'There Is Something that Comes Before': What Faith and the Year of Faith Are Not

by Jonathan Ghaly

Descriptive Title

A Question for Catholics: What Is Faith and Has It Become Obsolete?


This document contains two articles by Jonathan Ghaly which were originally published by Catholic News Agency on October 9 and October 11, 2012 on the Year of Faith.

Publisher & Date

Catholic Culture, November 6, 2012

As the recently called “Year of Faith” approaches, there seem to be several different interpretations within the Church of what this year means, and furthermore, what exactly “faith” means. I myself have already heard of a plethora of talks and programs being offered in the name of the Year of Faith, including “mastering the virtues,” missionary work, evangelization, and becoming holy.

While all of these efforts are good and noble, I find it fascinating how when we as Catholics hear the word “faith,” we immediately jump to its consequences: good works, the moral life, and evangelization. It’s almost as if we are uncomfortable staying for any amount of time at this level of faith, which is exactly what our brethren Protestants accuse us of. Doing this we are in fact trying to run faster than the present Pope we have been gifted with.

But the Holy Father knows this, and so is giving us an entire year to be in this level of faith; to stop, to “rediscover” and “encounter” faith again, which always means “the encounter with Christ,” as the he says in his letter on the year of faith. (i) But we already know faith, and we already know Christ, right?

If this is true, we are immediately left with the imposing question of why the Holy Father, of all the possible themes he could have chosen for us today – Year of Evangelization; Holiness; Charity; Prayer; Hope; Liturgy; Scripture; or the Year of Learning Latin – he chose the most elementary and fundamental theme of all: the Year of Faith. He sees something in us, and not first in those outside the Church, that we are not seeing. Again, his words are unmistakable: “It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society.” (ii)

Our reductions of faith … and the consequences

Unfortunately, we have taken faith for granted for so long that we really don’t even know what it means anymore, and can think only in categories of works, of what I need to do. As a good Catholic friend of mine recently proclaimed, “Dude, the whole essence of the Faith is practicing virtue!” But during his pontificate Pope Benedict has gone out of his way to constantly warn against and denounce this “Pelagian” hyperfocus on morality and human will (as Christ does plentifully and painfully with the Pharisees in the Gospels), which is unfortunately present all over the Church. This is the reason why the Holy Father is calling a Year of Faith today, in the year 2012, two millennia after Christ, when we’re supposed to have faith “down pat.”

Theologically and experientially speaking, faith is not our good works, moral life, or evangelization. These things come out of the experience of faith, but they are not “faith.” There are many altruists, social workers and virtuous people who are not Christian in the world. There is “something that comes before” these works, out of which flow these works, and that “something that comes before” is precisely the event of faith. All else, including how we think and live, flows out of our experience of faith. Pope Benedict goes so far as to say in his letter on the Year of Faith that through faith “a new life shapes the whole of human existence according to the radical new reality,” and that faith gives a “new criterion...that changes the whole of man’s life.” (iii) He goes on to say that if faith is not grounded, these works will be “sentiment constantly at the mercy doubt.” If faith is simply believing orthodox doctrine, it will remain abstract and at the level of the intellect. If faith is a powerful feeling, it will remain at the level and mercy of emotion and sentimentality. And if faith is simply a new set of moral standards and commands, it will remain at the level of the will. What all of these lack, simply … is the experience of Christ. There is something that comes before.

We can see this lack in our own experience. Several of my young adult Catholic friends confide in me the struggle and weariness of “living the faith” today. There is a malaise I see on their faces. And they don’t mean primarily the struggle of living the faith in a secular culture. They mean the burden and emptiness of “focusing on all the things you have to be and do to be a good Catholic,” as a girl friend of mine recently expressed. As we know, reducing faith to all our virtue and vice, feelings, works, and knowledge (essentially: moralism, sentimentalism, voluntarism, and orthodoxism, respectively) sooner or later becomes unsustainable for our lives, and leads to our boredom, doubt, emptiness, and in fact a widening distance from Christ, which we quietly try to ignore; and all this in the midst of “practicing” our faith. We go to talks and parish programs because they are Catholic (but not necessarily interesting) and they leave us just as malaised as we were when we got there. Much of it is, frankly, not interesting (whatever happened to doing things because they were really interesting, not because we feel obligated to do them?). The zeal runs out, the sentiment is no longer enjoyed, the theology becomes distant and less relevant, and the burdens become heavier and more meaningless, and what we are left with is the option to either find something else to ease the pain (usually an addiction), or, for the stronger of us, to “strap on the boots” and white-knuckle our way to our idea of holiness by doing good deeds, reading more theology, and mastering pyramids of virtue systems. And all the time Christ remains abstract and far away. Is this enough? Is this what faith means?

