Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

‘I Tell You, I Have Never Found Such Faith’

by Nazareno Marconi


A reflection on the centurion's faith as recounted in the Gospel originally published in May 1999 in the daily edition of L'Osservatore Romano during the first Synod of the Italian Military Ordinariate. It is offered for the spiritual benefit of all Christians involved in their country's military service.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, February 9, 2000

The spiritual experience of Military Ordinariates could be described in an image: gathering around Christ.

This image speaks of the search for greater unity, of a stronger capacity for communication and closeness in it. At the same time this image invites us to look with special affection at those who are "closest to Christ". This explains the renewed interest in soldier saints, especially the first ones, those who were physically as well as spiritually close to Jesus.

The soldiers around Christ are an indisputable fact in the Gospel. This military presence, in a land that was unruly and occupied by Roman troops, was undoubtedly an historical fact; but significantly the Gospel does not confine itself to presenting it as such.

The soldiers are not just one of the many aspects of the historical background to Christ's work. In the Gospel, soldiers also have a part to play; they are a category of individuals sensitive to the call of faith from the very beginning. From the time of John the Baptist's preaching the most sensitive Jews began to prepare themselves in the best possible way for the Messiah's coming.

Soldiers also asked the Baptist: "And we, what shall we do?" He answered: "Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages" (Lk 3:14).

This invitation now appears to be anything but secondary. In fact the Baptist was asking them for true conversion: from a mentality of power and repression to service for all the people. And he also asked for a significant sacrifice: in antiquity army pay was really miserable; it was taken for granted that every soldier would supplement his income with looting and extortion, according to custom.... However the Baptist proposes a new style, capable of giving dignity to this work and preparing honest and courageous soldiers for meeting their Lord.

What happened then was simply a confirmation: some at least had taken the Baptist's invitation quite seriously.

The Gospel offers us some beautiful examples of believing soldiers; the most significant is undoubtedly the centurion of Capernaum. The story is significantly found in almost all the Gospels. We find it in Matthew (8:5-13), where we probably have the oldest tradition, deeply influenced by the fact that such faith was present in a pagan, while the chosen people so lacked it.

We find it in Luke (7:1-10), where great faith is accompanied by a humility full of dignity. We find it, most probably, in an account of this tradition composed personally by John (4:46-54), in which he stresses the dignity of the soldier who is called an "official" of King Herod. But above all it is shown that even such a man of power and authority was capable of a tender love for "his son" and a simple and trusting faith in Jesus.

The account that seems most interesting to us is without doubt Luke's. The Evangelist stresses that the centurion was well aware of how precious was Jesus' closeness: he did not even dare to approach him, but sent representatives to him.

Who was our centurion? Historians let us imagine him as a courageous fighter who had won his stripes on the battlefield, a foreigner, a pagan. However this man of war was also a man of peace who had won the people's esteem. Although he was a foreigner, he had contributed significantly to building the local synagogue: the house of prayer and of religious and human formation for the community. Although he was a pagan, he had shown that he esteemed the People of God and their sincere faith.

Thus he was a man who was concerned and God-seeking, so that not even Jesus' presence and work had escaped him; indeed he had detailed and positive information about him.

He was certainly a good fellow, a strong and able man who could be tender and caring. When his slave, probably his orderly, falls seriously ill he leaves no stone unturned in his effort to help him.

Since he is a pagan, however, he feels unworthy even to present his petition personally to Jesus, and thus sends the elders of the Jews as intermediaries. He, an expert in military tactics and plans, has properly understood God's plan that salvation wilt come to the pagans through the Jews, and he knows how to be obedient even in this matter. His compassion, humility and obedience make him ready to receive Christ's message.

The elders of the Jews, leading members of the community, see Jesus as a man through whom God does good to his people.

They are convinced that God reserves these benefits only for his people, but they hope he will make an exception for the centurion because of what he has done for the people of God, and that he will also be gracious to a pagan. Their request however is very hesitant. The Greek word indicates that, before receiving Jesus' answer, which they feared would be negative, they immediately begin to try to recommend their friend by indicating all the good things he has done. "Of course", they seem to say to Jesus, "he does not believe in God, but he has done so many good things and his works can compensate for his lack of faith".

Jesus follows them; his prophetic vision knows that he will not only find good works in this man, but much more.

By now the centurion has understood better than all the others with whom he is dealing. He has been told that Jesus is coming to him. It is not by chance that he is an excellent soldier, and that always being informed beforehand of what is about to happen is essential to his work.

A rabbi who goes to heal a slave, and the slave of a pagan; a religious teacher of the Jews who is not afraid to enter a pagan house, to show that God's love transcends the confines of race and nationality; all this is sufficient for him to understand with whom he is dealing.

The information he had certainly received is confirmed by Jesus' action, and so he sends his friends with a message that is at once an act of humility, of faith and of revelation of Jesus' greatness.

His prayer is so beautiful that it has entered our liturgy to the point that we repeat it at every Holy Mass: "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed".

The centurion firmly believes that Jesus has a special relationship with God; for this reason, since he is an impure and sinful pagan, he considers himself unworthy of Jesus' presence. Peter too was unable to endure Jesus' presence, struck by a simitar feeling before the holiness of God that he encountered in him (Lk 5:5-11). By that act of faith and humility Peter deserved his role as a fisher of men! The Baptist had performed a simitar act, some time before, by the Jordan when he proclaimed himself unworthy to untie the thongs of the Messiah's sandals.

It was for this reason that Jesus proclaimed, "among those born of women none is greater than John". Peter, John and the centurion: to be humble one must be truly great!

But that is not all: the Jewish elders believe that Jesus must be present to heal the sick man, and for this reason they invite him to follow them. But the centurion attributes this power to his word alone. Referring to his world of experience, that of soldiers, which he can describe with unique skill, he defines it as a word of command and authority.

This word does what Jesus says independently of the presence of the One who speaks it; his word brings his saving power everywhere. His word alone is enough: evil powers are banished and salvation is received.

The centurion, a powerful but above all an obedient man, was able to see in Jesus all his divine power, but also all his profound obedience to the Father as the Son of God. By his words the centurion shows he has understood that Jesus' word is the true word of God, a powerful word, a healing word, a creating word. He has also discovered that mystery which links Jesus to the Father, a mystery of authority and power, but also of profound obedience. The centurion's faith has really penetrated the depths of Jesus' mystery!

Jesus himself acknowledges this insight, this clear vision, which betrays a faith that is much richer and more intense than all the others could even vaguely suspect.

The devout Jews who had come to Jesus had spoken of the centurion as a man without faith, but who was nonetheless rich in good works. Jesus shows them that those works came from somewhere: in the depths of his heart Jesus could discover the precious vein of a pure faith, such as he had never found in Israel.

While this story speaks of a soldier who approaches Jesus, above all it tells of the Lord who lets himself be approached, indeed, who is willing to reach out to those who turn to him in faith. This is a beautiful thought for all Christian military personnel.

© L'Osservatore Romano

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