As the Year of Faith has now drawn to a close, let’s reflect upon some of the encouragement and instruction we have received from the two popes who shared this grace-filled year.

In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI made a very practical teaching that continues to guide my own ministry as a bishop, particularly in assessing our pastoral ministries.  I think it is also helpful for every Catholic to examine and assess the full integration of their faith life.  Here is what Pope Benedict had to say:

The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being. (Deus Caritas Est #25)

The Holy Father also indicated that each of these three components are equally important.  That was the startling statement for me.  As Catholics, we ‘understand’ Sacraments.  But there is clearly room for improvement when it comes to spending time with God’s Word and regularly expressing our faith in acts of charity.  This is what I would like to reflect upon further here, challenging all of us to greater fidelity in all three areas of our faith.

Even though the regular reception of the Sacraments is understood by Catholics as fundamental to our faith, statistics tell us that only about 25 – 30 % of Catholics attend Mass every weekend.  We need to do better!  Even fewer Catholics receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) on a regular basis.  Jesus makes it clear that “apart from me (Jesus) you can do nothing.”  (John 15:5)  Jesus established the Church and gave us the Sacraments for the express purpose of drawing our human nature into the Divine Life.  When we truly understand this, then the Church and the Sacraments will become our first priority and acknowledged as our greatest gift!

This now ended Year of Faith and the New Evangelization are strong invitations to us to take our faith seriously.  Pope Francis in his now eight months as our Chief Shepherd is doing everything he can to shake us from a complacent faith.  For the New Evangelization to be fruitful, we must have a personal encounter and relationship with Jesus.  He must become more than a concept or an idea to us.  He desires a PERSONAL relationship with each of us.  He is the Vine and we are the branches, and only when we remain in Him will we bear much fruit, fruit that will last.  (see John 15:1-5)

Let’s get back to the Sacraments!

In an October 4, 2013 address in San Rufino Cathedral in Assisi, Pope Francis had some beautiful insights regarding the Word of God, and it warrants a healthy quote here:

The first thing is to listen to God’s Word. This is what the Church is: as the Bishop said, it is the community that listens with faith and love to the Lord who speaks. The pastoral plan that you are living out together insists precisely on this fundamental dimension. It is the Word of God that inspires faith, which nourishes and revitalizes it. And it is the Word of God that touches hearts, converts them to God and to his logic which is so different from our own. It is the Word of God that continually renews our communities…

I think we can all improve a bit in this respect: by becoming better listeners of the Word of God, in order to be less rich on our own words and richer in his words. I think of the priest who has the task of preaching. How can he preach if he has not first opened his heart, not listened in silence to the Word of God …

I think of fathers and mothers, who are the primary educators [of their children]: how can they educate them if their consciences have not been enlightened by the Word of God. If their way of thinking and acting is not guided by the Word, what sort of example can they possibly give to their children? This is important, because then mothers and fathers complain: “Oh, this child…”. But you, what witness have you given the child? How have you spoken to him? Have you talked with him about the Word of God or about TV news? Fathers and mothers need to be talking about the Word of God!

And I think of catechists and of all those who are involved in education: if their hearts have not been warmed by the Word, how can they warm the hearts of others, of children, of youth, of adults?

It is not enough just to read the Sacred Scriptures, we need to listen to Jesus who speaks in them: it is Jesus himself who speaks in the Scriptures, it is Jesus who speaks in them. We need to be receiving antennas that are tuned into the Word of God, in order to become broadcasting antennas! One receives and transmits. It is the Spirit of God who makes the Scriptures come alive, who makes us understand them deeply and in accord with their authentic and full meaning! … What place does the Word of God have in my life, in my everyday life? Am I tuned into God or into the many buzz words or into myself? This is a question that everyone of us needs to ask him- or herself.

The Holy Father’s words are plain enough, and do not need much further explanation.  Let’s just take them to heart and put them into practice.

Blessed Columba Marmion builds on the importance of God’s Word in the life of the believer, joining it to regular reception of the Eucharist when he taught: “Everday, in Holy Communion, Christ gives Himself entirely to us, He takes us and gives us to the Word.  If our whole day could flow from our Communion of the morning, little by little, Christ would transform us and raise us to sublime holiness.”  (Union With God, p. 38)

I have often wondered why more Catholics do not take the time to read the bible.  If more people and families would spend even 15 – 30 minutes a day reading God’s Word and the Catechism, we would have a far better formation in the faith.  This strengthened formation would lead to a greater capacity to live the faith, and thereby further God’s Kingdom in this world.

Finally, how important it is to also practice charity.  Practical expressions of love are perhaps the most integrating agent of our reception of Jesus in the Sacraments and our being formed by Jesus through His Word.  Thus, charity is the mother of all the virtues.  This is why Pope Francis is so regularly reminding us to go to the margins of society and love those who have been rejected.

A society that becomes hardened can no longer see God.  That is why we are sent by Jesus to the poor.  Those who have the greatest demands upon our faith, compassion and generosity have the greatest ability to reveal the face of Jesus to us.  No doubt, this is why our greatest pastoral resource is the creativity of love.

Holiness is for everyone, not for a select few.  This was the teaching of Pope Francis during a recent Angelus Address.  The Second Vatican Council makes it clear that holiness is the common vocation of every Christian.  The path to such holiness is intimately connected with our regular reception of the Sacraments, our formation in God’s Word and loving God in our neighbor.

My dear friends, let us continue to build upon the enthusiasm Pope Francis is breathing into the Church.  Let us live faith with joy and enthusiasm.  Let us be faithful followers of Christ, and lead many more to come to know Him and find the fullness of life in Christ.