Furthermore, what happens when you are doing all the “right things” and they are making you ... miserable? As a close friend of mine said during an assembly we attended about faith, “I was at a point in my life where I was doing the things I was told I should do to be a good Catholic. Part of that was making a holy hour, going to adoration everyday, going to Mass everyday, saying a rosary everyday, saying the Liturgy of the Hours everyday, and if you weren't doing those things you were a bad Catholic. But when I was doing all those things I was miserable, and I was getting to the point where I was about to just quit everything. I couldn't find any peace or happiness.”

He was doing everything he was told to do to be a good Catholic, using every ounce of effort he had within him, and yet he was depressed and miserable. This actually is not a unique experience; I’ve had the exact same, along with several people I know. It’s a reason why many people stop going to church, or at least begin to believe it has nothing to do with life, but is simply our just obligation due to God so as not to go to Hell. Fr. Julian Carron responded surprisingly to my friend: “The real question is what is the nature of Christianity? What is the essence of faith?” (v) In the midst of a number of things to know and learn and do in Catholicism, we have forgotten the true essence of Christianity, and the nature of faith. And this is precisely when that creeping modern nihilism, which shows its face in so many diverse ways, infects itself even into the very fabric of our faith: faith eventually becomes, like everything else: just one damned thing (or commitment) after another.

A Note on the Church, Pope Benedict and Pelagianism

This reductive modern-day moralism, to be clear, is one of the Holy Father’s major axes to grind. But, as he knows – being the genius theologian and historian he is – it has a much earlier origin. Even as Cardinal, he shockingly said that “the error of Pelagius has more followers in the Church today than it would seem.” (vi) Pelagius, who lived in the early 400s, was a virtuous and well-intentioned monk – even his adversary St. Augustine called him a “saintly man.” And he taught what many Catholics today would unfortunately not even see a problem with: following the 10 commandments brings us to heaven; we possess the moral strength to desire and attain the ideal of virtue; Christ came to instruct and give an example for us; and our job as Christians is to follow His example and attain the highest level of virtue and holiness that we can. (vii)

“A Christian,” says Pelagius, “is one who lives according to Christ’s example: who never lies, who never curses, who never swears, who does not pay back evil with evil, who blesses those who curse him, who loves his enemies ... who has a mind clear of all evil and impure thoughts.” (viii)

Sounds very holy and edifying, right? So what’s wrong with this, many might ask? Well, the Church answered, “Everything,” and condemned Pelagianism as a first-class heresy.

What’s shocking is that most Catholics, most good, practicing Catholics (along with most people on the planet) would define Christianity exactly how Pelagius does. I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned Bible studies, retreats, and homilies I’ve heard centered solely around themes of “the things you need to do to be a better Catholic.” And I can’t tell you how many times during my two years of high school teaching did students, after 12 years of Catholic school education, answer my question of “What is Christianity?” with “Well, you have to be good ... and not sin ... so you can go to heaven.” We, like Pelagius, love reducing everything to steps, formulae, and equations. Why? Because it puts us in control. We “know” what Christianity is that way. But Christianity is not us in control. If anything, it’s the opposite.

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.” (ix)

Lord forgive us. Though we may even sprinkle Christ on it a bit, we are closer to the Pharisee in our understanding of Christianity, which in the end is not Christianity but a religion of high idyllic moral attainment. As Christ says, this cannot redeem us. Pelagianism and all understandings like it are simply Moral-ianity, not Christ-ianity. In the end you don’t really need Christ (which is why it was a heresy), you just really have to follow the commandments and practice virtue. In the end Christ is simply something sprinkled on top of a beautiful structure of ethics. But Aristotle gave us that 350 years before Christ. Time and again during his pontificate Pope Benedict has surprisingly and refreshingly questioned this widely accepted syllogism that proclaims, “If you want to be a good Catholic, then you must do all of these things.” One of the most famous and repeated phrases of the Holy Father came from his first encyclical, in the very first paragraph: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (x) With this powerful phrase, the Holy Father is precisely asserting the opposite of what we believe to be Christian: an ethical choice and a lofty idea. Instead, he claims that being Christian is encountering an event, or more precisely, a person, who changes life completely, even to the point of making it new.

