example of Lydia in Acts 16, of whom St. Luke wrote, “the Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul.” Or, as Benedict puts it:

Confessing with the lips indicates in turn that faith implies public testimony and commitment. A Christian may never think of belief as a private act. Faith is choosing to stand with the Lord so as to live with him. This “standing with him” points towards an understanding of the reasons for believing. Faith, precisely because it is a free act, also demands social responsibility for what one believes. The Church on the day of Pentecost demonstrates with utter clarity this public dimension of believing and proclaiming one’s faith fearlessly to every person. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes us fit for mission and strengthens our witness, making it frank and courageous. (9)

Trust me on this: You should read Porta Fidei. When you print it out from CatholicCulture.org, it is less than ten pages long.

Pastoral Recommendations

In Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict notes that he asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to draw up a Note, “providing the Church and individual believers with some guidelines on how to live this Year of Faith in the most effective and appropriate ways, at the service of belief and evangelization.” (12). The result was the Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith.

Interestingly, the first order of business in this document is to emphasize the mission of the Second Vatican Council which, according to Pope John XXIII who called it, wanted “to transmit doctrine, pure and whole, without attenuations or misrepresentations” such that “this sure and immutable teaching, which must be respected faithfully, is elaborated and presented in a way which corresponds to the needs of our time” (Address at the opening of the Council, 11 October 1962).

Clearly it has been central to the pontificates of John Paul II and now Benedict XVI to get Vatican II right. The Note for the Year of Faith goes on to state: “After the Council the Church—under the sure guidance of the Magisterium and in continuity with the whole Tradition—set about ensuring the reception and application of the teaching of the Council in all its richness.” One of the means of doing this was to institute the recurring Synod of Bishops in 1965. And as is already clear from the way the quote in this paragraph is worded, Pope Benedict insists that there is a right way to read and follow the Council:

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has worked decisively for a correct understanding of the Council, rejecting as erroneous the so-called “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” and promoting what he himself has termed “the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.” (Address to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2005)

Having established the importance of the Council, the Note goes on to emphasize the importance of the Catechism, which includes “the new and the old (cfr. Mt 13:52), because the faith is always the same yet the source of ever new light.” The Catechism repeats the traditional order followed by the Catechism of St. Pius V (Creed, Sacred Liturgy and sacraments, Christian way of life, and Christian prayer), making it a tool not just for knowledge but for life. “At the same time, however, the contents are often expressed in a new way in order to respond to the questions of our age.”

In other words, the Note immediately emphasizes again that the tools we are supposed to use to enter more deeply into this Year of Faith are the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. On this point let me be perfectly frank. I well know that there are some readers who will not like this, both on the Modernist or Secularist side and on the Traditionalist side. Paradoxically, both have a pronounced tendency to view the Council through the hermeneutic of rupture, the Modernists to falsify the Council and the Traditionalists to reject it.

But the time is long past for trotting out the same old excuses, based mostly on hearsay, to distort or reject what the Church is calling us to be and do. The key is sentire cum ecclesia, to think with the Church. And this counsel means nothing if it does not mean to think with the contemporary Magisterium, to think with those expressions of the Magisterium which speak directly to us in our own time. Pope Benedict is saying that it is time now to read, study, reflect and grow. If we wish to call ourselves Catholics, we must set aside useless prejudices, break the bindings of our respective tunnel cultures, and follow the Holy Father’s lead.

The bulk of the Note lists practical recommendations on the levels of the Universal Church, Episcopal Conference, Diocese, and Parish/Community/Association/Movement. The universal Church will be sponsoring many events throughout the Year of Faith, coordinated by a Secretariat in the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. Therefore, all the faithful might consider participation in World Youth Day (July 2013 in Rio de Janeiro) or in one of the various sponsored symposia and conferences. Everyone should also increase in devotion to Mary, pay closer attention to the “homilies, catechesis, addresses and other speeches and documents of the Holy Father”, seek to foster Christian unity, and (go for it!) consider a pilgrimage to Rome to show solidarity with Pope Benedict and the universal Church.

I’ll skip over the recommendations for episcopal conferences, over which the individual Catholic will have little control. The various dioceses are encouraged to review their reception of Vatican II and the Catechism and, in effect, to make sure they get with the program. They are also particularly called to promote penance and penitential celebrations, especially during Lent, “in which all can ask for God’s forgiveness, especially for sins against faith”, and to increase the likelihood that all Catholics can “approach the Sacrament of Penance with greater faith and more frequently.”

I’ve already made the first recommendation for those of us who live and move and have our being at the parish/community/association/movement level of the Church: To read Porta Fidei. In addition, everyone is to seek to grow in appreciation of the Eucharist and in the doctrinal richness of the Catechism (which should be held more firmly by catechists), as well as to promote “missions and other popular programs in parishes and in the workplace” that can help us “to rediscover the gift of Baptismal faith and the task of giving witness”.

Contemplative communities should pray for the renewal of faith. Associations and ecclesial movements should promote the Year of Faith in ways consistent with their charisms. All the faithful are called to “try to communicate their own experience of faith and charity to their brothers and sisters of other religions, with those who do not believe, and with those who are just indifferent.”

Perhaps the first task of each person, no matter what their role or level in the Church, is to read Porta Fidei and the Note, to reflect deeply on the possibilities they represent, and then to seek to do whatever is most likely to foster a genuinely living faith. Progress should be measured according to the specific guidelines for renewal provided by the Second Vatican Council and the deep doctrinal richness of the Catechism. One thing should be clear from bitter experience: This is not just a matter of implementing new “programs” through bureaucratic functionaries. This is a matter of taking the Faith to heart and living it in the way St. Peter himself envisioned.

Perhaps that is why Pope Benedict quotes St. Peter in the closing paragraph of Porta Fidei:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet 1:6-9)

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 18, 2012 3:19 PM ET USA

    I am everlastingly grateful for the Catechism, and I well recall how the "reformers" within the Church struggled to keep it out of the hands of the laity, as if we were too stupid to understand what it meant. This is the exact charge the reformers laid at the feet of pre-conciliar clergy regarding Scripture.

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