Lighting the Spark Plug of Grace
Pope Benedict XVI’s personal theologian highlights a key issue for the Year of Faith.
BY EDWARD PENTIN
| Posted 11/20/12 at 9:24 AM
The Pope’s theologian, Dominican Father Wojciech Giertych, is eager that one aspect of faith be recovered in this Year of Faith: the understanding of how a life of faith begins. In this rare interview with Register correspondent Edward Pentin in Rome earlier this month, Father Giertych explains why he would like to see a restoration of this understanding, and why he believes this is crucial if the current Year of Faith is to bear full fruit.
As well as serving as the Pope’s theologian, Father Giertych teaches theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
What are your reflections on the importance of this Year of Faith?
In 1967, Paul VI declared the Year of Faith. That was a time after Vatican II when there was a general feeling that everything was being changed in the Church — an aggiornamento [updating]. Many people saw changes in the liturgy and arrived at the conclusion that everything could be changed, including the dogmatic teaching of the Church and the moral teaching, and the media was creating that sort of atmosphere.
So Paul VI declared the Year of Faith and at the end of that year, he announced the “Creed of the People of God” — about four times as long as the Nicene Creed that we say on Sunday — which reiterated basic teaching of the Church in field of dogmatic teaching, and he announced the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) against contraception. So in that time, the importance was to make clear the content of the faith has not been changed.
I think today we’re in a different situation. Not only in the Creed of Paul VI but in the Catechism of Catholic Church we have a clear reference to the contents of the faith of the Church. But the issue is maybe deeper now, because faith itself is being questioned. What’s the point of faith, the value of it?
Does this questioning come from society, from secularism?
There are various obstacles, resistances that are born against the faith. That’s another issue in a way — where they come from — and maybe it’s an issue that has to be raised and different answers will be found in different countries and in different social contexts. What is it that causes a blockage in the spiritual life against a life of grace?
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his definition of the virtue of faith, says faith is infused in our souls by God, and that virtue has a dual function [initiation of eternal life, and understanding through the “eyes of faith”]. He uses the expression “the beginning of the eternal life,” so faith begins the eternal life within us, and it adapts our mind to accept that which is not evident. Now in modern centuries, maybe from the 16th century onwards with the Reformation and Enlightenment, it seems the major focus was put on the second part of the definition — the whole question of faith and reason, science and faith, Galileo and the Enlightenment, the new questions generated by the sciences. Faith was said to be generated by superstition [and] so the Church had to react to that. The major debate seemed to be there.
The first part of the definition was not denied but in some sense it wasn’t brought to the fore, it wasn’t developed. Cardinal Avery Dulles [suggested] that the first part of the definition be translated today as the “first installment of grace.”
How does this “first installment of grace” work?
What is important is to believe in the supernatural character of faith. When we make an act of faith, which is possible when we’ve received the grace of faith, immediately there is a contact with God, and so we can say this first movement of faith is like a spark plug in a car engine which issues the spark, which ignites the gasoline and gets the car moving. So it’s important to understand [and] recognize that faith is a supernatural gift of God. It’s a tool given by God, infused in our reason and, in part, the will, and which enables our mind to go beyond the limits of reason, towards the mystery.
But every time that we do this, it is like the woman who was suffering from the hemorrhage in the Gospel of Mark. She came and touched the rim of Jesus’ cloak with her finger, and Jesus says, “Somebody touched me.” The apostles say, “You’re crazy, they’re all touching you, you’re in the middle of the crowd.” But Jesus says no. Somebody touched him because she touched Jesus’ cloak with her finger, but she touched his heart with her faith. Then the apostles ask Jesus how he knows that, and he replies, “Because power came out of me.”
Every time we make an act of faith the power of God comes out of God and fills us.
But the initiative, the action, has to initially come from God?
Well the possibility of making the act of faith comes from God because faith is a grace, but the lighting of the spark plug is up to us. We make these acts of faith because we’ve been enabled by God to do this.
Now sometimes we only do it once in a moment, but the issue for the New Evangelization is to learn how to make these acts of faith every day: When you’re standing at a bus stop and waiting for the bus to come, make an act of faith and the bus comes; when you’re preaching, when you’re teaching, when you’re praying, engaged in a conversation with a difficult teenager who’s going through a difficult phase.
In every situation before we open our mouths, we [need to] make an act of faith and believe that that faith has the power of touching God. Then the spark plug is lit and the grace of God is then within us. We can then call as an ally to our conversations the Holy Spirit who is living in the hearts of those to whom we are speaking, or writing, or who are listening to us as we’re speaking, on the radio or wherever.
I think the novelty, the newness, of the New Evangelization doesn’t consist in some new technology. Technology changes — there’s a technical development, we use new techniques, but that is not the issue. The novelty comes always from a new movement of the Holy Spirit that has been lit every time we make an act of faith. So we need to believe in the supernatural quality of the virtue of faith that has been given to us as a tool so that we can encounter God, and then there is a divine fecundity in what we do, the fruitfulness of grace.
Must one always be consciously aware of doing acts of faith?
The act of faith is something that is conscious. We cannot feel grace, but we can psychologically perceive the fact that we are making an act of faith, and there are situations where sometimes reason and emotions, the whole context, may suggest [otherwise]. To love our neighbor when our neighbor is difficult, we need to make an act of faith to believe that God is here, to invite the charity of the supernatural love of God, into this difficult relationship, into this difficult situation.
So acts of faith are conscious and we are aware of the fact that, as we are rooted in faith, as we grow in faith, the habit of inviting God into every situation becomes almost spontaneous. But we have to learn that, and we learn that in contemplative prayer when we kneel and sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament and believe that He’s there.
Then it becomes habitual?
It becomes a habit in the psychological sense of being sort of automatic, but in moments when we forget about this we have to call ourselves back and make these acts of faith. And that’s why this Year of Faith is great because it reminds us we have to learn how to make these acts of faith and trust in the power of faith, which is a gift of God.
And since the supernatural life is a life, and the internal dynamism of that life is the source of its growth, we should not think that with our new techniques, ideas and words, or new training or whatever, that we will bring life to the Church. We won’t. The life of the Church is divine, and since it’s a divine life, life has within itself the dynamism for life, but it grows when we live out that life, when we live out that faith.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
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