In his first book as pope, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he asks the provocative question of whether Christ’s new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” makes Christianity a religion of the highest moral attainment?: “No, the newness of the new commandment cannot consist in the highest moral attainment ... (T)he essential point is not the call to supreme achievement, but the new foundation of being that is given to us. The newness can come only from the gift of being-with and being-in Christ ... Thomas Aquinas observed, ‘The new law is the grace of the Holy Spirit.’ To be a Christian is primarily a gift.” (xi) There is “something that comes before.” What the Holy Father is teaching us is that Christianity is far less about what we do, and much, much more about Who we encounter, and what we are given in this encounter.

(Read part two of this article entitled, “A Question for Catholics: Has faith become obsolete?”).

(i) Pope Benedict XVI Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” Porta Fidei, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, Paragraph 2.
(ii) Ibid.
(iii) Ibid., Paragraph 6.
(iv) Ibid., Paragraph 14.
(v) Fr. Julian Carron, “What is man that You should care for him, mortal man that You keep him in mind?”: There is no greater adventure than the discovery of one’s own humanity, Communion and Liberation live assembly, Colorado.
(vi) Antonio Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days, February 1991; p. 40.
(vii) Cf. Pohle, Joseph. “Pelagius and Pelagianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 6 Oct. 2012 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11604a.htm.
(viii) Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days; p. 42.
(ix) Luke 18: 10-14.
(x) Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, Paragraph 1.
(xi) Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Doubleday, Random House Inc., New York, 2007, pp. 63-65.

A Question for Catholics: What Is Faith and Has It Become Obsolete?

In my first column we reflected on the many ways we reduce faith – essentially to good deeds, orthodoxy, morality, and evangelization – without even knowing it.

These reductions are already at work in our approaches to the recently called “Year of Faith.” As Cardinal, the Holy Father surprisingly exclaimed, “The error of Pelagius has more followers in the Church today than it would seem.” (i) And as Pope, he seems to be even more insistent on the seemingly surprising fact that faith is not an ethical choice, an orthodox theology, or a set of moral achievements (see Part 1 of this article).

So what is faith exactly? To face the question starkly, is it even necessary in today’s world, where it seems sometimes even to us Catholics irrelevant for our daily lives? Has faith become obsolete?

I know a priest who says that every morning he wakes up, looks in the mirror and asks himself, “Why are you a priest? In fact, why are you even Christian?” Though it sounds a bit scandalizing, he is asking a very reasonable question. If we don’t have this kind of audacity, if we do not have a living, sustaining reason for why we have faith, why we need faith, then sooner or later it becomes irrelevant (which can play itself out in several ways in our lives), and rightly so. Can faith truly sustain life, or is it just another thing we add on to life, like paint? Is it as necessary as oxygen, or is it just a perfume, susceptible to losing its scent after a time? And what does Christ have to do with it all? I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed the Christ (the “answer” at the back of the book) so much so that both the question (“Why are you Christian?”) and the answer (“Christ”) no longer mean anything to us – they’re just words, which is why so many have left the Church. We no longer understand ourselves, and thus we no longer know Christ. Put in another way (let’s face this bluntly), “Whatever is irrelevant to my current experience and doesn’t touch my life now simply does not exist. It follows that a God who is not relevant to what I am living and experiencing today is an irrelevant God. He is not there, he is a God who is missing, a Christ who is missing.” (ii) So, once again, is faith even connected to life today?

Let’s start simply: if we look at our experience, we can easily learn that we have certain ineradicable needs in us which no person on earth can deny, expressed in everything from music (think just as an example of some modern-young-acoustic-existentially-hypnotizing bands like The Avett Brothers, The Head & the Heart, Mumford and Sons, Bon Iver, etc., who take these needs very seriously) to a plethora of great, revealing movies, to our obsession with Facebook. These things all express the irreducible needs we all have: needs for happiness, beauty, freedom, meaning, friendship, truth, love, and fulfillment, and all of it we want to be unending. But these are not theories or ideas, they are needs, which can only be met in experience. A couple doesn’t get married because they’ve thought about love. No; they’ve experienced it. And once they’re married, thinking and reading about love, or simply doing household chores, is not enough to sustain their relationship; they must experience that love again and again. A prisoner doesn’t simply want to dream about freedom; he wants to enjoy it. Or again, we cannot just “will” happiness like the self-help books promise: it’s a gift – we want to encounter it, and that’s why we search for it. The same goes for all our needs. We as Catholics tend to forget how needy we are, and end up “stuffing” our needs in the name of some kind of ascetical righteousness. Instead, Pope Benedict is asking the ever-important question: Is faith in Christ connected to satisfaction of the heart, or not? (iii) Can it fulfill these huge needs, or is it in the end completely disconnected, simply an add-on? “If Christ cannot fulfill us, then let’s not waste our time any longer,” advised a priest friend of mine.

