Persevering in faith: Lenten lessons from those entering the Church
Mar 8, 2019
Faith is both a divine gift and the free human response to God’s love revealed in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. We move constantly between awareness of and openness to God’s unmerited gift of supernatural grace and our personal response to God in acts of faith.
On the first two Sundays of Lent, the Church invites and welcomes men, women, and children who seek to belong to the family of the Church through the Sacraments of Initiation, namely Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. This liturgical ritual, called the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, is a moving expression of faith. Anyone privileged to witness this Lenten ritual will find their faith deepened as they witness catechumens and candidates for full communion begin an intense period of spiritual preparation in the company of their catechists, sponsors and godparents.
By participating in this ancient rite that goes back some 2,000 years, these brothers and sisters in faith become living links in a chain of faith connecting them to the first Christians in the early centuries of the Church’s life. Then, as now, adults who choose to respond to God’s immeasurable generosity and call of grace become eloquent reminders to the rest of us of the blessings that come with persevering in faith.
Faith in times of crisis
During the past year when revelations of clergy misconduct brought to light the suffering of survivors and caused widespread frustration, upheaval and division, those entering the Church this Easter teach profound lessons on the nature and power of faith. Their witness offers poignant answers to the uncertainties of lay Catholics and those who serve the Church who may ask, “why am I a Catholic?” or “how effective is my ministry in times of Church crisis?” and “how can I be an agent of healing and Church renewal today?”
Here are three lessons I’ve learned as I’ve been privileged to hear from catechumens and candidates for full communion who will journey, with the rest of us, through Lent to Easter this year. You may be spiritually uplifted in a similar way by faith stories of catechumens and candidates in your own parish community.
1.) “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt,” in the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Father David Fitz-Patrick, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Washington, D.C., tells of a catechumen who is on the path to the Easter sacraments this year. After her parents had a falling out with their pastor many years ago, she and her siblings did not receive any of the sacraments. She attended Catholic elementary and high schools and went on to graduate from Santa Clara University. Now as a newly married, young adult she is convinced that this is the right time to embrace the Catholic faith to which she always felt she belonged. Her family’s challenging experience did not lead her to doubt or separate from the life-giving grace of the Church’s sacraments. To the joy of her husband, five brothers and parish community, she will be baptized, confirmed and receive First Eucharist at the coming Easter Vigil.
2. Faith is a supernatural gift of God. To exercise faith, one must have the grace of God.
Rachel is a freshman majoring in medieval history at Georgetown University. Her faith journey began in her family’s Presbyterian and Jewish roots. Since high school she considered the truth claims of Christianity, but always from a distance. Then, for a time, she thought of herself as an atheist. However, her perspective changed during an illness in the form of a congenital heart condition discovered during her teen years. “I realized after my diagnosis that I should not be alive!” she said. The experience of confronting her mortality at a young age led her to ask the most fundamental questions of life, “Who am I?” and “What is the meaning and purpose of my life?”
Rachel began to search for answers in the things she enjoyed most, moving from literature to history to theology. Reading the complete plays of Shakespeare led to an interest in the Middle Ages, the era of Christian civilization and faith. She discovered the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose synthesis of faith and reason was intellectually compelling to her. Through personal reading and study of Church history, Rachel was drawn to the Catholic Church.
“Discovering the history of the Church actually helped my decision to become Catholic,” she admitted. Rachel came to see that over 2,000 years of Church history there have been seasons of decline and renewal, of weakening and strength. From an historical perspective, Rachel came to understand that the Church “is at once holy and always in need of being purified,” as the Second Vatican Council noted. Her gradual illumination of mind and heart was the sure work of God’s grace and the interior help of the Holy Spirit, who opens the eyes of the mind and moves the heart closer to God.
3. Faith seeks understanding and wisdom rooted in God’s word, replacing doubt, indifference or despair.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (158) tells us that “it is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith…a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith, increasingly set afire by love.”
As children, Amber and Nathan attended Protestant fundamentalist and evangelical churches with their families. Amber recalls attending worship services that were mostly rock concerts. Soon after they met in college they discovered they had long been moving on parallel paths to the Catholic faith. Immersed in the word of God from childhood they came to realize gradually that the burden of interpreting Scripture could not rest on any one individual in isolation from a faith community and historical tradition. And so their journey to the Catholic Church continued on through college. Wrestling with the question of the origin of the canon of Scripture, Amber arrived at the foundations of the Church’s life and tradition that existed before the Gospel took written form.
Deacon Neal Conway has walked with Amber and Nathan for several months through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program at St. Jerome Parish in Hyattsville, Maryland. Like many dedicated RCIA leaders, catechists and sponsors in parishes across the archdiocese, he serves as a faithful guide to catechumens and candidates for full communion as they make their personal journeys of faith. Involved in the RCIA for some 18 years, Deacon Conway continues to be deeply inspired and confirmed in faith through the witness of those he leads to the Easter sacraments. He is convinced that Amber and Nathan, and so many others like them who prepare for the Easter sacraments, show us how to stay close to God’s word that gives wisdom and grace to persevere in faith during challenging times.
A cloud of witnesses
The catechism (162) reminds us that, “to live, grow, and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be “working through charity,” abounding in hope, and rooted in the faith of the Church.” During difficult moments, remaining close to the word of God, trusting that the Lord will increase faith, and working in charity for Church renewal is a sure path through the wounds and divisions caused by scandal.
The Church welcomes and is grateful for the men and women who will build up the Body of Christ this Easter. We need their witness to faith, now more than ever, for they teach us to persevere in faith, especially in challenging days, by keeping our gaze fixed on God whose steadfast love revealed in Jesus continues to animate the Church with the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. As they enter the joyful company of the elect, during the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, their living witness encourages all of us on our Lenten journeys in the words of Hebrews (12:1-2): “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
(Jem Sullivan, Ph.D., serves as Secretary for Education for the Archdiocese of Washington.)
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