By DON FIER
For the past ten weeks of this series, we’ve been unpacking the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) on how God comes to meet man through His divine Revelation. As the Catechism, citing Dei Verbum (DV), so beautifully expresses it, “the invisible God, from the fullness of His love, addresses men as His friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into His own company” (CCC, n. 142; DV, n. 2).
Just this one statement is a mystery of our faith that one could meditate on for a lifetime: How is it that the “King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Tim. 1:17) could so love mankind, sinful and ungrateful as we are, to such a degree as to desire, even thirst, to take us as His friends, to receive us into His own company? How is it that He desires for us to be with Him for all eternity in Heaven? Keeping this unfathomable mystery in mind, we’ll now turn our attention to examining what man’s response to God should be.
The Catechism, in a word, teaches very clearly that “the adequate response to this invitation is faith” (CCC, n. 142). Now, what exactly is meant by faith in this context? Going directly to the word of God, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1) and later says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please [God]. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).
Fr. John Hardon, SJ, in his customary clear and candid manner, states just how important our freely given response of faith is. Referring directly to the books of the Bible that are “the heart of all the Scriptures” (CCC, n. 125), he says, “If anything is clear from the Gospels it is the call to a free response of faith in God’s Revelation of Himself in the person of Christ. How otherwise explain that terrifying passage in the closing verses of Mark where the Master states without reservation that ‘he who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned’ (Mark 16:16)” (The Catholic Catechism, p. 32)?
The Catechism further teaches that “by faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God. . . . Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God . . . ‘the obedience of faith’” (CCC, n. 143). Dei Verbum, citing the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Dei Filius (DF) from Vatican Council I, expands on this: “‘The obedience of faith’…is to be given to God Who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God Who reveals’ (DF, chapter 3), and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him. To make this act of faith, the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist, moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind and giving ‘joy and ease to everyone in assenting to the truth and believing it’ (DF, chapter 3)” (DV, n. 5).
Two central points of what we believe as Catholics have been highlighted in the above citation: 1) our commitment of self and assent to God’s truth must be given freely, and 2) it is only through God’s grace and the assistance of the Holy Spirit that this is possible. In other words, man must exercise his free will and unconditionally choose to respond to the gift of God’s love — to return His love — and to give his intellectual assent to all that God has revealed. However, since our natures are fallen, it is only through God’s manifold grace and the ongoing assistance of the Holy Spirit that this is possible.
As Douglas Bushman, STL, expresses it in The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II, “The text [of Dei Verbum] stresses that the response of faith must be freely given. This is made possible by the grace of the Holy Spirit Who moves the heart and turns it to God” (p. 405).
It was St. Paul who identified faith as a form of obedience. In his Letter to the Romans, he uses the precise expression “the obedience of faith” on two occasions (see Romans 1:5 and 16:26). What is the link, then, between faith and obedience? The word “obey” comes from the Latin ob-audire which means “to listen to.” When we obey in faith, we “submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, Who is Truth itself” (CCC, n. 144).
In an article entitled “Obedience to the Magisterium and the Responsibility of the Bishop Toward the Laity” (http://mariancatechist.com/burke/obedience_responsibility.html), Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke expounds on this by teaching: “When we obey [in faith], we listen attentively to the Word of Christ handed on to us in the Church, we believe what we hear, and we put what we believe into practice.” In other words, it is not enough simply to hear God’s word or even to believe what we have heard — we must take it to heart so decisively and firmly that it becomes who we are and how we live our lives.
As a model of the obedience of faith, the Catechism offers to us the Old Testament patriarch Abraham as “the father of all who believe.” Fr. Hardon summarizes the Catechism’s teaching on how Abraham is our father in faith by listing the following three reasons: 1) he was chosen to be the ancestor of all believers on account of his faith; 2) he fulfilled the definition of faith in the New Testament in Heb. 11:1 (as quoted earlier in the column); and 3) his faith is a prelude of what our greater faith should be, “believing in Jesus, the Son of God” (see The Faith, p. 35). St. Paul writes, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 1:4), and in a parallel Old Testament passage we find similar words: “[Abraham] believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
Let’s consider just one example from Sacred Scripture of the depth of Abraham’s obedience of faith. He was promised by God that he would be the “father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5). Yet it was not until he was far advanced in years that “Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age” (Gen. 21:2). He “was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him” (Gen. 21:5). Now fast-forward a few years to the account of the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen. 22. Abraham, in obedience of faith, was but an instant from plunging a knife into his dearly beloved son Isaac in sacrifice to God when the angel of the Lord stayed his hand. What incredible faith Abraham possessed in not withholding his only son! Is it any wonder that he is referred to as the father of all who believe, and that he is a model for us?
Just as Abraham is the model of “the obedience of faith” offered to us by Sacred Scripture, the Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment (cf. CCC, n. 144). “By faith Mary welcomes the tidings and promise brought by the angel Gabriel, believing that ‘with God nothing will be impossible’ and so giving her assent: ‘Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:37-38)” (CCC, n. 148). Mary’s response perfectly expressed the disposition of complete and unconditional obedience — she is the model for what our response should be to God’s will in our daily lives. Her faith never wavered, and for this reason “the Church venerates in Mary the purest realization of faith” (CCC, n. 149).
To close this installment, I invite you to reflect on an inspiring excerpt from Fr. Michael Gaitley’s recently published book 33 Days to Morning Glory: “She [Mary] is perfectly united to the Holy Spirit, because she was conceived without sin, never sinned, and always does the will of God perfectly. She allows the Holy Spirit to overshadow her, take possession of her soul, and bear fruit through her. The Holy Spirit delights in always working in and through Mary to save all other creatures made in God’s image” (p. 110).
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)