“What is Christianity? What is faith?”

All of this begs the question: so what is faith? If we look at the origin our own faith, as well as that of the apostles’, we get a better hint: something happened to us. Whether it was a powerful experience we had, a person we met, or an event we attended, something happened to us. We can call this an “encounter,” or an “event” (two of Pope Benedict’s favorite words if you pay attention to his writings and talks). An encounter and an event happen in life, in our experience, just like all the needs explained above do. This is the “something that comes before” all else in Catholicism. The apostles met a guy named Jesus who was exceptionally fascinating to them, who made them ask, “Who is this man?” 20 centuries later, I was 18 years old and met a guy named Mike who was exceptionally fascinating to me, and made me ask, “Who is this man?” It was that same attraction to Mike’s authenticity, his freedom, his interest in me, his intensity, and the radiating joy I saw in his eyes that the apostles experienced in Christ. We found something so striking, so corresponding to what we actually wanted to live and experience in life that we just wanted to stay with Jesus and Mike and follow them wherever they went. The difference with Mike was that he wasn’t the origin of his freedom or joy - he claimed it was Christ. And I had no reason to doubt him. So I hung out with Mike – as did the apostles with Christ – for the next several months, and that experience of correspondence kept happening.

Christianity, in the final analysis, is a fact: the fact that God became a man – a real event that happened in a physical place around 2,000 years ago. Either this happened, or it did not. But it is only possible for me to experience that same fact today if it actually happened and if this “event of Christ” keeps happening, even now. But I did experience the event of Christ through meeting Mike, and through what I’m living today. Faith is essentially this: the recognition of this saving and fulfilling presence in my life, through a credible witness. And it is only if this presence of Christ can correspond to the needs of my heart and life that faith in Him can be sustainable, or more clearly, “necessary” for my life, sustaining me, and not become stale and moldy. As Msgr. Luigi Giussani says so powerfully, “I came to believe that only a faith arising from life experience and confirmed by it (and, therefore, relevant to life’s needs) could be sufficiently strong to survive in a world where everything pointed in the opposite direction, so much so that even theology for a long time had given in to a faith separated from life.” (iv) The encounter I had changed me violently (I was a new person) because it actually corresponded to all those needs of my heart, and even intensified them. I remember after I met Mike feeling like I woke up from an extremely long sleep and scales were falling from my eyes, and I could see reality in a way I never could before. My desires, too, awoke. It was as if I had been living an inhuman life, and I was becoming human again. I was more interested in people, including my own family. I felt like life finally had meaning, and a path. I met friends who in two days I felt closer to than my friends of nine years. I had a radical hunger to read everything I could about Christ, and everything else for that matter. I was happy – not the excited happiness that fades quickly, but the certainty and gladness that life was actually good, and even more than good, it was beautiful. Even more profoundly, I had a sense of self-awareness and worth that I never had before. The more I hung out with Mike and these friends, the more all of this happened. Christ gave me back my heart, my humanity.

God chooses to come to us is through encounter and event – through experience. It wasn’t a program the apostles and I met. It was a man. God could’ve yelled a perfect lecture from heaven on faith so that all on earth could hear, or made a detailed book on virtue for us and drop it from heaven; but He chose instead to become a man, to meet us, to live with us, as Fr. Carron explained to my friend – who as you remember was doing all the right things (daily Mass, rosary, holy hour, etc) but was miserable and about to leave the Church – in answering “What is Christianity?” Fr. Carron went on that afternoon to explain: “God chose this method – incarnation – so we can have a relationship with somebody in which meaning is revealed. Instead of sending us what the meaning of life is, he became man to show us what the meaning of life is … This kind of freedom (in the witness we met), this kind of intensity, this kind of mercy, this kind of forgiveness, this kind of surplus, the intensity of humanity that we couldn’t imagine before. Even 2,000 years later, we met somebody who lives in such a way, and we ask, ‘Who is this? Can you explain how you can live in such a way?’ We are struck like the first time … This is the continuation of the Incarnation.” (v) And this is the continuing method He uses down the centuries to produce the recognition and experience of faith: presence, witness, encounter, correspondence.

Begging and Companionship

It seems as though what we need more than anything during the Year of Faith is to become…beggars. We can’t force this encounter, but we can beg: to beg for Christ to show us His face again and again and again. And to beg for companions who we can follow on the journey. Once a week I meet with friends and we judge together – through the confusion and complexity of life – our lives, our work, our relationships – in short everything – and how it is that Christ is showing us His face and meeting us now, concretely (and not a focus on what we need to “do”). We beg to see this. And if we can’t see it, we ask, challenge, confront, and verify (true begging is exhausting, but in the end much more freeing than moralism). Following these friends within the Church has revolutionized my faith and my life. My identity is intertwined with belonging to this companionship (not just friends) which He has given me. And because of it, my life has changed: I look for Him more, I face relationships, work, and life differently. Even more profoundly, I look at myself differently, because of the way I’ve been looked at – with a love and a belonging that won’t let go, even when I do. I’m finally following something other than myself. It’s precisely because of my faith in Christ and my belonging to these friends within the Church that my affection, freedom, desire, and perception of things are heightened in a way unimaginable before. Alone this is all impossible. This, it seems to me, is what we all need, because this is Christ’s way. As Pope Benedict proclaims in his apostolic letter for the Year of Faith (along with his constant emphasis on the Church as communion): “It is the lifelong companion that makes it possible to perceive, ever anew, the marvels that God works for us.” (vi) But even this companionship and this following needs a poverty of spirit in order to continue. Speaking of the first beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the Pope explains, “These are people who do not flaunt their achievements before God. They do not stride into God’s presence as if they were partners able to engage with him on equal footing. They do not lay claim to a reward for what they have done...They are lovers who simply want to let God bestow his gifts upon them...they come with empty hands” (vii) As Msgr. Giussani says, the truest stance of man is that of the beggar: “Structurally man waits; structurally he is a beggar; structurally life is promise.” (viii)

Only when Christ becomes something real again for us, something experienceable, as necessary as the air we breathe, will we become new creatures, who see differently, who live differently. During this extraordinary and loving gift to us of the Year of Faith, let us beg Christ once again to see His face, to experience His irreplaceable gaze on us through a companionship, and to correspond to our deepest needs and desires. “The greatest miracle of all was that truly human gaze which revealed man to himself and was impossible to evade. Nothing is more convincing to man than a gaze which takes hold of him and recognizes what he is, which reveals man to himself. Jesus saw inside man. No one could hide in front of Him … This also happened to Zacchaeus, the senior tax collector, the most hated man in all of Jericho (Lk. 19: 1-10). Surrounded by a great crowd, Jesus was passing by on the road, and Zacchaeus, a small man, was curious and climbed a tree for a better look. Upon reaching that tree, Jesus stopped, fixed His gaze upon him and cried: “Zacchaeus!’ Then He said: ‘Come down quickly, because I must stay at your house today.’ What suddenly struck Zacchaeus? ... Quite simply, he had been penetrated and captured by a gaze that recognized and loved him for what he was. The ability to take hold of the heart of a man is the greatest, most persuasive miracle of all.” (ix) This gaze, which continues today, is at the center of the Year of Faith.

(i) Antonio Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days, February 1991; p. 40.
(ii) Giussani, Luigi, Msgr., “The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny,” The Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, 1995, pp. 12-13.
(iii) Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Address for Welcome Ceremony, World Youth Day, Cologne, Germany, August 18, 2005.
(iv) Giussani, “The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny”, p. 11.
(v) Fr. Julian Carron, “What is man that You should care for him, mortal man that You keep him in mind?”: There is no greater adventure than the discovery of one’s own humanity, Communion and Liberation live assembly, Colorado.
(vi) Pope Benedict XVI Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” “Porta Fidei,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, Paragraph 15.
(vii) Pope Benedict XVI, “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration,” Doubleday, Random House Inc., New York, 2007, p. 76.
(viii) Giussani, Luigi, Msgr., “The Religious Sense,” McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 1997, p. 54.
(ix) Giussani, Luigi, Msgr., “At the Origin of the Christian Claim,” McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 1998, p. 53.

Jonathan Ghaly is a member of the ecclesial lay movement Communion and Liberation, which was founded in 1952 by Msgr. Luigi Giussani, whose cause for canonization has been officially opened. Jonathan taught high school theology and Church History for two years, and now lives in Denver, Colorado, where he sells real estate. To contact Jonathan, email him at [email protected]

© Jonathan Ghaly, All Rights Reserved.

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